Friday, 28 March 2014
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
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
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
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.
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.
I have commented previously on the scaremongering and misinformation being undertaken by some Independent Party councillors on the issue of council borrowing. My budget speech (printed in an earlier blog) sets out the principles underlying our approach to borrowing and the true cost to council tax payers. During the budget debate I challenged Cllrs Terry and Woodley to identify those capital projects funded in whole or in part by borrowing that they would not have undertaken if they had been in control and the resulting saving in interest. This reflects the obvious reality that you cannot attack borrowing without also objecting to the projects which it has funded. Well Cllr Terry managed to come up with 3 namely the Warrior Square café, the lifeline sculpture previously at the top of Pier Hill and the proposed dualling of Priory Crescent. That was it. He didn't mention how much interest that would have saved but I assume he thought that these projects represented 3 killer blows on the subject. Warrior Square café was an integral element of the improvement works carried out to Warrior Square and were managed by Renaissance Southend and mostly funded by the Homes and Community Agency (HCA) rather than by the Council whether from borrowing or otherwise. For reasons best known to them the HCA wanted a café and without the café the funding would have not materialised. In my view the work to the scheme was worth the frustration of the café. The Pier Hill artwork was funded by the Arts Council and the Priory Crescent Work, which before the complication of the Saxon King finds were supported by members across the chamber who wanted to improve access to the east of the town, was 90% funded by the Department for Transport. Councillor Woodley failed to respond but in an earlier Echo article had referred to the Pier Head works and the Forum Library. We have spent just over £4M repairing the structure of the Pier and putting a new building on the end. Forget whether or not you like the design, any building would cost, the Indies would have left a structure which is greatly loved and cherished by residents and is an external symbol as to the wellbeing of the Town deteriorating and bare – we would hardly have seen Jamie Oliver there. As for the Forum we have borrowed £8M to attract £19M of external investment. The development of the library and the old nearly derelict Farringdon car park was a requirement of the external funding for the student accommodation and new pay on exit multi storey car park, which was important to Essex University’s move to the town. So not only would we not have a new state of the art joint use library with reduced and shared running costs, nor a new multi storey car park, nor student accommodation nor potentially the life and regeneration arising from our university campus but we would still have Farringdon car park and the derelict odeon site. In my view quite a return for £8M. Cllr Woodley says he would save the money and when he had accumulated enough he would fund capital projects. Come off it - it would never happen. So he would impose bigger than necessary revenue cuts and at the same time put the surplus in the Bank gaining no interest for some possible capital project in the future. It simply makes no sense especially with cheap borrowing being available through the Public Works Loan Board. So there we have it - our Conservative Administration which believes in sensible investment in our infrastructure and regeneration projects based on prudent, affordable and sustainable borrowing or the Independent aspiration to stagnation and decay.
One of the most challenging but enjoyable elements of the budget debate for any Leader is the obligation to sum up the debate and to respond to the issues raised by other members. The opportunity to review both their contributions and my response is now easy to access via Southend Council's website so you don't have to rely on my account. My impression on the evening was that in general terms the contribution by the opposition parties was disappointing and in some cases extremely weak. Of the leaders Lib Dem Graham Longley, who can normally be relied on to come up with some stunt or gimmick, seemed out of sorts. He complained of smoke and mirrors and an apparent failure to provide detail yet under my leadership we have gone to great lengths to provide as much detail as is realistic bearing in mind the proposals are in draft and can effect employees, and certainly more than most authorities. Bizarrely he also commented on our failure to raise council tax but then indicated that he was not proposing doing so. Ian Gilbert for Labour did his usual act of bemoaning the austerity measures with a convenient memory loss on Labour's involvement in the financial difficulties we have faced, unreasonably criticised service level performance and said that he couldn't waste officer time in working with them to put forward alternative budget proposals. This is ridiculous as many other opposition groups around the country manage to prepare alternatives and as I mentioned he could simply have suggested a higher council tax rise and then spent the additional income. If he is so sure the public backs his stance on budget cuts then why would he be afraid of a referendum on a council tax rise of perhaps 5%! As for Independent Party leader Martin Terry he rambled for a considerable time and once again demonstrated his misunderstanding of local government finance - something he freely admitted to a scrutiny meeting a couple of years ago. Of the others I particularly enjoyed the contributions from Steve Aylen who called for the establishment of a members cost cutting committee even though he had failed to attend the all member pre budget sessions to discuss the same issue and Ric Morgan, who unlike last year actually managed to stay in the chamber for the entire debate and cast a vote. So in conclusion all 3 opposition leaders failed to propose any alternatives, amendments or variations to our proposals but all indicated that they would be voting against the budget ignoring our mutual obligation to set a balanced budget. Indeed if we had all followed this dynamic lead we would have set no budget and would have had to come back a week later to have the same debate on the same proposals without opposition amendments and in the meantime the delivery of council bills would have been delayed with a potential loss of income of £100,000- £200,000. They may think that it is clever politics but not as I know it.