Thursday, 31 May 2012

Chatham Waterside green light

The news that 'Chatham Waterside' got planning permission last night is a welcome step in the right direction, and perhaps, just perhaps, represents the first step towards pushing for regeneration for our area.

The man in charge of regeneration Cllr Rodney Chambers was apparently close by when permission was given; sensing that his legacy as a leader hangs with this project? 

Interesting that there was observation on the panel about the total lack of regeneration in the area since Rodney Chambers took the brief; with Cllr Adrian Gulvin (Con) stating that it was "the sort of thing Medway has needed for a long time"

Could not put it better Adrian; not since Labour were in the Council and gave permission for the Chatham Dockside regeneration have we seen a large project come to completion. 

Rochester Riverside is currently weeds and Strood Riverside has been ongoing and on the drawing board since the early-1990s! 

Perhaps Cllr Rodney Chambers has been listening to much to his wife, planning committee chairwoman Cllr Diane Chambers (Con) who said it was a "leap of faith" she was not prepared to take. 

That is half the problem; Tories not willing to make a leap of faith when it comes to external investment. One only looks at why we never applied for the Portas Pilot and we can see this type of attitude pervade amongst some in the ruling administration; if there is private investment for jobs and houses on brown-field sites surely this is a no-brainer

There are of course nuances and clauses of review but the principle and message we should be sending is that we want business and jobs and that we are willing to make a 'leap of faith'. 

On the Scally issue; I am not a football fan [of any team] but this is an important club for our towns and so his input must be listened to and taken seriously; and I have read his detailed correspondence despite not being on the Planning Committee.  The argument however that this is the only possible site may be a present fact, but I believe there is plenty of space and scope for a stadium elsewhere in Medway; when Sunderland moved its ground it positioned itself on a former industrial estate; many new stadiums have also been built in locations just out of the urban core (e.g. Brighton & Albion) because it is more cost effective and allows for greater space. Medway has a number of potential sites both in brownfield and greenfield locations which remain under developed, and if there was some innovative thinking things could be explored; I could name a few but wont at this point. Scally is right to position himself in opposition to the site but there was no meat to the bone...

The simple fact is Peel have a reasoned and costed proposal and it is a sensible one in my mind. It will bring 3,500 jobs and much needed investment. 

Regeneration in Medway is woeful at present; someone needs to kick a few of the Cabinet into touch and work as hard as possible to get developments built especially on brown-field urban sites. 

All Medway Matters

With copies of the glossy Medway Matters landing on resident doorsteps across the borough the continued debate around content and impartiality has once again risen its ugly head.

A number of years ago this blog raised a series of online complaints about the editorial appropriateness of conducting an interview with a cabinet member, and known Parliamentary candidate, a few months before the General Election.

The content of course was pretty vacuous; talking about foods and hobbies etc etc, but the symbol was that the Council had allowed content, which so happened to coincide with the timing of a General Election campaign period.  There is of course a wider debate about whether finding about the hobbies and food preferences is really appropriate to be spending money on.

In this blog’s mind it wasn’t appropriate for the reasons indicated at the time.

At the same time a Freedom of Information request revealed that despite the comment that the Medway Matters is funded 100% by advertising that this hid some interesting facts.

By 100% coming from advertising you make an assumption that this comes from private contributions and sponsorship from perhaps private organisations, small businesses and those SME’s that are the backbone of our area. Instead, 32% came from ‘internal’ advertising from Council divisions and only 68% came from external advertising; and of this two thirds a large majority came from publicly funded organisations.

I want to say I have no major issue with Council newsletters and newspapers. I think it sensible that the Council uses its resources to highlight events, good news, public service access and contacts for local politicians, police and local health services. I don’t jump on the bandwagon that everything the Council does is propaganda and self-serving; mainly because it isn’t and there are some true public servants doing great things in Gun Wharf. Medway Matters is always well written, its layout is highly professional, and the majority of its content is factual. And unlike me; someone can spell!!

However there is a real risk with the last two editions, and in future editions, that we are seeing a change in tack once again.

This being subtle, but noticeable, to those who regularly analyse and read the content; this last edition deviated in my mind from being something which should be impartial, to one which favoured through content one group of Councillors - which happen to be the ruling group - at the expense of the good working being undertaken by all other Liberal Democrat, Labour and Independent Councillor's.

Maintaining editorial independence must mean more than just endorsing a particular party; it is also the content given to the respective party representatives. Medway Matters is always careful not to endorse a view; it does however seem to favour content from Conservative Councillor’s and the Cabinet almost exclusively.

This is important not only from a democratic representation perspective but also geographically as well; many inner urban areas are not represented and so news items tend to skew towards sanction news items (e.g. X fined for dropping Y). The good news of the Rochester East PACT, CCTV in Luton or the ward Clean-ups in Chatham Central; all funded and worked by the Council get little or no content.

My point is that all Group’s should be asked to contribute to the content to the magazine if there is a good news item of Council investment in the ward.  This is definitely not a partisan point as I want equality of access for all.

I am also minded to compare and contrast whether having debate is a good thing. I was struck by the way in which, when the official opposition was asked to contribute a piece to the airport debate, that subsequently was seen to diverge from official sanction. So long as the individuals are referenced why should some form of editorial licence be given in such cases?

It is partly the reason why I feel a referendum on the airport necessary; not because I believe a word of what the pro-lobby say; but because they have a right to be heard.

There needs to be a collective responsibility and mindset shift from the Council on this; is this a publication highlighting good news and investment from all; open to all; accessible to all; irrespective of partisan affiliation; or is this just the next re-worded version of the Conservative Cabinet in-Touch under the guise of giving people information on events.

If the content is not opened up mutterings about whether it really has value will continue to resonate; why should the public continue to spend close to £100k to endorse the work of Tory Councillors only? 

Monday, 28 May 2012

Kent Sheriff turnout concerns

The charismatic Jan Berry

With the shortlist for the Conservative nominations now complete it is clear this blogger does not know the minds of the Tory Selection panel; Cllr Mike O’Brien was not even shortlisted to the position which must be a big slap in the face, to not only this blog for calling it totally wrong (mea culpa), but also to the Portfolio holder’s public and press management which had, despite the ridicule, been managed effectively. Mike even had an agent no less if his press output footer is to believed, which I didn’t realise was necessary pre-shortlisting; but such is hubris.

The selection of Craig MacKinlay must be bitter-sweet to the Portfolio Holder; the Medway Tories are known for open-warfare (aka Mayoralty fame) but this is simply cruel, and rather enjoyable to behold for an opposition Councillor.  

Even if Craig is not eventually selected for the candidacy it will be noted by Medway Councillor's and residents that when it came to crunch on selection; Craig piped-the-post over Mike with little or no media output at all. It does not bode well for the replacement of Cllr Rodney for the Rainham brigade...

Craig must be pleased; but it appears this result has peeked little or no interest beyond the Medway commentariat; on looking at the twitter output of the Medway Conservatives over the weekend hardly any had bothered to congratulate or re-tweet the River Councillor, which either shows they don’t support his candidacy or, and more likely, there is a total lack of interest and they were out enjoying the sun.  

This total lack of interest could be the destroyer of this particular wonk idea as the rather desperate article, complete with well placed Union Jack, in today’s Medway Messenger by David Cameron highlighted.

The fear in Tory-circles is that if you cant sell directly elected mayors then how are you going to sell a sheriff?  

The pro-camp had one big argument which has now been blown away; that having high profile and charismatic candidates from all parties would introduce vigour and dynamism into the police governance process. It would allow the public to see a figure-head to the Police locally; someone who could be held to account by voters and who could set an agenda. Indeed; that was the fear this blog expressed that we could end up with someone jumping on rank populism which could see police objectives distorted to political priorities elsewhere in Kent.

Time has proven otherwise

Only Labour has delivered some punchy names, mostly politicians, into the process and is treating it seriously; which is ironic given we opposed the process in the first place as being a total waste of public money. The Tories have failed to manage their own policy if the quality of candidate is to be assessed.

The problem for Cameron is two-fold; firstly he has publicly antagonised and undermined the Police who will certainly use this as a proxy to undermine Conservative candidates, and will perhaps generate a small anti-turnout as a result; but secondly the Tories have failed to select half-decent and charismatic candidates for most forces, and have instead opted for a motley collection of third-raters and Councillor's in their mid-late 40/50s, or the ‘sunset’ brigade as part-time Collins dubbed them. Add into the mix a plethora of bureaucrats and pen-pushers who appear to have zero footprint beyond a few wonks and plutocrats in Whitehall and you end up with a major problem - having any mandate to make change.

It is with a particular hubris therefore that Mark Reckless; my local MP has penned a piece taking credit for the Policy this last weekend despite all the obvious (and they really are obvious) warning lights; if turnout is less then 20% fingers will be wagging in his direction.

Indeed, the use of public taxpayers money for this government programme is the major reason why; we will spend millions on an election at a time of austerity; turnout will be extremely low because there is little charisma; and we may even end up with a grey Conservative candidate with little or no mandate to make change.  

Rest assured all those arguments Tories have been using on cost for the referendum for the Estuary Airport can just as much be used against them on this extravagance; add up the cost of the combined process across all boroughs in Kent and you could see millions wasted on an election, at a time of front-line service cuts, on an idea not one member of the public demanded.

There was a reason why Labour so desperately opposed this idea; it is the reason why Kent Conservatives and Lib Dems so opposed this idea.

The Cameron article today for the KM Group is code (and fear) of a low-turnout; if Labour wins in Kent, and that is a tall order given our defect in 2010, we will have a candidate with charisma and clear policy ideas; but the biggest problem will be energizing the public at all.  

A reckless policy, baseless foundations, shameless cost, frivolous expense with a voteless turnout. 

We will wait to see what November 16th will bring; but egg on the face for the author of this policy may certainly be one

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Opportunity for Portas Pilot missed

The news that two areas of Kent and many beyond the county borders have been awarded Portas Pilot status should send a waning light to residents that Cllr Chitty and Chambers are simply not prioritising small and medium sized business in Medway.

Medway Labour have been robustly challenging the Conservative administration over its poor handling of local economic decline; from abject denial about the situation we are in; to a position where having a major portfolio tasked with inward investment in Cllr Chitty's hands is not appropriate.

Medway needs to treat economic investment seriously; with countless regeneration schemes on the back-burner and whole swathes of our towns no more then muddy holes because of private-sector withdrawal we have a two cabinet members living in laa-laa land. 

Take one look at Mountbatten House which towers over the Medway sky-line. It has been empty for months.

The Tories in Medway have lost grip on regeneration; why is that every area but ourselves took the Portas Highstreet review seriously enough to put in bids; with numerous highstreets in Medway this should have been an absolute priority for Cllr Chitty; instead she sneered at the author and two competitor highstreets are to have significant investment.

Why is it that no one has lobbied for Medway to be included in Economic Enterprize Zones; we have a huge blue-collar workforce and a Chatham economic centre desperately in need of private-sector interest. The Tories should stop apologising for government policy and start engaging through our MPs to make Medway an area which could be considered feasble.

As the biggest conurbation outside London the South East why are we not pushing the boat out on bids for economic regeneration and investment; instead the total lack of focus from our local blue-rinse brigade is giving weight to those like DRINK who are calling for regeneration and jobs with a mega-airport.

It is time the current administration took small business and the local economy seriously; we have seen nothing but hot air from Chambers on regeneration. His legacy is fast becoming a regeneration quagmire; Strood Riverside under-developed, Rochester Riverside a collection of weeds, Gillingham regeneration mired in squabbles and continued threats to Capstone Valley; as the Deputy Leader even acknowledged now a major risk under his government. 

It is all piece-meal, late, overbudget and the result is visible swathes of our town centre no further forward.

Of course the econony can be blamed; but when there is the potential for Portas pilots and other Economic initiatives it sends the wrong message that Medway is never in the room; beating the drum for our innovators and small businesses.

Chambers needs to step up; may I suggest putting in a 'capable' portfolio holder for Regeneration and to give Cllr Chitty her marching orders. A Cllr Mackness / Irvine or Bright would have a far better grasp of the policy nuances and be able to influence key stakeholders in Westminster and Whitehall and would probably build bridges with business instead of scaring them witless through inaction.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Vestas investment welcome

The news that Vestas has had its planning permission approved for Sheerness is welcome news for Medway Ports and those construction firms in Aylesford and beyond.

Many were expressing concern about the Vestas site after the government appeared to wobble on wind in the Spring.

I know this blog irked a number of local MPs on this issue, though not personal, I am a big believer in the United Kingdom leading the way on renewable technologies for the future. We have some of the best scientists and engineers in the world and finding a solution to the climate change problem does require active engagement by the state; indeed the state can be the catalyst for innovation if investment is targeted at the right firms. 

I accept that land based, or onshore, wind-turbines are contentious but making planning law impossible for the applicant will not benefit the consumer or the majority of the public. 

Neither is there any risk that Capstone will be developed onto an onshore wind farm as has been irresponsibly suggested.

A balanced and 'precautionary' approach to wind must be applied.

In a recession we must set a strategy and plan for growth; investing in infrastructure and energy platforms can be part of the solution. Energy companies can be given grants to invest now to benefit our country in the medium term; I believe the Green Investment Bank (suggested by Labour in 2010) will do this but only with active government.

Having such an innovative, high-tech and forward looking industry investing in North Kent can not be under-estimated; not only because of the thousands of jobs it will create but also the potential to make North Kent a hub for wind technology for the rest of the United Kingdom; this is something local government should be pursuing vigorously.

On a recent to visit to Southampton I caught up with a number of fellow Labour Councillor’s who were dismayed to lose Vestas after the company closed down part of its manufacturing franchise on the Isle of White; the resultant damage to supply chains and jobs led to real anger.

Kent is now in a position to benefit from wind technology and to lead investment both onshore and offshore in other parts of the UK; our MPs should be cheer-leaders for this type of investment; for some to jump on the anti band wagon is, in my mind, ill-judged. 

Challenging organisational conservatism

As someone who works in a small business I get immensely frustrated with the inertia and bureaucracy that I find in local government; the volume of committee checks, officer sanctions and verbosity before the smallest thing gets done is immensely frustrating.

It actually angers me sometimes that it feels like wading through treacle, with added crude oil, before I get to see the upside.

Working for a young organisation in an innovative space I rarely go to work in a suit; I work in a flat structure opposite a founding-partner of the business, and whilst there is hierarchy it is not at the expense of fearing what your boss will say if you suggest a different solution to a problem. There is a real verve and drive to finding solutions to client problems and issues; and we win business as a result.

I compare and contrast this paced and client-focused approach to working with my experience in local government and despair by the difference!

An example recently was from a neighbouring unitary authority when a colleague of mind was trying to secure dog bins in their ward; what should have been a simple request to place dog bins on lamp posts took months of engaging senior people on the feasibility and durability of such a basic request. Amongst the glut of conversation was the relative likelihood of dogs choosing to urinate on particular lamp posts and the risk of collapse as a result. After weeks of engagement he eventually lost the argument for putting dog bins on lampposts, and they had to be fitted on separate stalks. I note that across our borough bins on lamp posts are quite common but apparently there is rising and documented concern, at a number of conferences no less, of structural fatigue caused by dogs 'choosing' to urinate on particular lamp posts with dog bins on.

I use this example because government needs to rid itself of this type of institutional conservatism; whilst it is easy to suggest that the above problem represents the worst type of over-government encroachment I have no problem with push-back on issues; it is the time taken to resolve something that causes me so much pain.

We need a can-do attitude which reaches beyond the narrow and (quite old-fashioned) bordered fiefdoms that some plutocrats enjoy; we need a new class of government official which instead of spending inordinate amount of time telling you they can't do something; that instead they come back with a solution of getting around, and quickly, an actual and proven problem in a costed manner. 

Local government should not be a collection of 'Citizen Prevention Officers' there to wave any yellow flag at Councillors on something which could cost a couple of pounds. When they then rarely wave a yellow flag when other projects go millions over budget; no, that seems to get lost in the management fog and bureaucracy.

In local business someone who purely comes back and says business can't be done will not last long; its the do-ers and grafters that should be celebrated; it is the reason why I have no major objection to responsible wealth creation and those who want to make something of themselves.

One of those small businesses in Rochester with such a mentality is Rochester Coffee; a young and innovative company which is being managed by someone who is reaching for the stars. We need a lot more of it if Britain is to be a world-class player.

Sadly in local Councils it requires a total mentality shift; we have in my mind an institutional way of doing things which denudes authority to constant and unachievable consensus and decision-babbling by those seemingly involved in huge numbers of other committee's, sub-committee's, forums and working panels. If for instance, like me, you happen to have a career, or family, or a personal 'life' and you miss one of these meetings you miss key snippets of information and things are waded down even more.

I applaud democracy and engagement but in some cases things dont get done because there are too many people with fingers in the pie; what annoys me more is that some of these forum's have no actual power to do anything. Therefore people are spending inordinate amount of time talking about a problem to pass it up to another forum (e.g. Cabinet) which then ignores everything you have just spent hours discussing

Meanwhile sometimes I feel that local politicians are perceived as just a nicety of the elections; as merely lightning-rods for local discontent and the odd piece of case work; that is not the reason why I came into the job.

There needs to be a mindset shift; we need more innovators in local government, a 'can-do' and 'make-do' attitude to working, less Generation X fiefdoms and 'space ownership' on matters, and a willingness to engage and promote good ideas.

A look the my generation and those younger then me and I see hope; those born in the late 1980s and 1990s are far less likely to defer to hierarchies or indeed choose to work in organisations like this; local government will change.

Meanwhile will continue to have to push against the Sir Humphries and institutional conservatism until things get done; months later and after four panels have had a chance to discuss whether or not that dog bin can be fitted on that lamp post.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Tory jamboree must be exposed

Since the selection of Mayor Cllr Vaughan Hewett we have seen two significant events which in my mind mean our local area has difficult decisions ahead; firstly, we saw the econony return into recession as a direct result of Cameron and George Osborne's failure to follow Plan B early enough; secondly we saw the local election results where the public sent a message to the Tories that they are sick and tired of their lamentable management of local finances; unfortunately we have three years of woeful management left. 

From Southampton to Sefton the Tories were sent a message; stop living it large off the public purse.

It would seem the message has been lost on the Tories locally who seem to be continuing to spend money hand-over-fist on mayoral jamboree's, dinners and events. 

These are events which cost lavish amounts, or segregate locally elected representatives in gated or special areas, whilst the public has to pay. 

At a time of austerity, when the public in Medway are suffering from cuts to care homes, cuts to police, cuts to the NHS, cuts to libraries and cuts to Sure Start it is simply unaccpetable for Conservatives to be given preferential treatment at lavish events at the public subsidy.

It sends totally the wrong message about us all being in it together; Tories lording it over the rest of us behind guarded rails.

Last year I refused to attend the annual mayoral meal as a singular objection to this type of event at a time of economic uncertainty and cuts. 

This year we are in a double-dip recesssion; there is zero reason why Councillor's need to lord it up, or be segregated, or expect preferential treatment.

The Tories argue that mayoral ticketed events make money for charity but given some of the lavishness exposed I would be interested to see how much on each ticket price really goes to charity. 

I have no problem with Councillor's attending civic events like Remembrance where the public expect representation; I have a problem with mayoral jamboree's which are a 'nice to have' because my friend blue-rinse Vaughan is the man in the chain. I dislike Councillor's being given a segregated area because we happen to have had the honour of elected office. 

I know this is rocking the boat on tradition; but times are tight and the public put us in the Council chamber to spend their money wisely; and not fritter it away on three course meals, copious quantities of wine and the best seats at riverside events.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Loan Sharking APR Cap needed

Medway residents will be watching our three MPs for their commitment against loan sharking today after developments over the last five days; which has led to accusations that Medway MPs are paying lip service to the problem of indebtedness and loan sharking.

Many will expect them to vote for amendment 40 of the Financial Services Bill

If they did they would be backed by constituents with a ComRes showing widespread public and political support for this measure!
The research shows: 
  • 98% of MPs and 93% of the public believe there is a problem with payday lending.
  • 66% of MPs and 65% of the public support a cap on the total cost of credit. 
This afternoon our Medway MPs can help tackle the problems caused by legal loan sharks in Britain - where Which? research shows one in three payday loan customers experience financial problems as a direct result of taking out a loan. Amendment 40 will give the new financial regulator tough powers to cap the charges these firms can levy for credit. Its the first step towards securing industry wide caps on the total costs of credit.

The Government has not brought forward any alternative proposal, making this amendment the best chance we have to give British consumers the same protection from these loans that others around the world enjoy


Mark Reckless voted for the amendment which is to his credit and Tracey Crouch abstained. Well done. 

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Cllr Mike hot favourite

The news that former Colonel Tim Collins (of George Bush idol fame) is due to step down due to 'logistical issues' - apparently attending a few hustings was beyond his capability - comes as a shockwave to the mass phalanx of blue-rinsers poised to turn out to vote in November for the blue team.

The news that the veteran of the Iraq conflict could not make the few hustings required is a rather odd way to step down. Then again the Colonel must have scheduled a few other meetings on the same day as the hustings; just to prove the point that you cant really do the job part time.

The departure of the Colonel leaves the field wide open for a number of 'sunset' Councillor's and glad-handers from across the Kent Conservative fraternity of brothers. Much excitement awaits as the great and the good continue to criss-cross the garden of England for the much coveted, and very well paid, top job. 

Our very own multititular Mike is now looking like he has leap frogged from being an outsider to being the current favourite for the position; now that he has undertaken his CSP Roadshow of Kent. He has made the early effort to assiduously network and that may pay off in the early rounds due shortly.

Perhaps now that he is favourite he will step down as Chair of the Medway CSP to give him the spare time for all that canvassing and door knocking he will need to do over the next 5-6 months?

An interesting revelation though; if Cllr Mike did get the top job the field opens for the leadership of the Medway Conservative Group after Cllr Rodney decides to call it a day. Surely it cant be that much longer... 

The only local man who can now stop him is his own Council colleage Cllr Craig MacKinlay who has a mixed record with Kent Police; having had his ear clipped once or twice from a few coppers over the River ward by-election in 2010; he will certainly be a maverick choice, though one with a grounded financial understanding and eclectic sense of humour. 

All still to play for; but Cllr Mike is certainly that step closer to wearing the copper's hat. 

Wonga gets the green light?

The news today that is in a 'partnership' with the Medway CAB should be a red light to Medway politicians that the organisation could now be challenged by the public for saying one thing against loan companies, whilst then accepting a cheque from the very same firm in the other hand.

The news article today, probably pre-announced by Wonga, states that the company is to fund training of Medway CAB staff by a professional research company to question 6,000 to 10,000 about their employment, income status and debts. To say this does not look like market research is an understatement; it is incidentally exactly the type of information Wonga may find of interest if they were to seek greater market penetration.

The charge is that the Medway CAB could be labelled a hypocrite by the public; because they are using the money taken from these ill-gotten gains; and make no mistake charging 4.214% APR is ill-gotten, to fund an exercise which actually gives no actual real or tangible benefit to Medway residents; its a survey of financial needs. Statistics from central government can give you ward based employment statistics and there is already plenty of information on debt and income status to make a call; and that call is that these firms are a disgrace.  

The CAB has rightly been held in high esteem by politicians and public alike for holding to a firm line; that these types of loan shops are predators in our community, leaches on society, and should be vigorously opposed at all levels. The CAB does immense good in Medway and has been working very closely on getting money from government; they are a fantastic example of good intentions.

I portion no blame to individuals who are rightly looking for finances because of government cuts. I merely make the point the public may find it hypocritical.    

However, make no mistake, Wonga is giving the money and paying for the service and that to them is small change for maximum benefit; legitimacy.  These types of firms are desperately seeking to legitimise themselves to the public and I would personally feel very very uncomfortable seeking sponsorship from this type of firm. 

If I were the CEO I would have dismissed any funding from this source out of hand; easily said I know when making tough calls with limited resource, but the line must be drawn that taking money from an organisation whose interests are not in our resident interests must be seen for what it is.

As I also understand from my period in the Student Union; there was also serious objection from professionals in the welfare sector about this type of arrangement. I remember the advice received that we should not be providing, or being perceived to endorse, any particular type of financial arrangement, even by association. This comes very very close to the wire.

And what if we find other cases in the future of Wonga acting irresponsibly with our residents; there is by association a conflict of interest irrespective of all the sub-clauses and statements to the contrary. 

Wonga, Money Shop and countless other firms know what they do is irresponsible. They also know it is extremely lucrative; it is however base exploitation irrespective of the glossy adverts and well paid PR lobbyists. 

I have to be careful not to read too much into the small-print of the article; and am sure there are plenty of clauses and sub-clauses which give distance to the fact. I am also sure that Wonga has allowed the CAB to frame the questions and the manner it has been presented. I am sure the local CAB has received assurances and sanction from the National CAB and will no doubt be tying to legitimise the process with senior local representatives to give cover to the fact.

In the 1960-70s; smoking companies in the United States paid for lung cancer research; today oil companies fund environmental projects and we have banks funding corporate social responsibility initiatives. In the end of the day these types of low-cost spends, are made by the companies for one reason; to give a modicum of respectability.

I understand the financial pressures on local charities caused ostensibly by government cuts; Tracey Crouch, Mark Reckless and Rehman Chisthi are backing a government and an economic strategy that is leading to declining incomes and protracted unemployment; they are backing a government which has done nothing, absolutely nothing, to challenge these types of loans and have backed policies that have cut funding to local charities. Our MPs are part of the problem; they have warm words but when it comes to policy substance; there is nothing. 

Medway has a serious problem with borrowing and debt; those people who could be contacted are some of the most vulnerable to these types of predatory capitalist firms.  I think the CAB could certainly be challenged by the public for selling its principles and its legitimacy for money; it has left its staff in a conflict situation of having to brief against payday loans whilst in the same breath being sponsored by a company which is causing such distress to the very same people. It has eroded its consistent position that these types of firms are overwhelmingly bad and should be rid from our community.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

No Expense Spared

Councillor Expenses

As promised in the local elections above is the Annual Medway Councillor expenses.

I promised to publish them; not only so that my constituents could see some transparency, but also because I believe that the Council more widely should be held to account on the spending of its elected officials.

In the private sector we have seen the scrapping of ‘subsistence allowances’ and ‘additional responsibility allowances’ which in themselves infer (whether or not there is truth) that this is for some to claim additional sums off the public purse for just attending Council events - which they chose to be elected onto.

The good news for residents in Luton & Wayfield is that none of your Councillor's have taken any additional allowances. Taken as an average break down per ward; we are actually amongst the most cost-efficient of any ward Councillor team of any group; many other wards have portfolio holders, O&S spokes people or others on the public purse whilst Sam, myself and Christine all have outside jobs and careers. 

In addition, the figures reveal that whilst one Conservative MP Mark Reckless appeared to take his full entitlement, for a second year, the other Rehman Chisthi did not claim a single penny piece. Meanwhile the independent Councillor Andy Stamp did claim the full amount; I believe this will have gone directly into ward improvement funds as per his election promise, and certainly this is worth probing. Coincidentally; this does raise the question about why Rehman did not opt to do the same thing; and take his allowance and put it directly into his ward pot for additional resources.  

The other interesting figure is the travel expenses of Cllr Mike O'Brien which stand out; it will be interesting for a breakdown or whether this included trips to other parts of Kent in his ‘CSP Fact Finding’ Tour as Portfolio holder for Community Safety. All that glad-handing...

Most people reading the document can take one thing from it; Tory Councillors cost you, the taxpayer, more. Quite considerably more.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Annual General Meeting and Labour Boycott

Tonight is the Annual General Meeting of the Council where we 'elect' the ceremonial position of Mayor and Deputy Mayor and confirm Committee positions.

The event will be mired by the factional infighting within the Medway Conservative Group; the Mackness v Hewett (pictured with roses left) mud wrestle has done immeasurable damage to the position of Mayor, which was, as predicted, a result of the Tories scrapping the points based system in 2007/08.

We now all have to witness the annual mud tussle for the Queen's appointed representative by the Tory factions; it shows how hollow the respect is for this hallowed position amongst the Conservatives, that it has been reduced to an unholy squabble.

Are you really that surprised?  

Tories were warned at the time but they chose not to listen. 

The arrogance of elected office once again serving a reminder to the public about how out of touch they are

As a result of this factional mud slinging exercise and the degradation of the Mayoralty office the Labour Group will not be attending the Cathedral ceremony and 'expensive' lunch to welcome in the new civic year. 

The lunch (which I didn't attend last year out of principle) is a waste of tax-payers money at a time when we are cutting care homes and front-line services; it serves to highlight how totally out of touch Tory controlled Council are with reality of people on the ground.

The public elected Tories to be responsible with the public purse; not only have they introduced a partisan puppet into the mayoralty, but the Council will spend money, which could onto front-line services, to congratulate the elevation.

Incidentally; Some bright spark should do an FOI on the annual cost of this meal over the last decade of Tory office; I suspect it might not be an insignificant sum.

I think its time that the annual Mayoral jamboree, in all its expensive glory, was scrapped until which point the position once again earns the respect it once deserved. 

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Sharking the Truth

Particularly interested to read the piece by Tracey Crouch in the latest Demos publication 'Iron Ladies' which highlights the thoughts of the rising right wing stars of the future.

In the article it is claimed

“There are already signs of the party recognising the importance of shifting our attitudes to saving, as the Conservative-led Medway Council, which covers part of my constituency, has displayed by passing a motion calling for clamping down on the proliferation of payday lenders on our high streets”

Firstly; we have seen naff all from the current government on legal loan sharking despite months of tenacious campaigning by Labour MPs; including Stella Creasy, who incidentally has led on this from the get-go.  

Secondly; it is worth reminding the author of the local context; the efforts to reduce legal loan sharking were as a result of a fellow Medway Conservative MP, Rehman Chisthi, congratulating a legal loan sharking firm which had interest rates of 260%. An MP who appeared utterly dismissive of any greater need for regulation on such predatory practices.

This then led to a campaign by Labour who submitted a motion to full council; which was not attended by the aforementioned Tory MP. 

Rehman is widely seen to be a ‘rising star’ moderate in the party; If he, a Medway Tory Councillor no less, with impeccable Cameroon credentials could be not be bothered to attend and apologise then this sends the message loud and clear about the modern Conservative Party.

As a matter of accuracy from the night; the subsequent motion passed by the Council also did not 'clamp' down on any legal loan sharks and was in fact replaced by a watered down Conservative version to establish a task group to talk about measures to be recommended to government; which is the reason why residents can still see our 'Money Shops' remain open across the towns.

I do not want to pre-empt the Council Task Group report; but I hope we get some action in the form of actual policy which could impact the Local Plan; and allow the tightening of the screws on these predatory businesses.  I suspect we will get an officer-driven compromise on how we cant do anything legally as a Council authority and that we should all promote Credit Unions, which though welcome, can only be half of the story; all carrot but where is the stick?

What we cant allow is Tory MPs to talk the talk, forget local facts and then claim credit, for well, inaction from central government.

Perhaps not airbrushing the local truth would be a good start; but that particular trait is a one we see from Tories all the time; old, young, new or experienced, local or national. 

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Progress Conference

Have just returned from the Progress Annual Conference 2012 (PAC12) which is the voice of the Progressive Wing of the Labour Party.

It was, as usual, very well organised with hundreds of members in attendance. The membership drive has clearly been very successful on campus with a lot of Young Labour present in the crowd. Its important to see the organisation growing from strength to strength under some very capable people! 

Much is played in the Westminster bubble but the simple truth is though that Progress is a campaigning organisation which gets outside of London; campaigns in the marginal seats and is focused on winning. I for the life of me cant see how that isnt a positive thing to be celebrated.

The focus for the conference was on the centre ground of British Politics and how the Labour Party can once again reclaim this voter segment which deserted us in 2010. Many readers will remember they organised two debates in Rochester on how we need to engage on the themes of economic credibility and on decentralisation of power via The Purple Book.

I attended and contributed to a number of debates around the 'Southern Discomfort' critique which is thankfully getting Labour strategists obessive about creating a policy platform to appeal to the M25 Marginals; for my part I have made a number of contributions at a number of the debates about setting a centrist agenda which addresses the concerns of actual voters rather than what we think are the concerns of voters; readers can see a prospectus of this below.

A number of attenders made a point to state that raising such views would give succour to the right; I reinforced our position locally that Labour not talking about issues which voters were concerned about left the space for the Conservatives and more importantly extremist right wing agenda's to take hold. There is a balance to be had; yes. 

There will be some very bold agenda items coming through shortly.

Much focus was also placed on what is the centre-ground; and how this had changed in thirty years. Examples were made of how privatisation of utility companies in the 1970s would have been considered heresy until 1979; likewise how gay rights was considered heresy until 1997. 

For polling hacks we did have a tonne of voter information and tracking data provided (Progress tends to invite statistical experts and guru's) who sent some positive messages about declining voter satisfaction with Cameron and Osborne. There is a real opportunity now from voter analysis that Cameron is deeply unpopular with a number of voter segments and basically seen as an incapable toff; the government is seen as totally incompetent which is the biggest problem at present. There were plenty of other messages on segmentation which will not be revealed... but can help Labour groups target news themes.

Particularly interesting to me was the Southern marginal voters who annoyingly remain stubbornly loyal to the Tories but are beginning to crack because the Tories have called the recession wrong; many Southern voters see the Tories as aspirational and fiscally credible; though this is weakening. 

Much more work needs to be done by Labour on selecting candidates who reflect the 'aspirational' centre ground; or the 'Virgin Active' Voters; those that are ambivalent to politics at the best of time but want to better themselves and their families.  

Ed Miliband did a rousing speech on engaging the public and making sure we reach out to the 2/3rds of voters that did not vote at all in the local elections; Labour has set itself an agenda now of contacting and re-engaging with the public which is highly admirable and fits well with the work locally to reengage people in Politics.  It was perhaps the strongest speech to date; and one which had all the hallmarks of realism that is needed; the results were good, but not good enough. 

Friday, 11 May 2012

London Airport Protest

Medway Labour is working with London Greens and Lib Dems to oppose the airport

A busy day today; attended the Climate Rush protest in London with other Medway Labour colleagues. 

We joined forces with London Green Mayoral candidate Jenny Jones, London Lib Democrat Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon and Murad Qureshi from London Labour at London Assembly AGM.

The event went well with an organised media presence from LBC and BBC News; though organised a week ago it seems timing has conspired with the article by Boris Johnson yesterday citing his first priority for London as an airport in the Thames Estuary.

To those Medway Conservatives who niaively thought it would be dropped after the London elections you look like total morons. Boris was never going to drop this issue; and instead will up the ante going into Aviation Consultation.

Kent County Council meanwhile released its Aviation Policy paper today which makes it clear that they support additional rail capacity between Heathrow and Gatwick and the use of existing aviation infrastructure.

Meanwhile Kent on Sunday has now given backing to the Anti-Airport campaign killing any suggestion that the airport would be good for jobs; that argument is utterly flawed.

The problem is the Tories are now in a shambles; with one lot in London calling for the destruction of North Kent and another lot trying to oppose the actions of their blue rosetted colleagues. It is a total farce and represents three years of dithering inability to push our position.

Zac Goldmsith had the right idea in Richmond when he stated his unequivocal resignation and by-election should the Heathrow Airport proposal return; it is time for our MPs to put the community first and threaten the same. 

Cameron wont risk his North Kent marginals; and if it requires the nuclear option now is the time to play that card; the aviation review has been kicked into the long grass and there is a window of opportunity to kill this once and for all.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Labour flag on the centre ground

After the mauling last week at the local elections and the omnishambles that has befallen the current Cameron cohort it seems that Labour is once again entrenched with a sizeable lead in the polls.

Care however must be taken by the poll leads and electoral gains.

From 1997-2001 the Tories gained a huge number of Council seats on the back of a core right wing strategy which saw 'motivated' Conservative voters turn-out, with a depression in the centre-left vote as a result of government failures; at the time we were seeing the arrogance over the 1999 budget which was accused of being 'all spin' and the Ecclestone Affair which saw £1m donated to Labour for perceived favours on tobacco advertising. The Labour government was still polling ahead but it was clear that the honeymoon was over.

Cameron is in a worse position mainly because of the incompetence over the budget and the fact the economy has returned to a double-dip which has dented his economic credibility. Add in the frippery over the Pasty Tax / Fuel failures and you end up with depression of Tory voters; in 1999 Lib Dems benefited from the Labour local election collapse in many areas, in 2011 the vote began to split resulting in huge swathes of Labour Councillor's being elected.

Labour must be careful; yes the Tories were mauled last week, and whilst it is extremely pleasurable to rub salt in the wounds of right wing activists high on years of electoral gains, it means little. The results do not mean that Labour is on the road to government in 2015; and there is still a lot more work to do.

Cameron played a sensible card yesterday; despite it being a 'do nothing' Queen's Speech it did make an attempted pitch to strivers; to the working middle, to the C2DE electoral caucus which Cameron has lost badly in recent weeks. 

We can expect Cameron to play a massive play to this electoral caucus because without it; the Tories loose the midlands and are immeasurably weakened in South Eastern marginals. 

I expect over the next two months for Cameron to reshuffle and rhetorically focus on this voter segment. Labour therefore need to change its attack line to take into account any attempt by Cameron to try and bank this voter caucus. 

This will mean Labour moving away from its comfort zone; and there is a risk of leakage of the left to other parties; but with the collapse of the Lib Dems this is something which is worth the risk. 

There are a number of messages Labour could explore over the next six months which could do this:

  • Fuel / Transport / Energy costs; we need a policy to enforce a reduction of fuel  & energy costs once barrel price decreases. We need expansion of low-carbon vehicles with tax cuts. A policy similar to the 2009 trade-in could be looked at in some form of tax breaks. The Tories botched the fuel-crisis in the Spring and are damaged on this; we need a pitch to working 'White Van' man. Force electricity companies to tariff at lowest rate and even lower rate for OAPs
  • Labour needs to endorse a referendum on the European Union; it needs to promise that in the next Parliament it will pose the question about whether we should remain in the EU or out of the EU. This referendum must happen at a time of economic stability for otherwise it will risk the global economy and destabilise our recovery. Cameron is weak here; the Tory party will split and factionalise as soon as this debate happens; this need not be an electoral liability for Labour.
  • Immigration; the Tories have failed to grapple with the issue and in many cases it has worsened under the cuts agenda. The joke that is Heathrow and the Border Force debacle is corrosive to the Tory base. We need a bold policy on strengthening borders, and more importantly competent, and led by a strong shadow ministerial voice
  • Labour needs to focus on jobs and growth; stimulus programmes around manufacturing and fighting for British Business. It needs an industrial strategy linked with the growth and the EU (our biggest market); the strengthening of tax breaks for small business, expansion of localised enterprise zones and breaks for small business; a VAT cut for firms under 20 staff. Focus on SMEs
  • Aspiration Aspiration Aspiration; we need to focus relentlessly on helping people reach for the stars... the Tories austerity message is not inspirational and Cameron is to weak to give a message. Its jobs jobs jobs, growth growth growth. Undermining the Tories as an elitist clique who have 'never worked'; Cameron's background must be core as he is the arch-elitist. 
  • Labour needs to push transport; a focus on a nationalised rail and bus network and taking the power away from profit-making franchise arrangements. Putting power back in the hands of local communities and being a champion for best social value which differs from pure cost. A Labour Party 'Watchdog' which will stand up for the citizen against the vested interest. We need a fundamental review of railways and bus travel; forcing the profit-making franchiser to accept conditions on transport for young people and commuters.
  • Labour needs to stand up for our military; attacking the cuts and u-turns of this government including over the recent aircraft carrier incompetence. Tories take the military vote for granted; they should not.
  • Civil Liberties: Standing up for the rights of minorities; Gay Marriage must be totemic as is highlights how the 'libertarian' wing is loosing to the moralising evangelical wing in the Tory base; this must be teased. We must portray the Tories as out of touch with values; people did not vote last week on Gay marriage but it damages the Tories in urban metropolitian centres. Let the right wing be the right wing on this
  • Better Public Services; the Tories have a strong position in local government, we can undermine economic credibility by attacking poor local Councils using surrogate 'right-wing' organisations as proxies against their own people. 
  • Tory factional wars must be ruthlessly expoited; if the moderates and leadership faction loose the 1922 this must be used as wedge against the moderate electorate every time they speak; the Tory backbench committee must be the authentic voice of the government... 
  • NHS - Cameron has killed off his credibility on the NHS by botching his Health Bill; we need to focus on an NHS free at the point of use and stop the private-sector advancing into areas of the NHS which will lead to more expensive services in future
  • Education -  A focus on Further / Higher Education will undermine Liberal Democrat aligned voters and this caucus votes in Lib/Lab marginals. The promise of a future generation which is less prosporous then the last. Opposing rushed expansions of Academies without public consent; expose failures in cuts agenda.

The floating voter moved last week to Labour for the first time since 2005; the Party now needs to set some bold positions which differentiate ourselves from the right wing by pitching our tent on non-traditional turf which the Tories will now revert onto to try and attract C2DE voters on traditional left:right splits. We can not allow them to wedge Labour on the side of the vested interests. 

The Tory factional wars over the 1922 must be ruthlessly expoited; if the moderates losse this must be used as wedge against the moderate electorate and the centrist Conservative members. 

I believe if Labour were to make an aggressive play for the middle ground now we can push the Tories to the right; this they are almost begging Cameron to do.