Friday, 27 February 2015

Tory budget amendments blocked

In his budget speech Cllr Ron Woodley attempted to justify his refusal to accept the 5 budget amendments put forward by the Conservative Group.

In my years as Leader the members of the opposition groups would allege that my colleagues were subject to a party whip. In fact in my 7 years as Leader I never attempted to impose a whip preferring to gain support on the basis of the strength of my argument. Having said that if the members of the Indie, Labour and Lib Dem Groups were not subject to a whip then I can’t believe that they were persuaded by the strength of Cllr Woodley’s comments.

On the rejection of the Conservative proposed council tax freeze and acceptance of the Government subsidy Ron took exception to the proposed reduction in the senior management team, reduction of a cabinet post and removal of free hospitality. He asked the Conservatives to point out the officers sitting behind him who were to go. This would be well and good if he were not making any job cuts in his proposals but of course he is. I didn’t see the staff members who he has put at risk standing at the back of the chamber so that they could be identified by him. In previous years the opposition groups have argued that redundancies should extend to all officer levels so what is the problem with this proposal. If the number of chief officers reduce then so can the number of cabinet posts. As for free refreshments – why is the argument different to the removal of free council teas? The facility can be there but charged at cost.

On car parks he claimed that the proposal had the support of traders. Not the ones I have spoken to! What is the logic of removing charges on the seafront in the evening where car parks are often full with visitors to the town who will not be expecting free parking but at the same time increasing charges for town centre car parks when retailers are continuing to suffer. I still suspect that this will rebound with reduced users resulting in income targets not being reached. Obviously the cabinet have their free parking permits for all Council car parks so I suppose they are not too worried.

He countered the objection to the removal of litter bins referring to alleged improvements in the street cleaning contract and also commented that he expected residents to take their litter home rather than dropping it. If he is so confident then why not remove all the bins and make an even bigger saving? The reality is that without well located litter bins the level of litter will increase.

He justified increasing the cost of entrance to the Pier by suggesting that every house will have an Advantage Card. Not sure if he meant he was going to issue them free to all residents or that the opportunity to purchase was there. If the former then the effect could undermine income targets across a number of services and if the latter why does he expect a greater take up on the cards than has happened previously?

Finally on doorstep textile collection Ron said that he gave his spare textiles to charity and that opportunity existed for everyone else. He misses the point that for recycling to work it has to be easy and accessible. This is how rates have been driven up and the amount of textile collection which is now being jeopardised amounts to many tons each year. If a significant percentage of those textiles end up in landfill he will have cost the authority far more than his proposed saving.

I would not suggest that these proposals were perfect. As an opposition it is difficult to identify specific funding without the pro active support of officers and accordingly compromises have to be made, but where the cuts proposed by the Administration are as poor as is the case here, it justifies a more broad brush approach. The reality remains that if we had a Conservative Administration these actions would have been implemented as part of an overall budget which would have created a more secure base moving forward.

In the meantime those councillors who blocked the amendments will need to justify their votes to the electorate.

Woodley fails to convince

I managed to endure the early part of Southend Council’s Budget Debate yesterday evening although it was quite hard work to even make it through leader Ron Woodley’s lengthy budget speech. I am sure that he would be the first to admit that he is no great orator but if I could offer some advice, he spoke for probably 15 minutes too long and if he is writing a speech (unless of course this was written in part by officers) it is probably worth avoiding words that you struggle to pronounce.

The style was unexciting but the content was even worse. I do wonder whether he truly believes the things he says or whether he knows he is talking hogwash but is simply trying to hoodwink the public.

I will comment separately on his response to the Conservative budget amendments which were unconvincing in the extreme, but what was also interesting was his willingness to claim credit on behalf of himself and his colleagues for achievements which were worked up to the point of delivery by the last Conservative Administration and which he criticised at the time, together with his failure to accept his inability to deliver on a number of his own pledges.

I have commented previously on the problems for a new Administration making an early mark as it takes so long to develop, agree and implement policy. As a result it is not unusual for politicians to claim credit for the work of others but with Ron he gives the impression that he actually believes what he is saying!

The heralded council house build, the progress in Victoria Avenue, the retention of weekly waste collections, the progress with the Seaway and Med Tech proposals, and the implementation of LED lighting to deliver revenue savings rather than switch off street lights at night, are all Conservative initiatives which were well advanced or part implemented but which Ron now claims credit for. This list is not exhaustive.

In the meantime what about the cutting of red tape and the reduction of borrowing? It is clear that if there is massive inefficiency and red tape bursting from every cupboard in the Civic Centre as Ron was so keen to tell us in previous years he has been unable to find it.

His position on borrowing is even more ridiculous. He is claiming that he has cut the cost of borrowing. The reality is that when a budget is set certain assumptions are made as to the level of borrowing required and the cost of that borrowing is factored in to the revenue budget. Southend Council has a very effective treasury management team which can often reduce the cost of borrowing by delaying external borrowing through using available internal funds. In addition interest rates have remained below the level anticipated. Borrowing costs have reduced purely because of this effective treasury management which has taken place over a number of years and not because of anything this Administration may have done or not done. It would have happened anyway. What the Administration has done is to introduce a number of new capital schemes for the coming year funded by external borrowing meaning that borrowing costs will be higher than would otherwise be the case. He is increasing not reducing borrowing.

In addition whilst we have claims of success with regard to care homes and Shoebury flood defences there has been no attempt to address the issues which have been raised by myself and others and which are detailed in my recent items on these projects.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Conservatives show the way on the budget challenge!

I have already commented on my disappointment at the budget proposals formulated by the current Rainbow Administration. It has been a regular feature of budget debates over recent years for current leader Ron Woodley and the other members of the then opposition groups to bemoan the efforts of the Conservatives in presenting budgets which made significant savings whilst also driving up performance in core services. Whilst always vague on their alternatives we were constantly being told by Ron that we were failing to deliver economies by cutting “red tape” and that our borrowing was too high.

In the circumstances I was looking forward to the current cabinet delivering on their previous promises and sound bites but what we have seen is a draft budget which rejects the Government’s council tax freeze subsidy, hits car parking charges notwithstanding the issues facing our retail centres, increases leisure and other fees and charges, cuts back on litter bins, removes textile recycling collection, imposes substantial council rent increases, increases borrowing levels, pushes some savings into following years and fails to deliver effective and sustainable economies.

This evening I will tune in via the internet to hear Cllr Woodley and his colleagues attempt to defend this dog’s dinner of a budget.

Over the years of recent Conservative Administrations whilst we have seen a lot of hot air from the opposition there has been a notable absence of any meaningful budget amendments. To be fair it is hard work for an opposition group to devise a sustainable alternative without the officer support enjoyed by the Administration.

In the circumstances the Conservative group deserves great credit for coming up with a number of significant amendments which have received financial approval from the Council’s Head of Finance and which seek to address some of the worst oversights on behalf of the Independent, Labour and Lib Dem Parties.

This evening we will see amendments proposing an acceptance of the Government’s council tax subsidy with freezing of council tax to residents, holding car parking charges for the current year to give clear and obvious support to our retailers and businesses, freezing entrance charges to the Pier (the jewel in the Town’s crown), saving textile recycling collections, and blocking the removal of much needed litter bins. I am sure that with a Conservative Administration this more sympathetic and proactive approach would have gone further to deliver a sound and balanced budget that protected core services whilst delivering the required savings in an imaginative and sustainable way – still perhaps we will see that next year!

In the meantime I will be watching with interest as every member of the chamber of whatever party has a choice on all these crucial areas. Let us hope they will be accountable for how they use their votes tonight.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

The Battle of the Toilets

I see that on his blog Labour Councillor Julian Ware-Lane has taken exception to claims that local Conservatives were responsible for the u-turn by the Administration on toilet closures. He suggests that it was him, and only him that requested the reversal of toilet closures although somewhat confusingly then suggests that he is not claiming exclusivity for the success.

The reality is that the draft budget was the product of the Rainbow Alliance of which Labour is a member and Julian is a supporter. I struggle to believe that the budget was agreed and released without input and approval by the members of the various groups who make up the Administration, either expressly or by delegation through their representatives in cabinet. Certainly in previous years the Conservative draft budget had been seen and approved by the entire Conservative group prior to publication.

When this proposal was released it was the Conservative Party which led the outcry which, at least on this issue, has resulted in the original decision being reversed. If Julian’s colleagues in the Administration were unduly bothered about his views they would no doubt have avoided the proposal in the first place but it appears he was ignored - as has been the case on doorstep textile collections. It is a shame that he has not been prepared to support Conservative opposition to car parking hikes, council tax increases, council rent increases, leisure charge increases and the rest so presumably these are items which he supports.

Finally I was amused by his assertion that “The toilets are saved, saved by my ability to make reasoned and cogent argument. These toilets were threatened because of Conservative-led Government cuts.”

Economies have been required because of the challenges which the country faces following the mishandling of the economy by the previous Labour Government, economies which in many respects Julian’s national leaders seem happy to adopt.

The only reason these toilets were threatened has been as a result of this Administration’s inability to deliver a package of sensible savings rather than imposing cuts to front line services, swinging increases in charges, raids on reserves and contingencies and increased borrowing. The Conservative Administration showed how to deliver balanced budgets with significant savings but with protected and improving front line services – pity that the then opposition parties were not paying attention!

Friday, 6 February 2015

Conservatives force about turn on toilet closures

Congratulations to my Conservative colleagues including Roger Hadley and Cllr James Courtenay for forcing the Council’s Rainbow Alliance into reversing the decision on toilet closures. To suggest the relevant cabinet member Cllr Terry has been like a headless chicken on the issue is probably doing an injustice to chickens.

However whilst the cabinet seem happy to reverse a decision which presumably they reached after careful and detailed consideration it is tragic that they have not adopted a similar approach on other unpopular and damaging decisions such as the significant increase in council rents, the unnecessary increase in council tax, the rises in leisure charges to include pier entrance fees, and the appalling decision to hike up car park charges whilst at the same time shedding crocodile tears at the struggling High street.

How they have managed to fund the about turn on toilets is also worthy of comment. The latest council paper comments that the “new saving” of £40K is achieved by deleting “ … provision for the gain-share mechanism in place with the existing waste collection contractor, which will not be required under the proposed contractual arrangements for the new waste collection contract”.

What a marvellous example of officer gobbledegook! The obvious question is if this saving has always been available without apparent negative effect why was it not identified and proposed by the cabinet in the first place. It also prompts the further question of what other apparently painless savings have been overlooked and if they had been earning their substantial allowances would cabinet members have been able to use them to avoid increase in car parking charges, council tax, leisure charges and the like.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Priory House

One of the most difficult decisions the last Administration had to take was the closure of Priory House. The decision was on the recommendation of a cross party working group supported by officer recommendation. Current Leader Ron Woodley was belatedly opposed to the plan and pushed for the home to retained and operated through a trading company. The evaluation of his proposal included the following conclusions:

A full evaluation of the viability of Councillor Woodley’s final Business Plan was commissioned …. and has now been carried out by LaingBuisson who are one of the UK’s foremost and highly regarded providers of information and market intelligence on the independent health, community care and childcare sectors. LaingBuisson’s conclusions are as follows:
 The revised Business Plan is not viable for the following reasons:

 It is based on weekly self-funding fees that do not reflect market rates.

 It is based on weekly NHS step-down fees that do not reflect market rates.

 The physical structure of Priory House makes it unlikely that it could attract self-funders.

 The revised Business Plan, based on market fees, would lead to a cumulative loss of £754,474 over a three year period.

Even if the revised Business Plan were viable, there are reasons why the Council might not wish to implement it:

 The revised Business Plan envisages a care home primarily for self-funders, a group for whom the Council has no financial responsibility.

 Many care associations have taken Councils to the High Court over the fees they pay care homes: Southend’s position in any action would be seriously weakened if it were seen to be charging residents almost twice what it pays for care home places.

 If the Council offered places in Priory House at £800 it might have the effect of pushing up prices in other care homes and so the Council could have to pay more for the beds it purchases from the independent sector.

 If the Council tried this option and it went wrong the Council would find itself financially liable for all losses incurred assuming the Council had underwritten the trading company and / or suffering reputational damage by walking away from the creditors of a failed company and failing the residents of the home.

The full report is available through the Council’s website. Ron did not like the decision and has now reversed it based on the delivery of a reduced cost base and increased income. I feel sorry for professional officers at times like this who have to deliver against their original advice. The latest report does not address the risks recognised in November 2013. This is in my view a bad decision driven by injured pride rather than informed political judgement.

Labour councillor David Norman has cabinet responsibility for a decision which involves using £100K from the Business Transformation Reserve for a business project previously discounted, spends £225K of precious reserves, and results in a shortfall of savings for 15/16 of £167Kwhich have to be found elsewhere. More importantly it ignores the further and more fundamental risks being played as previously identified by external advisers and the council’s own officers.

At times of financial hardship when difficult decisions on economies need to be made and officers are concentrating on the maintenance of services is it really appropriate to be taking these sort of risks and asking officers to develop a commercial enterprise in difficult circumstances and in a crowded market! The council needs to concentrate on what it does well and cost effectively and not try to outdo the private sector whilst bound in the red tape and regulation inevitable with local government.

Council Budget (6) - Public toilets

When I originally became a councillor on the old Borough Council in the 90’s the regular joke made by friends was that my time would be taken up in dealing with the administration of public toilets, removing dog poo and organising the public allotments. The situation was not helped when my first committee chair was as Chair of the Allotments Working Party! Obviously the reality was far from this although the issues of public toilets and dog excrement were discussed reasonably regularly over the years.

The budget proposals for toilets once again highlight the contradictions and inconsistencies with the thinking of the current Administration and in particular it’s Leader, Independent party member Ron Woodley.

I have previously expressed my concerns about the apparent pro-east bias in cabinet and the potential contradiction of a council Leader who also leads one of the more influential residents associations in the town which represents the Burgess Estate. It is about fairness and the importance of ensuring that decisions are not only fair but are seen to be fair.

We have the decisions on Priory and Shoebury flood defences where it is difficult to see how the appearance of fairness can be maintained bearing in mind the stance previously adopted by Cllr Woodley and/or BERA.

In the budget we then have the stance on public toilets. The proposals include savings of £10K by closing toilet facilities at East Beach and £30K by closure of toilets in Hamlet Court Road, Ness Road and Southchurch Road but increased corporate borrowing of £190,000 to refurbish the toilets at the bottom of Thorpe Hall Avenue, a scheme previously supported by Ron’s ward colleague Mike Stafford. I don’t know what if any revenue implications will arise from this refurbishment.

Whatever the merits of this block it shows that Ron is happy to borrow for a scheme that he or his mates like. This proposal not only undermines his previous stance on borrowing but also suggests priority is being given to Thorpe with an inevitable perception of unfairness. I am surprised that Ron’s non indie cabinet colleagues are content with this.

In the meantime shutting public toilets without adequate alternative facilities is never good, particularly when linked as in this budget with reductions in the spend on the waste collection and street cleaning contract, abandonment of textile recycling collection and removal of litter bins.