Monday, 15 September 2014

South Eastern Franchise Renewal

As a regular commuter from Medway who spends two hours a day using South Eastern trains you could say that I am probably bias when it comes to transport priorities. 

South Eastern trains are used to the regular criticism by now; after inheriting a mess from the Connex franchise it was never going to be an easy journey to see improvements to a service that had been run into the ground post 1995. And don’t get me wrong; since Hatfield the money invested into rail has seen marked improvements. The trains are in general cleaner, more modern and we do carry more passengers.

I could go into a small litany of reasons why our railways have ended up where they have. I can blame the Major government for botching the privatisation, handing out poor franchises and destabilising the network. And yes, they are largely to blame. My opponents can blame the subsequent government for overseeing a massive increase in public spending to improve rail; a renewal of the private franchise model; and increasing fares to pay for the necessary improvements. 

Today however the government could have acted better. It has been the choice of this government to renew the South Eastern franchise despite public opinion. It is the wrong choice.

I have consistently called for a not-for-profit franchise model to be able to bid for the contract. I have on occasion incurred the wrath of many for saying as such, but I believe we can not continue to fleece commuters as we are without a fundamental shift in both the model of franchise arrangements, and also significant improvements in redress for poor service.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Tunnel Vision

One of responsibilities of being an opposition councillor is probing into some of the poorer financial judgements made since 2002/03. 

An issue which is likely to raise its head in the coming weeks and months is the financial status of the Medway Tunnel. 

For those that do not know this Tunnel has been mired in controversy since the Rochester Bridge Trust (RBT) transferred to Medway Council the freehold of the Medway Tunnel, including the tunnel structure, tunnel portals, and the associated land and tunnel service buildings in 2009. The transfer included a sum of £3.648 million. (The original sum offered was £4 million, but during the preparation for the proposed transfer, some of this money had already been given to the Council to assist with the 2007/08 revenue costs of the tunnel.

Following the transfer for £1, the RBT ceased involvement with, or responsibility for, the operation of the Tunnel. Ownership and full responsibility for the Tunnel fell onto the Council.

At the time the BBC undertook an investigative documentary (see above) that implied concern around how senior individuals in both the Council and RBT acted. These issues today have still not been entirely resolved. The concern expressed by my predecessor, Labour MP for Chatham, Jonathan Shaw indicated that the transaction would leave a terrible legacy for residents in large part because of medium-long term revenue implications on the Council. 

He was right.  

The revenue tipping point - in my mind – may have just been reached. From now, the Council taxpayer is potentially liable to pick up the tab on ongoing revenue implications for this tunnel. This is not an insignificant sum of money and could fund road improvements and other projects across the Unitary Authority.

When challenged in Full Council on whether the Tory Group would rule out a toll to fund the Tunnel in future no categorical answer was given. I recently raised the situation with the Tunnel at Council Overview & Scrutiny meeting and there has been no movement on moving this asset off the Council books. 

It is another black hole in the ground that any incoming administration next year will have to face.

The figures are in the below letter:

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Back to Blogging

One of the sad things about being a candidate, Councillor and activist is finding the time to do the things you enjoy over and above the things you need to do. Blogging is something, like many things, which I intend to pick up on as the election approaches.

It is with some dismay that my usual partners in blogging John Ward, Alan Collins and Chris Sams have taken a step back from active politics when I begun in 2008; in fact very little now goes on from all sides locally. I suspect blogging has become a bit old fashioned now that twitter has stepped forward. 

Last week really was the beginning of the long campaign into the General Election. Aside from the usual resident PACTs, Planning meetings, letter draftings, leaflet editings and events I saw the launch of a baby project; the Labour Communications Network. A network of those Labour-aligned who work in the communications industry ostensibly in-house or in the private sector. It was fantastic to see three months work pay off and some inspiring speeches from Chuka Umanna and Tristram Hunt.  

Chuka and (the other) Tris

The weekly activity continues too. With activists working all sorts of hours and patterns we have organised a series of activities to fit with whatever works. Managing kids, a career and a political campaign is not easy and it is inevitable as the election gets closer that new committments will creep in and people may have to step back. This weekend we had teams out across Princes Park, Chatham Central and in the Villages. I also discovered that the name Osborn is not new to Chatham; indeed when canvassing in Chatham Central it was discovered that many years ago a Mayoress no less:

I have been answering a lot of correspondence from parents on Primary admissions that revealed some 45% of our intake into Primary School pupils attend below average schools. It has to be said that in any other local authority this should perhaps have led to some soul-searching in the ruling group but not in ours. Instead however, the usual Tory infighting has begun; this week it is over the bizarre u-turn on Planning. Despite a slap on the wrist from the Planning Inspector for managing a shambles on the £2m Core Strategy it seems we are about to repeat it. This latest spat (after the takeaways, anti-whip sentiment and selection bungles) surround that fact that the Tory leadership on Medway Council have been ignoring their own Council membership over affordable housing quotas (quite sensibly I might add). Bitterness has now come forth in the form of quite nasty internal arguments in public. I warned months ago that because of incompetence we were about to enter a free-for-all in Planning across Medway; alas it has come to pass. 

Talking of refunds; the idea of Boris Island has finally been dropped after almost six years since the idea of an Island was first floated. I remember saying at the time that complacency was the biggest danger and that we needed to send a hard message that no meant no. The idea of an early referendum was suggested, but dismissed, only to be taken up elsewhere successfully. I have every sympathy with the residents on Hoo who have seen house prices hit for six years by a Tory mayor. The relief for many will be palpable. 

I recall those however who back in 2009/2010 thought the proposal was a joke simply to get Boris elected. Fast forward a few years and not one taxpayer or Hoo homeowner will be laughing now the bill has come through. The total cost to London taxpayers sits in the multiple millions. Medway Council budgeted out some £250,000; and that perhaps does not include lost output in business and revenue from housesales. I am all for asking the London Conservative Mayor to give back £250,000 of taxpayers money, and the position suggested by Paul Clark, and now tabled at Full Council will be welcome, if sensibly written. 

Serving fries

And the fish and chip night at Papa's Barn in Ditton was a big success with Hilary Benn MP coming down to serve some fries and have some fun with some of the staff and the C&A membership. What I did not know was the Hilary was a vegetarian! Fortunately they did a great pie. A great venue and a good spirit; though I was slightly concerned to note that the chocolate biscuit set went before the signed Mandelson book 'The Third Man' in the usual Vince Maple-led raffle. 

Selfie with Hilary Benn MP

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Recycling Satisfaction rates

It is very interesting to note that the Conservatives in Medway are leading on satisfaction rates on recycling in the latest Medway-wide 'Mail' publication.

This blog has discovered that the Council has been in receipt of satisfaction rates that bare an eerie similarity year on year - despite the fact it is taken from a Quarterly tracker when it comes to refuse collection, recycling and street cleaning.


No one denies that weekly recycling is popular, but all residents should be aware that sometimes statistics may not always be as they appear. Let's hope the statistics change for this year as we would not want egg on face for the Council and also the contractor.

Of course it could just be a coincidence... 

Well if you are going to do a Medway-wide. It pays to do your research first.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Medway Matters Referral to Minister

Over the course of this weekend I will be writing to the Secretary of State to refer the Medway Matters publication for review as I believe the publication is in breach of the Publicity Code for Local Authorities that is now underpined in statute under the 2014 local audit and accountability act. 

I will be referring it for several key points that I believe lay open the authority to independent challenge from a member of the public. 

For reference the Publicity Code for Local Authorities can be accessed here.

The code was introduced because of concern by this government that local papers would lose revenue because of the production of a free Council-based magazine or publication. 

Since the Medway Matters magasine has been issued we have seen a reduction of independent newspapers in Medway over the last decade. Ad revenue continues to decline for Local Papers whilst our Local Authority continues to take sums in publicity from ostensibly public sector sources.  

With the introduction of free wi-fi upcoming I am concerned that the Council will continue to persue a 'news' orientated site instead of focusing on purely Council services and amenities via the Medway Council official website (that incidentally cost £250,000 to create). It is therefore in my mind subverting the basis of the Code.

Below is the detail of a Members Item request I submitted (and since has been designed up by the KM Group) on the cost of the Medway Matters publication and the ad revenue it raises. This forms a useful basis as it highlights the cost of printing and distribution of 6 magasines a year (two more then should be produced) and also the issue around advertising revenue. 

In short, Medway Matters can solicit for ad revenue. This matters when creating websites.

It is clear that advertising for the magasine comes from both in-house ads and also external financed ads including private companies. The sum total to create the publication is therefore a mix of taxpayer and private funding.

Since the start of this magazine the number of newspapers in circulation across Medway has dwindled. Medway now only has one bi-weekly independent newspaper via the KM Group. Whilst this does reflect a long term trend in Print journalism it is also true that Town Hall publications are hurting local press through ad-revenue seepage.

My complaint to the Minister will include a number of points but the core areas of review include:

Please see below two additions to the last Medway Matters that has failed to present the different positions at all on issues of contention. 

These two issues are politically contentious issues. Despite a petition being presented to the Overview & Scrutiny Committee's and Full Council there has been no mention of any form of controversy either during, or after plans had been passed. The quotes offered were the same. It is therefore, in my mind, not being even-handed.

There are other examples in the Council newsletters that do not provide balance on issues of contention that I will be supplying but these two issues (Rochester Airfield / Strood Library) are merely the current items.

Point 2

The Council are issuing bi-monthy publication of the newsletter. 

In addition the content of the magazine does not solely include references to business, services and amenities of the Council. In just the latest magazine we had Gardening Guidance given to the public from the 'regular column' Chris Collins - BBC Gardening Expert. 

In other Medway Matters magasines we also see examples of this type of publication (some are not sponsored). 

The local authority could also be incurring expenditure in the hosting and management of a Medway Matters website; though interestingly whilst the main Medway Council website cost some £250,000 to produce and manage this site is costing taxpayers only in the hundreds of pounds according to press officers. I do not believe this is an accurate representation of the overall cost to contribute and manage the site. 

I would suggest that Medway Matters website has been constructed to now act as a first point of call and defacto news site for the Council; as opposed to the £250,000 Medway Council website (see point 3 for more detail on this)

The headline for the Medway Matters even admits as such.  See below from the 'News Room' of the Medway Matters.

The website itself even has a handy drop down tab that includes 'Community News' and 'Commununity and Living' and 'Gardening' with 'News Updates' 

And in case you were in any doubt that this was solely about bringing you Council news the website 'About' makes clear that it wants to be more...

Why does the Council need to solicit views on favourite walks and views? The fact a Council magasine is openly seeking to solicit views on issues outside of the strict remit of Council publicity is an issue that warrants further review. 

The use '.com' is unusual in itself for a government publication. Whilst the usage of .com has changed its original usage was as a commercial basis.

All of these links emulate the 'style' of online commercial publications in my mind that may constitutute a breach of the guidelines.

Point 3 relates to the above point in the attempt to refer residents not to the address but to the address. 

Point 3

The Council was formerly publicising this fact in all magasines; but this has changed recently. 

April / May 2014

In the most recent addition; there is no clear and umambigious reference to identify this as a Council Magazine other than a tiny logo in the corner. This could in my mind be considered no more than a Council 'sponsors mark' as opposed to it being a Council publication. 

The Council has also removed all references to 'Council Magazine for Everyone in Medway' and also amended and deleted the link to the official Medway Council website. 

The header on the magazine refers all web interest to the newly created 'Medway Matters' website that has a .com link. This magasine therefore does not unambiguously 'identify itself' as a product of the local authority; rather the 'Medway Matters' brand. 

These three points I believe warrant further investigation.