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%.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Nelson Street - home for a nice yellow bollard!

I have previously blogged on the rather extended saga of the resurfacing of Nelson Street which did not give great credit to the Council but did eventually result in an improved road and pavement surface for this picturesque and historically significant road.

So I suppose that’s the end of the story. Well yes except……..

The following photograph shows the finished job.


OK so the unsightly ticket machines are unavoidable but would be improved with a coat of black paint.

However is the fluorescent bollard in keeping with the feel of the street? To say it sticks out like a sore thumb is a massive understatement. Now I know why it is necessary because with not great street lighting the build out separating the bus stop from the car parking spaces would be pretty much invisible in certain conditions. However that does give rise to the question as to why the design included the build out which was not present before. It is not designed to facilitate better pedestrian crossing of the road but seems to be for purely aesthetic reasons.

Isn’t it a little strange that when designing it consideration was not given to the aesthetic effect of the inevitable shiny yellow bollard which would need to be added to it as well.

It is another example of actions taken under the current administration which seem poorly thought through with additional money being spent unnecessarily.

Council Members allowances

I see that at the last council meeting the Administration rejected the recommendations of the Independent Panel tasked with proposing any changes to member allowances on the basis that it would be inappropriate to approve increases at a time when council staff are receiving such small wage increases.

I am in agreement with my former colleague James Courtenay on the issue. If you set up an Independent Panel to review and recommend, thereby recognising that it is difficult for members to consider the matter impartially, it is quite ridiculous to then reject what the panel suggests.

As in previous years there is the distinct whiff of party political point scoring by Cllr Woodley and some of his colleagues. In the eyes of the general public it will never be the right time to increase allowances. This is in part because few realise quite how time consuming and onerous council duties can be, particularly to those at cabinet level. To play the populist card by rejecting any increase simply makes the allowances ever more unrealistic – a similar problem that laid the foundations for the Westminster debacle on mp’s expenses.

If the advice of the Independent Panel is to be rejected why waste time and money getting it to investigate and report? In reality a panel of this kind is the right way to reach an unbiased and informed decision as they have the opportunity to investigate in details the workloads involved without the self interest of being a recipient.

For those on the council who believe that an increase is either unfair or unjustified then they have a simple remedy – don’t accept the increase. This was a point that in previous years I made to Independent Party leader Martin Terry who argued against the recommendations of the panel but didn’t seem to want to reject any increase if others were accepting it!

The reality is that in making their recommendations the panel factor in the community contribution made by all councillors which should not be financially remunerated and the chronic lack of admin support which SBC has historically given to members compared with many other authorities.

When I was a councillor in the early 90’s, at a time when as a lower tier authority the demands on members was far less, I chose not to accept any allowances, an approach shared by my then colleagues Norman Clarke and Charles Latham. We didn’t publicise it or do it to try to make a political point and nor did we criticise those who felt it appropriate to take the allowance.

Now the demands on time, particularly during the working week, are far greater. If we are to ensure that the opportunity to stand for the council is open to all the payment of reasonable allowances is essential.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Parking Charges

It was interesting to see in the media at the weekend that a Government minister commented that high parking charges were killing town centres and needed to be urgently reduced rather than being used as a cash cow by local authorities.

Hardly cutting edge thinking - rather a statement of the obvious, and one of the reasons that in 6 of my 7 budgets as Council Leader we froze car parking charges. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the Rainbow Coalition who introduced heavy increases last year, something that I have commented on previously.

At the consultation meeting for local businesses as part of the budget process Council leader Ron Woodley was warned of the danger of his proposed increases at a time when the High Street was in a critical condition. He accepted the plight of the High Street but refused to reconsider the hike in charges. He said that he would think of new support for the Town Centre in the budget next April - perhaps he didn't expect to be responsible for putting it together!

Well let's see but as the High Street continues to struggle more delay and excuses will not be acceptable and perhaps our local Administration should listen to the advice at the weekend and freeze if not reduce parking charges.

Misinformation!

One annoyance of motorway driving is when the 40mph warning signs come on, last for about 5 miles, and then stop without any noticeable traffic build up, accident or anything else. It does undermine their effect if it happens too often, as drivers start to doubt whether the warnings are accurate and don't take as much care as they should.

Different place but same issue. The electronic traffic sign on the A13 opposite Chalkwell Park is still warning of traffic build up due to Village Green. Now I know that Village Greèn finished over 10 days ago because I was there.

If these signs are going to work they have to be up to date but rather more to the point doesn't anyone check them on a regular basis? 

Sunday, 17 May 2015

A gracious winner

I was interested to read a recent blog item by Conservative Councillor Tony Cox after his successful fight back on to the council following his unexpected loss last year. Tony is a capable and dedicated councillor and the Council and Tory Group are stronger for his return.

However he was commenting on his regret that a 2nd West Shoebury seat had become available due to the sad death of Liz Day and his embarrassment at beating his colleague Derek Jarvis in to second place.

I know how he feels. When I was asked to consider standing to return to the council in 2006 it was as a result of former leader Howard Briggs deciding to stand down a year early. As a result it was a double header with me standing with Gwen Horrigan who had come to the end of her four year term.

Gwen was a popular and hardworking councillor and a thoughtful and lovely lady. Voting on the night was all over the place with many voters not voting for two candidates from one party but opting for all sorts of interesting permutations. Gwen and I finished well ahead of the other candidates but I received just three more votes than Gwen. This meant that I received the four year term which was rightly Gwens and she had to restand twelve months later. Those three votes meant three extra years.

I am sure that the result was because my name appeared before hers on the list of candidates and she had also been the subject of an unpleasant and untrue leaflet from another candidate on the eve of poll. I did suggest a recount but Gwen was having none of it and was nothing but supportive towards me.

So I know just how awkward Tony is feeling at the moment.

Whilst on the subject of election results at the east of the town I was delighted to see Roger Hadley safely returning to the Council. Another hard working and effective councillor and his victory was well deserved.

Friday, 15 May 2015

UKIP - now you see them - now you don't.

I have raised before the issue of the legitimacy of any new Rainbow Alliance which may be formed under the continued leadership of Independent Party member Ron Woodley, but if the rumours are correct then the new team would not look out of place in the pages of an Orwell novel or Private Eye.

Of the five councillors elected under the UKIP flag we are now told that only two remain loyal ukippers and the other three have formed yet another party group calling themselves “The Southend Independence Group”.

Always an interesting question as to whether in these circumstances they should therefore stand for re-election. Probably less relevant for their Leader James Moyies who was a reasonably high profile candidate but as for the other two they did little other than ride to a win on the national popularity of UKIP rather than any personal campaign and as such if they are no longer active members of UKIP it more than slightly undermines their position.

However in the meantime it is noticeable how critical over recent months some local Labour party members have been both of UKIP as a party and the campaigns and qualities of a number of their local councillors and candidate - and on this point I would admit to agreeing with them. In such circumstances it would be bizarre indeed if they ignored all of this history and happily welcomed in “The Southend Independence Party” to the joint coalition. I know they want to keep hold of their cabinet seats but surely this is a bridge too far, working with previously elected representatives of a party that Labour activists often portray as being “…even worse than the Tories”.

Politicians don’t do much to enhance the reputations of themselves or politics more generally when they completely change their position based on personal benefit and it would be interesting to see Labour Group Leader Ian Gilbert welcoming this alliance.

It reminds me of the famous scene from Animal Farm when having trained the sheep to chant “Four feet good – two feet bad” things had to change when the controlling pigs wanted to stand on their rear feet to mimic their previous human masters and arranged to change the chant to “Four feet good – two feet better” without acknowledging that anything had changed.

Are Labour councillors about to move from “UKIP bad” to “The Southend Independence Party better” avoiding the awkward truth that nothing has changed about the policies or priorities of these born again councillors.