Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Speculation on Sea

The Rainbow Alliance in charge at Southend Council had previously confirmed its intention to pursue a speculative policy of seeking to acquire commercial property to deliver income streams and capital appreciation and the latest budget proposes the allocation of £6M over the next 3 years providing a pot for this purpose.

It is being funded by increased borrowing and adds to a further figure of £1M for the possible acquisition of properties in Queensway.

Ignoring the irony of this policy bearing in mind council leader Ron Woodley’s previous stance on borrowing this policy continues to raise major concerns.

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 leaving a future Conservative administration to pick up the pieces as normal.

I fully accept that the Council needs to identify and develop alternative income streams wherever possible but it does not seem to me that the risks of this policy has been fully highlighted to the public.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Ron Woodley - Southend's answer to Jim Hacker

I have always been a great fan of the Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister situation comedies and there were regular occasions when as Council Leader I would be faced with an explanation from council officers which could have been lifted straight from the mouth of Sir Humphrey Appleby.

However it would seem that some members of Southend’s current rainbow alliance also lean towards the Jim Hacker approach to politics. For Christmas I received Graham McCann’s fascinating background account of the series’ “A very courageous decision” and he highlights the inspiration the writers took from some real life politics to include examples of leading politicians arguing for a particular reform when in opposition but then defending the policy they were attacking when in power.

In Southend politics nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Leader Ron Woodley’s stance on borrowing. In opposition he constantly attacked the level of council borrowing, although he was always reluctant to identify any specific projects dependent on that borrowing that he would not have undertaken.

Now in power he heralds the new approach to borrowing and the reductions he has delivered. This is complete and utter hogwash. Admittedly the repayments on borrowing have been lower than initially anticipated however this has been as a result of the treasury management skills of officers and the far lower interest rates which have applied over the period – certainly nothing to do with the policies introduced by Ron and his pals.

In fact in the last budget I presented in 2014 the proposed borrowing for the coming year of 2016/17 was identified as £15.9M. In the proposals recently released by Cllr Woodley for 2016/17 he advocates internal and external borrowing totalling £31.2M with an additional call of £8.3M on earmarked reserves and revenue contributions – otherwise known as stripping the cupboard bare! This includes a significant number of new schemes and additions to the capital programme funded by borrowing.

And yet he still argues that he has been tough on borrowing. The interesting question is does he really believe this rubbish or can he just not confront the fact that his opposition stance on borrowing was wrong. Incidentally we also heard him say year after year that major economies could be made by cutting red tape in the Civic Centre. He has not delivered on that either!

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Woodley recommends more borrowing

I see that at next week’s Southend Council cabinet meeting Leader Ron Woodley presents his recommendations for the Corporate Asset Management Strategy 2015-2025.

It makes interesting reading but I did have to pinch myself to remember that this is the same Cllr Woodley who led an extended campaign against increased borrowing levels during the years prior to his election as Leader.

In particular it is interesting to note that in the report under his name it states that:

“The CAMS introduces a commercial property investment strategy….to set the network for the Council to actively invest capital in commercial property, strictly to generate long term revenue income. It is important to note that as with other investments made by the Council, these are more likely to be found outside the Borough and the strategy provides for this….”

The report also comments that “Currently no capital budget exists for the progression of a capital property investment strategy.” And suggests that to achieve a target of rental receipts of £1M by 2018 will require spending of £20M.

This will require reviewing “various borrowing options”.

So it would appear that the Administration is now proposing significant borrowing to fund the acquisition of commercial property investments, some of which will not even be in Southend, in the hope of generating an income return.

The potential risks are obvious however what a remarkable about face for Ron and his Independent Party colleagues who now seem to embrace the concept of higher borrowing.

Prime Ministers Questions

I have to say that I did sit through all of Prime Minister’s Questions this week to see how the new Labour leader performed. I am not a traditionalist and must admit that I approved of the more adult tone which he encouraged. Whilst the more confrontational style that we are used to did result in some entertaining one liners I tended to find that after a few minutes I was bored with the absence of real debate and by the childish antics of some backbenchers.

So well done on the change of tone, but other than that what a chronic performance by the Leader of the Opposition. David Cameron must be delighted to have been given such a splendid opportunity to set out his stall in the absence of any incisive supplementary questions or responses. When considered with some of the other obvious gaffes over the last few days it is not surprising that my Labour supporting friends are despondent.

It will be interesting to see if the new PMQ approach continues but if so perhaps the time is also right to consider scrapping some of the archaic practices which still operate in parliament, relocating to a chamber which is actually big enough to accommodate all our elected representatives, and dealing once and for all with the reform of the Upper Chamber to ensure that it is democratically accountable.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Independents in meltdown

I was amused to see Belfairs Councillor Steve Aylen’s recent spat with the leadership of Southend’s Independent Party. Steve was a Conservative councillor during my time as Leader, however having been rejected for potential re election he stood successfully as an Independent.

I always had a bit of a soft spot for him when in our group in that he clearly had a love of Belfairs Park and consistently voted in support of the Conservative Administration until deselected - when he voted pretty reliably against us! On the basis that our policies had not changed I am unsure as to how he justified this about face. Generally he wasted a great deal of my cabinet colleagues’ time on irrelevances but otherwise didn’t do much else.

He has now resigned from the Independent Party to become an “independent” Independent and according to the Leigh Times feels that he was being bullied. Does this mean that he will start to vote against the Independent led Administration? The problem is that this might result in him voting with the Tories? Perhaps he should abstain on everything and then he wouldn’t have to support either of his former parties.

Former Independent Party colleague Ann Chalk (who in a previous life was a Labour candidate) is quoted as saying that she agrees with Steve that the Independent Party has become a political party and endorses his “allegations of bullying”. She also asserts that their group meetings “…are a farce, as key decisions are made in advance behind closed doors and minutes are doctored”. Cllr Ayling, another Independent Party member (and this time former Liberal Democrat), has also supported Steve.

It is no great surprise that Steve is starting to feature in the local press extolling his fight to stand up against all comers in defending Belfairs, because he tends to run a similar campaign in the months before every re election campaign. We will also see letters in the press from his friends commending his stance.

The underlying point in all this nonsense is that it demonstrates the ridiculous scenario of trying to form a party of Independents, (and yes I know that is a contradiction).

They aspire to a shared Leader, policies, common material and campaigning etc. without any shared ideological beliefs. Taking advantage of the anti-Westminster and politician sentiments, and a strong Thorpe Bay residents association, they have misled the public into thinking they were actually proper “independents” being concerned with the best interests of the ward in which they live and represent.

You can’t put a purple rosette on a previous party activist and think that by electing them you are breaking the mould of politics and you can’t have a true independent who becomes the member of a party group and accepts the imposition of policies with which they disagree by the leaders of their group.

So yes Ann Chalk is right the “Independents” are indeed a party, as are the “Independents of Southend”, but was ever thus (even when she was a member) and to suggest to the contrary has been farcical.

Who to vote for as Labour Leader?

I was tempted to apply to vote in the Labour leadership election but allowed my conscience to get the better of me as it didn’t seem very “British” to attempt to influence an issue relating to a rival party.

Having said that I would have struggled to decide who to vote for. I know that the popular view is that a win for Jeremy Corbyn will condemn the Labour party to losing the next general election but I am not so sure. It seems to me that Mr Corbyn and his policies are so unelectable that even an organisation as chaotic as the Labour Party will manage to ensure that he is ousted before that time, with the risk that having made one monumental error they may stumble across a candidate who actually presents a more electable face.

My inclination would be to vote for Andy Burnham. He would inevitably make it through to the next election, and as his performance over recent years and in particular the leadership election has demonstrated, he makes Ed Miliband look effective. My view has been strengthened by news that local Labour leader Ian Gilbert has indicated his support for Mr Burnham. As a local politician who has led his group in to the current hotch potch council administration and supports the damaging decisions being taken by current Leader Ron Woodley I would question his judgement on effective leaders!

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Capital Budget slippage

It was interesting to note than in the financial year 2014/15 Southend Council only managed to achieve spend of 83% of its planned capital budget. Now I know that there is an argument that projects can suffer slippage for many reasons making higher delivery difficult, however this performance is not as against the initial budget set in April 2014 but against the previously amended budget which was set as recently as February 2015!

One of the problems the Council faced over many years was a failure to deliver capital projects efficiently and over the last years of the Conservative Administration great progress was made on this. Senior members of the Administration attended regular meetings of the Capital Board to monitor delivery and hold officers to account when this was not happening. This was linked to regular review and amendment of the budget where required to ensure that effective delivery was maintained.

It appears under Cllr Woodley and his colleagues the Council is slipping back to its bad old ways. 17% slippage between late February and the end of the financial year is hardly impressive and the slippage against the opening year balance was closer to 40%.