Sunday, 19 October 2014

Labour spin on the NHS

Labour's health spokesman Andy Burnham was interviewed by Andrew Marr this morning and I am sure that I was not the only one left slightly depressed by his performance. I heard him speak a couple of years ago at the Local Government Association's annual assembly and he seemed to have a clear and realistic understanding of the massive challenges facing the future of the service to include the cost of the groundbreaking medical research being undertaken, increasing levels of expectation, the ageing population and the problems with the cost of social care. He had some interesting thoughts on improved links between health and social care although my understanding is that most of his conclusions were rejected by his own party leaders. This morning his golden ticket was to fund improved cancer services by a combination of mansion tax, increased tax on tobacco companies and a vague suggestion of raising greater tax income from hedge funds. He then said almost as an aside that a Labout government would also restructure to sort out the other funding problems facing the NHS. Well that's alright then! The reality is that the mansion house tax is some way from being deliverable as I have mentioned previously, the proposed tax on tobacco companies would raise relative peanuts and Mr Burnham did a good impression of not having a clue how the measures on hedge funds would deliver - something he seems to have in common with most other people. The truth is of course that measures along the lines announced do nothing to address the fundamental funding issues which face the NHS and if anything mislead the public by suggesting that with a policy along these lines the future of the NHS is safe. In my view the first reality is that the most important step in securing the future of the NHS is to deliver a strong economy. Without an underlying economic strength the NHS will inevitably crash into a financial buffer sooner rather than later. Having delivered that an adult and cross part debate needs to take place on the underlying priorities of the service and how these can be delivered in a fair and universal way.  I do not believe that there is any front line politician from either of the two main parties who is not committed to the future of the NHS and to suggest otherwise is the the politics of the playground. However this is too important an issue for the next election to degenerate into an " I can spend more than you" or "I care more than you do" argument. There needs to be a debate which goes to the core of the problems and which does not try to mislead the public. The reality is that successive governments have spent increasing money on health but for the reasons indicated above the demand is not going to reduce anytime soon. In the meantime in areas like Southend some excellent joined up thinking and working is taking place between health and adult care which I hope my successor will continue to prioritise because I am completely as one with Andy Burnham in believing that this is an area where improvements simply must be made.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

A Labour politician worth listening to

Whilst my Conservative affiliations are not in doubt I have never been so tribal as to be unable to admire (if not always to accept) the arguments put forward by representatives of other parties - or indeed to occasionally disagree with the views of some of my party colleagues ! I struggle to believe that anyone with a love of politics cannot be absorbed by the views and style of Tony Benn even whilst disagreeing with his views. Another Labour politician who always demands attention is Tam Dalyell. This was confirmed by the interview with him published in today's Independent. Of even greater concern is that on this occasion I agree with most of what he says. As the originator of the West Lothian question he framed one of the most simple but challenging questions of recent years. His views on delivering real devolution to Scotland and the rest of the UK, to include the abolition of the Scottish Parliament, scrapping of the unfair Barnett Formula, and the establishment of a proper system of regional government in Scotland is persuasive. For England he sees devolution but to the existing structure of local government. My main disagreement is his view that the county councils are best suited to deliver this whereas I prefer a single tier, unitary approach. He even highlights another issue which I have commented on previously namely the tendency of our modern Westminster elite to follow the path of university, researcher, advisor and then MP with no experience of the real world which can only increase the risk of a lack of contact between MPs and those they represent. An article which is well worth reading. My only concern is that I struggle within the current crop of front line Labour politicians to find those capable of stepping in to the shoes of Benn, Dalyell etc.

Seafront Development

This week has seen new and ambitious plans for the Golden Mile being published including an exciting mix of commercial and residential space. The plans were not a great surprise as I had been involved in preliminary discussions with the site owners as they were thinking up their plans. This important area for our leisure offer to both residents and visitors is in dire need of investment and improvement and I wish these plans success and hope that this does not turn into another false dawn for the site. My concerns about the plans have not changed. The height of the blocks, particularly adjacent to the Kursaal, are of concern. We have seen the negative effects of over high development elsewhere along the seafront. I also wonder whether the site will attract the necessary purchasers of high value flats in an area which comes with both the advantages and disadvantages of a prime Golden Mile location and sits close to an area of the Town Centre which continues to offer significant financial and social challenges - perhaps not the best selling tag. Still this is not the time for negativity. Perhaps significant investment of this kind will prove to be a touch paper for long term improvement to some of our more challenging town centre areas.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

A127 Improvements - the latest stage

Shortly before the elections in May Southend's Conservative Administration successfully bid for Government funding to improve the Tesco roundabout on the A127. This was the latest step in the upgrade to all junctions and followed the previous improvements to Progress Road and Cuckoo Corner. Obviously there is still work needed to Kent Elms and The Bell but it is the way of government funding that these things have to be done in stages. In the circumstances I was delighted when my recent edition of the Yellow Advertiser came wrapped in a  four page Southend Council advert on the latest scheme - although I hate to think what that cost! This included a picture and quote from current cabinet member and Independent Party Leader Martin Terry extolling the benefits of the scheme. Good for him even if I can't remember any great enthusiasm for the scheme from some members of the then opposition when the funding was obtained. I am now interested how Cllr Terry oversees the delivery of the project with as little disruption to the residents and businesses of the Town as possible. When the 4 previous schemes were delivered by the Tories at the same time (Progress Road, Cuckoo Corner, Victoria Circus and City Beach) massive time was spend by my colleagues, to include in particular John Lamb and Anna Waite, to keep the traffic flowing, especially at rush hours. Let us hope Cllr Terry is as effective in dealing with this far less demanding project. I am sure we will all be watching but hopefully not from the middle of a traffic jam.

In defence of the spy cars

In my recent years on the council an issue guaranteed to cause annoyance to some was spy cars, or to use their proper names the CCTV Surveillance Cars.  I have never fully understood the objections to their use. Firstly to describe them as spy cars has always struck me as ironic as rather than being examples of some form of covert surveillance the cars have signage plastered all over them and a large and obvious camera protruding from their roof! However the Council, no doubt encouraged by Eric Pickles, have announced that their use will be restricted to a limited selection of illegal parking enforcement. Like most people I know I do not park on double yellow lines as even though I may not always understand what purpose they serve I accept that they are often designed to improve safety for  pedestrians, cyclists or other car users or to help traffic flow. It annoys me when people ignore these restrictions but if they do they must accept the risk of a ticket and if tickets are not issued there is no deterrent to greater levels of unsafe and illegal parking. Obviously there need to be safeguards to include an element of common sense in their operation and a reasonable and easy to use appeal system, and I also feel that there are too many yellow lines across the town which serve no useful purpose and should be removed. However when I speak to people who don't support their use they normally assure me that they do not park illegally and think enforcement needs to be efficiently applied but somehow think that the use of the cars is cheating. They don't seem to object if the same areas are enforced by officers on foot but don't like the car even though all enforcement action is filmed making appeals in appropriate cases straight forward. They also mostly generally agree that enforcement around schools and other sensitive areas which can be improved by use of the cars is acceptable. It is a strange situation where there is support for a less effective method of enforcement and it seems that the argument is that all enforcement should be equal but some more equal than others. Well I remain a supporter, subject to the safeguards indicated above, and whilst we should be getting on with a review of the yellow lines across the town I still believe that tickets are not issued by the cars if people are parking legally so what is the problem.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Cllr Longley - are you listening?

It is generally accepted by many pundits that UKIP’s recent popularity has been built on harnessing the widespread unhappiness with Europe, Immigration and the current culture of Westminster politics. As recent local elections and Westminster by elections have demonstrated the public are only too happy to take out this displeasure on representatives of the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. It is a warning that politicians at all levels should be heeding but are they? In Southend concerns have recently been raised in the Echo and elsewhere about the £1.8M of Government business grants which have been distributed in the town. In defence of recent events Lib Dem Leader and Deputy Leader of the Council Graham Longley is quoted in the Echo as saying “I am delighted we were successful in receiving £1.8million of funding which has come to Southend rather than another area.” He also comments “The money is not from local council tax. It is not money that can be spent on council services, or other local initiatives as is being suggested.” As usual he misses the point. Nobody is criticising the Council for any input it had in obtaining this investment but what is of concern is that the Council has been involved in deciding who are the lucky recipients but have undertaken the process in what is perceived to many other local businesses as being in a clandestine manner which lacks transparency. In some cases competing businesses who are also important to the local economy will wonder why they have missed out on a cash handout. I am sure that the process has been dealt with in a completely fair and reasonable manner but it is simply not good enough for Cllr Longley to brush these concerns under the carpet. All residents are entitled to know the criteria that was applied and to ask why the potential availability of this funding was not better publicised. Finally for him to imply that it doesn’t really matter because it is not funded from local council tax is exactly the type of comment that must be music to UKIP’s ears. It is government money which has been contributed to by our taxes and as our locally elected representatives with an involvement in the distribution of the money in Southend the buck stops with Cllr Longley and his colleagues.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Libraries - the first damp squib of many?

I had been waiting with great anticipation for the Administration’s review of the proposed changes to the library service – the first of their 3 headline issues together with Flood Defences and Care Homes. We heard all sorts of criticisms about the redundancies of qualifies librarians, the need to protect our library services and the unsuitability of using volunteers to support the service and I was sure that under a culture enthusiast like Graham Longley the changes would be reversed and the current system maintained. After all it was almost his first press quote to block the implementation of the changes pending the review. I happen to think the original decision was right but would have no problem with the Administration delivering the required savings in some other way if they felt able to justify it. Whilst it still requires approval from full council I was therefore shocked by the recent decision of cabinet. It has not reversed any of the previous budget saving and reiterates 2 issues which were already under way, namely the combining of the 2 Shoebury libraries and the relocation of Southchurch library to more suitable premises. The “big” change is that rather than designating 2 libraries for operation by volunteers (albeit supported by the remaining network) they are spreading the qualified librarians more thinly and filling the gaps with volunteers. Nobody who read the election material distributed by some supporters of the current Administration before the election or who heard their comments on the subject would regard this approach as consistent with the line being spun to residents. All they have offered is a minor tinker which was considered but rejected by the pre election cross party working party. Obviously this latest decision has not been taken following full input from all political parties on the council. Questions must be asked. If maintaining the library service was such a priority before the election why have they not put their money where their mouth was? How many qualified librarians who were to lose their jobs will now be retained due to this policy change? If volunteers were not a reasonable approach to library provision why does the new policy continue to rely on them? Do they accept that this change will have a potentially adverse effect of Leigh, Kent Elms and The Forum? Residents who believed they were voting for something different have a right to be disappointed but perhaps should brace themselves for a similar reaction on a number of other headline policies over the coming months.