Monday, 28 July 2014

More policy announced on the hoof with the risk of more borrowing

Clearly I am missing something obvious. In today’s Echo we have a front page announcement that Southend Council is considering buying the Royal Hotel after bailiffs were called in earlier this month. We have a nice picture of Leader Cllr Ron Woodley and Cllr Graham Longley standing in front of the building with Cllr Woodley quoted as saying “We’re not an Administration that will sit back and we are here to facilitate opportunities if they come up…Anything we do would have to be worthwhile financially in the long term and give us income.” The article also suggests a possible price of £1.1 to acquire the site before any renovation or improvements have been funded. Putting aside that it seems a funny way to conduct negotiations in the commercial world via the local press and hardly enhances the Council’s negotiating position, I would expect these words to be credited to Tory Leader John Lamb. For the last few years Cllr Woodley has run a constant argument that council borrowing was too high and out of control with the implication that if he was in charge it would be brought under control. Yet now he is in power we have heard nothing about reducing borrowing and indeed he seems happy to announce policy decisions on the hoof on issues like this, or the possibility of building new council homes, which would increase borrowing. Now if I was in charge the idea of buying the Royal Hotel if the price was right would have been considered, particularly if it had the chance of delivering a future income stream, however I would have wanted to approach any negotiations with rather more commercial savvy and if the scheme had proceeded no doubt Cllr Woodley and his colleagues would have been the first to moan about increased borrowing. He has either got to admit that he got it wrong and that increased borrowing if focussed (like under the previous Administration) is to be welcomed, or that his position on increasing borrowing is unchanged but he is happy to break his own rule when there is the chance of a nice newspaper headline.

Keeping Prittle Brook adequately maintained

As I have mentioned previously I am a keen cyclist and have been pleased with the greatly improved cycle facilities which have been developed across Southend over the last few years to include the completion of the excellent Prittle Brook route allowing a safe and flat option from Priory Park to Belfairs Park for both cyclists and pedestrians. When on the council I would regularly ride the route and ensure that it was maintained in a safe and user friendly condition advising officers of any particular concerns. It has always been my view that cabinet members need to get out across the Town and experience firsthand the facilities for which they have cabinet responsibility which is so much more effective than relying on third party reports. Having not used the route for a few weeks I did so on Sunday and was disappointed that some sections had become quite overgrown with bushes, trees and nettles overhanging the route. It did not appear that any recent maintenance had been carried out. I would hope that Cllr Longley, who I am told by Cllr Julian Ware-Lane has responsibility for the culture portfolio, will get on his bike to see for himself and will ensure that the area is kept clear and well maintained. I suspect that I am not the first, and will not be the last, to urge Cllr Longley to get on his bike!

The filming of Council meetings

The Government’s new initiative of allowing the public to record, video or photograph council meetings comes in to force this week. I am a supporter of this move and have always believed that public council meetings should be made more accessible and that councillors should be publically accountable for what they say in such meetings. There have been too many occasions in the past where councillors have made some ridiculous contributions during the course of poorly attended public meetings but it has subsequently been impossible to make them acknowledge their position due to the lack of any formal record. I was delighted when SBC agreed to the webcasting of council meetings (notwithstanding the opposition of some members) as I do feel that this has made often important debates more easily accessible to residents as well as providing an important record of the contributions to the various debates. I hope that webcasting will be rolled out to the major scrutiny meetings and other important meetings such as Development Control. If we are going to try to interest and engage the public in local government easy access of this kind is hardly controversial. I would also expect that formal webcasting will remove the need for individual residents to use the new rules as they will already have access to an official and accurate broadcast of the entire debate and not a potentially selective extract. If local authorities will not follow the lead of more progressive authorities like Southend then at least the less satisfactory alternative being introduced will open up even the most reluctant councils to better and more public scrutiny.

Friday, 25 July 2014

The West Lothian Question

As a lawyer who conducts a fair amount of divorce work it seems quite surprising that in the debate on Scotland’s possible “divorce” from the rest of the UK it is only the home based Scots who are getting to vote and apparently expected to have a view. For what it is worth I hope that they vote “no” as I think that it is the best interests of all of us to remain as one. I also wonder about the Scots future without even control over their own currency. However whatever the outcome it does seem that this vote, over which we have no control, raises big questions for us too. If Scotland were to vote “Yes” we would have the bizarre situation at next year’s General Election where the result could be determined by Scotland’s voters notwithstanding the fact that they will have started their long goodbye. I also feel that if the Scots are leaving it is essential that those negotiating those arrangements on behalf of the rest of us are suitably bullish in their approach and do not make concessions which would adversely affect our position. There are a range of issues to include the pound, ECC membership, the allocation of debt, control of the military etc where we need to drive a hard deal and if the Scots want to leave I am sure they would not expect any different. However I am of the view that the interests of the English will need even more proactive defence if the Scots vote “No”. I suspect that following such a vote further concessions will be made on the devolution of powers and finance in circumstances where the famous “West Lothian Question” has still to be addressed. As I am sure you know this asks why in circumstances where powers have been devolved to Scotland and to a lesser extent Wales, but not England, it can be right that Scottish MPs still debate and vote on issues which do not take effect in Scotland. It amazes me that we have put up with the situation for so long although this is probably in part caused by the fact that any Labour government is dependent on the Scottish mps to provide a majority. I do believe that the time has come for some movement on this. I am not a great supporter of the creation of a new tier of regional government in England but at the least it should surely be made clear that any issues which relate to England and where powers have been devolved to other parts of the UK it should be only English mps who are involved in and vote on decisions. I am concerned that this makes me sound like I am auditioning for the English Democrats (which obviously I am not), but in circumstances where our celtic neighbours can seek to defend their interests without being accused of extremism the English need the same opportunity and as the largest force in English politics I would hope that the Conservatives lead the way by announcing some proactive policies to defend the right of the English to make decisions on “devolved” matters whatever the Scots choose to do.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Elections - another look back.

I have just spoken to a local business luncheon club (and very pleasant and welcoming it was) and was asked to reflect on the recent local elections and the implications for the town. It did make me analyse once again the results and see whether any clear messages were apparent. Clearly wearing my Conservative Party hat the night was pretty dire with the loss of 7 seats across the Town but is it cause to jump off the Pier? – in my view not yet. These were seats which were previously fought on the last General Election Day and as usual this had an effect, seeing the Conservatives (and at least 1 Lib Dem) winning seats which they would not normally expect to win. Kursaal and St Lukes are not natural Tory homelands and whilst we were “defending Thorpe” this was only as a result of the defection 12 months earlier of the Independent Party Councillor who faced an almost impossible challenge to hold on. The disappointing losses were Shoebury, West Shoebury and Southchurch all of which I expected to hold. Milton was always going to be difficult having lost to Labour last year which often triggers a pendulum with other seats following – particularly when the sitting councillor is not seeking re election. In the West we held the 4 seats we expected to but in the 3 seats where we were sitting on the heels of the Lib Dems, Blenheim, Prittlewell and St Lawrence we held a strong 2nd position and lost out to UKIP on the back of the national picture. We even ran the Lib Dems close in Leigh which was quite a performance. With a little luck in Southchurch and the absence of UKIP the outcome would have been far closer. As it was the Conservatives polled aprox 30% of the vote acroo the Town, well ahead of UKIP with 19% and the rest from 18% downwards. With a General Election bounce again next year and the probability of a waning of UKIP’s profile and support the situation could change dramatically and that is assuming that the current Administration does not pull itself to pieces trying to agree on next year’s budget. The Tories clearly have work to do in the East of the Town which was dominated by Labour in the more central areas and the BERA Independents but in the West (which carries 30 seats to the 21 in the East) the picture looks strong and, with the exception of Dr Vel who is somewhat unique, the Indies have all but disappeared from the West and their original home in Westborough. There is no doubt that there is all to play for and I am particularly looking forward to a strong blue fightback in the East.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Southend makes it to "Rotten Boroughs"

As many will know the popular satirical magazine Private Eye has a regular feature called Rotten Boroughs which highlights the activities of various councils and councillors which it regards as humerous, inadvertently ironic or otherwise worthy of note -  for the wrong reasons! I was always pleased that in my 7 years as Leader of Southend Council we managed to avoid the column however I note that in the latest edition new Independent councillor Derek Kenyon makes an early appearance. The Eye highlights how his vociferous election campaign against the use of "spy cars" curiously left out one relevant fact namely that before his retirement he had worked for the council in the transport department where he was directly involved with the introduction of the cars and for generating parking income. I have already commented on how keen members of the current administration are to feature in the local press. I wonder if Derek is equally delighted to feature at a national level and whether we can now look forward to members of the current Administration or it's supporters continuing to gain publicity for the town in this unwanted way.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Shoebury Flood Defence - the gift which keeps on giving!

Watching Cllr Terry’s attempts to justify his current action on the Flood Defence issue, as expanded in recent press coverage, reminded me of that saying about the gift that keeps on giving. Whether rightly or not I know that a number of current Administration members believe that the Shoebury Flood Defence dispute was harnessed effectively as an election issue and helped fuel the disappointing performance of the Tories in the east of the town and the loss of seats to include Shoebury and West Shoebury. I can’t help thinking that a savvy politician would have pitched the campaign slightly differently and in particular avoided the suggestion that a defeat for the Tories would effectively kill the scheme. Far more effective to say that it had progressed too far and couldn’t be reversed with continued blame for the wicked Conservatives. But no we now have a suspension of the scheme and new review but fraught with problems. Unless someone is going to come up with a new and previously unheard of scheme (which would be interesting in the available timescale) how are council officers going to justify changing their previous advice which was firmly behind the approved scheme? We know that the Environment Agency want the funds used by March 2015 which is an almost impossible timescale if a new scheme is required and we now have talk of a new consultation and new consultants. In the meantime Cllr Terry seemed to have no idea of the delay this would create, the cost (and where it would be funded from) and the ability to avoid losing the EA funding. This also ignores the further problems as to what Cllr Terry does if the expert advice continues to support the existing scheme or (God forbid) there is flooding over the winter which the scheme would have prevented. Oh he also has a potential problem with pre determination! The current Administration appear to be getting themselves into an ever deeper hole and could find out that the issue that they believe caused so much damage to the Conservatives could be as big a political problem to them.