Friday, 27 July 2012

Badge of Shame

Despite the warm words of a few from last nights meeting it was bitterly disappointing to see Conservative Councillors vote to retain the £10 Blue Badge charge for the 10,500 (and probably more given this is a 2009 figure) people who are currently some of our most disabled citizens.

The Tory Council, as part of its budget process introduced a £10 administration charge for the most vulnerable to obtain a blue-badge in the budget this year; and indeed from stories last night expressed by Cllr Juby, has made some wait up to three months before receiving them.

I am not dogmatic when it comes to issues like this, given my broad background in the Police and working in central London for a small business I am aware of the financial environment. I am also aware of the fact that the Council Cabinet at present is seen as out of touch and is perceived as spending money on mayoral frippery and excess and not the public good.  

It was very apparent early on from the [poorly] researched amendment that the Tories wanted to play politics. 

I had a hope that a consensus could be reached and dogma dropped on this issue given all sides are opposed to the manner and process of introducing parking charges at Medway Maritime and the lack of consultation. 

Hopes that were quickly dashed.

This motion, like with loan sharks and train fares, was totally watered down. 

There continue to be a number of very good reasons why the Council could, and still can, cut the charges and why:
  • It will now be seen a pure hypocrisy for the Council to be attacking the Medway NHS for introducing charges because of government cuts, when the Council have just done exactly the same thing on Blue Badge applications (which the opposition voted against as part of the budget in April/May incidently). 
  • Recent statements by the PCT indicating potential movement on the charges have now been undermined, perhaps fundamentally, because the Council is happy to have its own charge
  • The budget sums are miniscule. Using the basis of the Tory press statements which were a calculation on the Hospital budget impacts, we are talking about £110,000 or 0.02% of the total revenue budget (of £550m) on Medway Council; it could easily be reduced despite the distortions last night. 
  • No mention as to how the Tories could cut the wine and frippery budget for the mayor. No mention how how the figure compares with the bus station overspend, or the millions overspent on the primary school fiasco.
Last night the take home message from the audience was that the administration is happy to support millionaire tax cuts and spends on mayoral shindigs but not interested in helping the most vulnerable.

I felt last night showed a casual disrespect and disregard for some of Medway's most vulnerable citizens. It was extremely disappointing.

 p.s. In addition last night:

The response to the application in my ward on the Alexandria Road application was poorly answered and clear limited officer correspondence with portfolio holder. 

The second question on the botched water meter works in my ward was answered well; and will be holding the Council to account on a published list of fines to companies who fail to undertake appropriate works subsequent to infrastructure upgrades.

In addition some of points of interest as well

  • Cllr Chambers speech once again a list of events rather than a leaders report. It was once again weak; very very weak.
  • No apology to parents of Primary Schools over the multi-million pound Primary School fiasco in 2009 which has led to a new application on Chatham South site
  • Welcome development in Strood over a new Tesco and 'Community hub' 
  • No acceptance that poor leadership and research may have undermined expectation management on the UTC bid
  • No acceptance that Medway MPs and the Conservative Party are being dithering and incapable on the Estuary Airport, nor any mention of the 'long term' viability option left open by the LEP on the Estuary solution
  • Limited acceptance of cross-party work to Save Marlowe Park
  • A rambling dialogue from Cllr Jarrett on Council Tax contributions which was not appropriate for Full Council
That's it.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Tories come clean on Police privatisation?

The debate around who will be the next PCC candidate for Kent has entered a new phase with the announcement by Anne Barnes she is to stand as the independent candidate for Kent Police & Crime Commissioner.

Anne Barnes is the current chair of the Kent Police Authority, an entity which has overseen significant reductions in crime over the last decade and more, and is someone with some noted experience in policing. She is also popular amongst rank and file councillors in Kent having partnered with Kent County Council and senior councillors on the KPA over the years.

Whilst I do have questions about the recent cuts to Policing in Kent and the manner in which the KPA (Kent Police Authority) operates in relation to the KPF (Kent Police Federation) it is in no doubt Anne will represent a formidable threat to floating and independent-minded residents and has an opportunity to pick up discontent in the Kent Tory ranks over their own candidate.

Sufficed to say the news story behind G4S over the last month highlights how private contractors can not be trusted with public services and especially when it comes to public security. Given the moves elsewhere to use G4S to manage custody services, supported by Conservatives, it is a legitimate question that all the PCC candidates needs to answer; will they privatise police services if they were to get office?

Harriet Yeo, who received three times the member mandate than the Conservative PCC,  has made an early and principled stand on this by ruling out private operators and companies from managing police services. This is a firm line in the sand and one I believe sets a strong precedent.

The Kent Tory candidate needs to show some strength and stop dithering in his response to this question on privatisation. The Police respect honesty and transparency from the chain of command not obfuscation.

We need an answer for the record on whether all the candidates will promote privatisation?  

Monday, 16 July 2012

Parish Notice

For those of you who have been wondering why my blog and twitter has been more inactive than usual over the last three weeks it is because I am busy running a campaign to be the next Labour Parliamentary candidate for Chatham & Aylesford.

Irrespective of the outcome - and its looking like I probably wont win - it has been a very instructive lesson in how to campaign and certainly a good experience for future reference

The final hustings is on Sunday 22nd in Larkfield and all candidates are busy trying to maximise their vote ahead of the final Q&A and speeches. My two competitors have been in good spirits as well and irrespective of who wins it will have been a very dignified contest. 

I intend to blog about the full ups and downs at some point over the next fortnight; many on all sides who have tried to go for Parliamentary selection may find it an amusing read!

Thursday, 12 July 2012

End of Year Performance flawed

The cabinet on Tuesday discussed the end of year report in what is the ritual back-slapping exercise of another year well done. You can read the latest Tory position on it at Cllr Mike O'Brien's blog.

Not one mention at Cabinet about the concerns raised in O&S by members from across all parties about how these statistics are measured and indeed whether the targets are set artificially low. Why am I not surprised? 

For those of you who have not read the document you can read it here

It is effectively a series of metrics aligned to 'core objectives' of the administration and is supposed to give an assessment on the delivery of political priorities. Its a 'wish-list' that the administration may want to see delivered.

In many other Councils this report is extremely detailed with specific and tangible short, medium and long term objectives about the political priorities of an area. Our administration however seems a bit low on intellect so tends to produce what, can be best described, as something which has a traffic light colour code. 

The core problem is based on the analysis of the statistics and can be split into four:

  1. Core metrics are largely not measured against other local authorities, or independent industry standard, or what the industry terms as 'benchmarked' so making scrutiny of them impossible. For instance; we all know that Medway has had a problem with traffic and congestion but this year we have been awarded, by ourselves, a green flag which suggests success; I would position that in comparison with other areas Medway features badly but that data is not available. There are no national standards.
  2. The statistics the Medway Conservatives measure sit in isolation and the targets set by partisan politicians. The cabinet has the final say over the targets and these are managed to reflect deliverables rather then areas of public concern. For instance the public may want to know about perception on value-for-money or metrics on school spending in particular problem schools. The targets set are political, too broad, and geared towards giving the administration an effective clean bill of health. The public has no say.
  3. Targets set are artificially low and will continue to be set low to ensure compliance. One look at next years Council Review and we can see Tories calling a deterioration of service provision a green flag.  
  4. Key indicators are changed annually and Councillor's only get a snapshot; the public do not have a data-set over the medium term (say five years) to make assessment on performance over a reasonable time frame. 

Those four core macro factors undermine the entire exercise of effective scrutiny. 

Until the Council benchmarks its performance, allows a medium-long term analysis of trends, sets publicly defined and challenging targets, and has transparency I will continue to have zero confidence that this is nothing more then an exercise for the Council to keep members nodding ad-infinitum.

I could go into specific cases where the public is apparently 100% happy etc etc and also cases where statistics have not been set yet; but were stil passed yesterday but the Cabinet. 

I could also go into detail about how you measure. All of these factors make not only the questions but the measurement used all the more important.

By the way the officers who have responsibility for this are excellent and highly articulate; its the rules and context they work within which is my concern.

I believe in scrutiny and holding our Council to account but I cant unless their political masters start to treat these reports seriously and not as a partisan window-dressing exercise for cabinet back-slapping.

New School for Chatham

So the Conservative Council are now consulting for a new Primary School for the Chatham South site because of predicted rising school rolls.

Many reading will remember the Schools Campaign in 2009 when the Tories tried to close three primary schools because of falling numbers; this argument was blown out of the water by the Schools Adjudicator and a vociferous independent campaign by parents, teachers and governors opposing the Medway Conservative moves.

Cllr Les Wicks - the architect of that expensive schools fiasco - is still in post overseeing other fiasco’s, though the Education Director has since departed. It amazes me how the Tories can airbrush history as another officer disappears because of poor political judgement.

At the time the Tories ran a quite disgraceful and hyper partisan campaign

You can see the copious press releases here, here and here over a significant period of time (and getting more extreme). They attacked Labour for basically opposing investment in education, threatening all Medway Schools and even accused Labour of leaking the details. It was actually the Council department pre-release.

It was all absolute baloney.  

The entire episode was based around a flawed statistical base which a number of Tory Councillor's would not accept – there were some noticeable dissenters of course, including Cllr Ted Baker, who made a principled stand and was disgracefully gagged for his efforts. Alas Cllr Baker was able to persuade his ward colleague Cllr Reckless at the time and the Rochester Conservatives did eventually change tack.  

The new Chatham school will cost a further £3.6m of taxpayers money; added to the cost of the closures and time taken to consult on previous consultations we have arguably seen a multimillion pound fiasco on Primary Education in Medway; this whilst our SATS and KS2 results remain shockingly poor under Les Wicks.

It is now a moot point that Ridge Meadow should never have been closed and I am personally pleased to see the site used for SEN pupils; but how many children, teachers and parents have suffered as a result of the flawed closure? Hundreds.

It is worth remembering some of the Tory lines at the time;

Cllr Jarrett

"Labour group would threaten every school with closure as their attempt to derail consultation with primary schools fails"

Classic Conservative over-exaggeration based on zero evidence.

“It is sad when politicians prey on the natural concerns of parents and children alike to further their own political ends, when as corporate parents we should be doing our best to allay those concerns”

The campaigns were independent parent-led which were eventually supported by a number of Conservative Councillor rebels. This line was dropped when Tory rebels entered the equation.

"Labour have failed to suggest any alternative options to deal with surplus places in Medway, despite having the opportunity to do so as part of the consultation."

A failure to grasp the simple premise that rolls were due to rise meant that no school should have to close and that we should target investment to improve KS2 results.

What Cllr Les Wicks said at the time:

"St John's and Ridge Meadow did not have the numbers and the future does not look good from that point of view."

Incorrect; St John's was saved and now a new school has to be opened in the Chatham area. St John's and Ridge Meadow are both situated in Chatham Central & Luton & Wayfield ward which the new school will service

"Let’s be clear, the Labour group in Medway are not interested in the well-being of children – instead they are intent on political point scoring."

A line that was dropped when Tory rebels joined the parent-led cause but highlights the levels to which our administration will spin.

It is the reason why Cllr Les Wicks should have resigned in 2009, and perhaps spared us the subsequent fiasco's on the 11+ and botched Primary School building projects. How many millions have been poured down the drain in local education?

Until Cllr Wicks resigns we will continue to see millions wasted as results worsen. We need a new portfolio holder; even his own colleagues believe this.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Insolvency Service Closure

The news that the government is consulting to close the Medway office of the Insolvency Service should be sending yellow warning signals to residents about how the Tories are treating the issue of debt.

The issue links in well with other issues surrounding loan sharks and debt management and as mentioned previously was a seminal issue for Tracey Crouch MP in her piece for Demos, reflecting how the Tories are treating local debt seriously. 

It is also important that local politicians of all colours step forward to campaign for this service - not only because debt is a real problem in Medway - but because of the 30 jobs which will be lost as a result of the proposed closure.

This is a make or break moment for our MPs; already under fire for backing the Wonga deal with the Medway CAB a loss of this important service, and jobs, would in my mind send a message that Tories are not treating this issue seriously in Whitehall.

It is also sad to see Rehman Chisthi was once again not part of this press statement, either because he wants to see the Insolvency Service closed or more likely that Mark and Tracey are simply not on speaking terms; a disjointed and factional split not just in the Medway Conservative Council group but also amongst the MPs themselves.

How much more energy and public goodwill has been spent on Tories fighting internal turf wars with themselves?

CllrVince Maple is leading this campaign with his statement last week that Labour would oppose in the strongest possible terms this closure; our MPs have played catch up ever since.

The public are watching closely; will Mark or Tracey have any credibility in Whitehall or not?

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Greening leading Airport charge

It seems this blog was right to warn its readers about the change in the Tory line on the Estuary Airport. 

After years of dithering, delay and denial from Tory MPs it comes as no surprise that Justine Greening MP is now going to position the Estuary Airport as a 'long term' solution for our aviation problem.

This comes as Tory Council leaders - including our own Medway Conservative leadership - were taking credit only a fortnight ago for the publication of the LEP report which if you believed the headline spin from Tories was an outright rejection of the idea.

Only the truth is the LEP did not rule out the airport over the long term, and as Labour and this blog predicted when it was published, the Tories are once again playing two-faced once again. 

The problem is Conservative Councillor's in Medway are simply not taking the threat seriously; only after being pushed to run a proper campaign earlier this year after the opposition demanded action are a small number taking this as a major issue. Many said it would be dropped after the election of Boris Johnson.

Of course they are totally wrong as they were when they - including one Cllr Mark Reckless - dismissed and voted against the Labour motion to ramp up the campaign in 2009/2010 at Full Council. 

The Tories have and are taking people for mugs.

Justine Greening MP, the Transport Secretary no less, is now leading the charge for a long-term solution for an Estuary Airport once again; and is ironically being briefed against for her weakness by Number 10 and the Treasury for dithering. Sooner or later we will see the true government intention but only delay, after delay, after delay. 

How many more months will Hoo residents have to wait for a consultation? How much more insufferable Conservative arrogance and dithering can they take?

Today's news in the Times shows how Justine Greening MP has seen the crack in the LEP report and is now going to ruthlessly exploit it for her own gain. 

Remember she took Heathrow to a judicial review and will never ever countenance airport expansion at Heathrow because she occupies a marginal seat which is directly impacted; until she goes we are under direct and constant threat from the blue rosettes in London 

It is of course time we had a referendum on the idea; let all sides debate; and let the public send a message to Cameron and Clegg that no means no. If we dont galvanise the public against this airport we will have a major problem should it become developed.

The local Tories are trying to put up chaffe of course but yet none, not one Councillor, has threatened to resign over the issue. None of the Peninsula Councillors; the one's who are against it, as one isnt, have put their community first and threatened to step down. Its weak and its not sustainable. 

Of course why should Councillor's step up when none of our local MPs has the political honesty and decency to threaten to resign over the Estuary Airport? 

Why can Zac Goldmsith show some political backbone our MPs cant?