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%.

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.