Monday, 27 August 2012

Sure Start funding concerns

The issue surrounding Sure Start funding locally is due to be in focus over the next fortnight as its clear that another Medway Tory promise to protect Sure Start is actually anything but if you are to believe the latest cabinet report on funding for nursery provision

The government is about to place a significant additional strain on local services but has not provided additional support in the form of funding to undertake or persue this objective.

Despite the rhetoric of the Conservatives in the last election we are potentially seeing a shortfall in budget of £400,000 as previous funding has been removed to a grant where the money is not ring-fenced to young people. 

Indeed that funding may never be returned either as the DSG Grant only supports those in Medway Schools; and that does not include nursery provision.

Despite expected number increases the Council has no funding from government to build additional capacity and infrastructure; this will place significant pressures on local Sure Starts and other support services.

Having nursery and support for two-year olds is very welcome but reducing the funding; cutting capital projects and forcing together already stretched services is unwelcome; indeed services for many may worsen as they become overstretched.

Some of our current nurseries will also find it a stretch to train sufficient staff and will have to make fundemental changes to admission arrangements to cope with the increased pressure. This with limited financial support.

This is not what people voted for in May 2010; this is not the protection of Sure Start but will see the service stretched at a time of budgetary constraint. 

I dont know who will win; but at this point it looks like the Tories are trying to persue a policy without the funding to do it. That puts significant pressure on staff and services and indeed on the quality of the product.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Mayoral Value for Money

"My only critcism of the Mayor is that he should be serving alongside ginger beer some of the lovely wines from our ... English Vineyards or beer from a local brewery"
Cllr Turpin (Conservative)

If anyone wants to see the levels to which elected Conservative representatives simply dont get value-for-money just read today's letter columns in the Medway Messenger 

The letter - written by a leading but intellectually incoherent Conservative backbencher - is exactly the type of right wing argument that highlights how the Conservatives are simply out of touch with the reality of peoples lives.

The piece written at a time when people are struggling to pay the bills suggests the Tory Mayor should spend even more money on alcohol and frippery has to be read to be believed. It was woeful for its lack of coherence and indeed in the insinuation that because the opposition want a fairer voting system and an audit / transparency of costs that we are somehow looking to scrap the mayoralty. It is total rubbish

Raising the issue and cost of the mayoralty is something I am happy to discuss. 

I believe in public transparancy, value-for-money and fair play. Three values which local Conservatives have totally ignored and traduced whether in Kent or Medway as we have seen on countless issues; Chatham bus station, rail fares, regeneration works to name but a few.

Let us remember the key arguments; presented time and time again about the Labour position on the mayoralty

Fair-play: Labour does not want to scrap the mayoralty; it wants the re-introduction of the points based system so that the mayor can be selected, not in an unholy squabble in the Conservative Group offices, but in the chamber. It wants to take the partisan politics out of the mayoralty. Its a simple concept which worked for years in Medway and in previous Council's in the area. 

Value-for-Money The cost of mayors in other towns and cities is not a left-wing campaign; indeed in many areas the costs are being reviewed by the Tax Payers Alliance and Parties of all colour. At times of austerity you can not just sit back and say that having mayoralty functions and staff costs are untoubable; no more you can claim that just because the position has some form of connection with the Queen that this is some form of snub to her. Many Council areas are reducing mayoralty cost. The public in my mind want value-for-money; the simple truth is the position is costing the public £140,000 (which is considerably more then in other places by the way) and want to know why the Council can pay for canapes and wine; but not fix the pot-hole in their street

Transparency - The public have a right to know how their Conservative masters in Medway are spending (or mis-spending) money. As a member of the opposition I will continue to undertake my responsibility and expose inappropriate spending and that clearly comes at a price of rocking the boat. This is the responsibility of opposition in a democracy

I do respect the monarchy which is why I believe the position should remain, be apolitical, and ... and which is affordable and good value to the public. I am also not a republican.

Unlike those who have put my name in the republican box I have nothing against any of the former or current Mayor's or the civic work that they do. I however do not think that at a time of austerity members of the Tory hierarchy should be treated any differently then those we serve; and that is where I refuse to attend events where elected representatives are given preferential treatment. We are not here to wine and dine whilst those in some of our poorest areas are struggling to pay heating and food. 

Meanwhile Conservative MPs are weak and powerless to do anything about it or at least dont challenge the cost? So much for standing up for the public purse; accept when its Conservative Councillor's; the excuses will flow as quick as the ginger beer...

Sadly to the Tories they see the Mayor as a play thing for the old 'boys' club; until this casual attitude to the public purse is rooted out the costs will continue to be exposed. 

The independently written article highlighting £140,000 cost

Click to enlarge the hyper-personal Medway Conservative letter highlighting £13,715 cost

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Two Faced Tory Timeline

It seems once again that those with a limited understanding of local history are trying to distort the Labour position on the Estuary Airport and claim we are 'scaremongering' the local public.

The reason I do not trust a single word local Tories say on this matter is because I don’t believe any of them have a clue about what is happening in Westminster; the argument that it will never be government policy has been rubbished; as has the argument it was all about winning votes in West London. Time after time the argument they present changes.

This to be truthful is an idea some Conservatives are deadly serious on; have spent millions to secure; and who are ruthless in their pursuit of obtaining.

 #TwoFacedTory Timeline (2007-date)
  •          Tories campaign in 2002/03 against the Labour scoping document on aviation. Idea for any Estuary Solution was rejected by Labour Government
  •          Boris Johnson first proposed the 'Island' Airport idea in 2007/08 as part of his London Mayoral manifesto; this would have been agreed in Tory HQ and would have had sign off from senior Conservative campaigners.
  •          Cameron visited Chatham to say there would be no consideration of an Island Estuary Airport and that Boris had no power to do it. He said this directly to anti-Airport campaigners
  •          Tory ministers wrote to PPCs and MPs to say there were no 'current plans' for an Island Estuary Airport.
  •          Sunday Times reports that on-shore options are to be considered by government as opposed to a pure 'Island' solution. Cliffe airport returns as a direct result of Conservative interventions in London.
  •          Two Conservative MPs; formerly Medway Cllr's opposed efforts by Labour to begin a visual campaign against the airport in a motion submitted to Medway Council. Instead favour low budget poster campaign (see pork pie).
  •          Tory govt elected on manifesto commitment not to build on Heathrow
  •         Boris, with London Conservative support, used taxpayers money to fund planning documents, commission reports and engage architects. He sought capital investment support from the middle east and approached national media proprietors including Rupert Murdoch and the Times.
  •         The government u-turned and promised a consultation in the early part of 2012 on all options except Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted; delayed to May and then delayed to Summer 2012. Three delays
  •          Lobbying of Osborne and Cameron openly documented in media / press on Estuary Airport. Reports being looked at favourably by Osborne.
  •          Cameron appoints Justine Greening MP; the most vocal opponent of Heathrow expansion; to Transport Secretary. An MP with an overt opposition to expansion at Heathrow and who took it to a judicial review.
  •         Tory minister refused to meet a cross-party delegation and snubbed the cross-party letter from Medway Council for close to two months. Transport Secretary has refused to endorse a cross-party working group to look at Aviation / repeatedly snubbed overtures by Labour
  •          Medway Conservative administration finally acknowledges threat and allocates £50,000 to campaign; begins very limited visual campaigning over Christmas 2011/12 period
  •          Cameron reports that he thinks the idea should be part of the government consultation exercise
  •          Boris Johnson re-elected in 2012 on back of an Estuary Airport including onshore options. Accepted Conservative party policy that was sanctioned by London Conservative HQ.
  •          LEP (led by Tory Councils in SE England) is open to long term option for an Estuary Airport and refuses to rule out hub solution

The simple truth is that we have had four/five years of games from Conservatives on this issue; the Labour position has been so constant because the issue is still unresolved despite years of conversation and dithering.

The Tory machine has slowly played the idea with the public and has moved the goalposts at every opportunity it can.

Who can categorically state that the idea is now just a ‘pie-in-the-sky’ or a joke campaign by Boris Johnson. It is laughable now because so much has changed and it is the Conservative Party that is responsible for that change.  

It is the reason I back a referendum; only allowing people a direct say on this issue will confer the authority to hit back. 

The status quo opposition from the Council is not seeing results; trusting people to have a say on an issue which will fundamentally change our towns is the right and sensible course of action.  

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Parking Charges Challenged

Substituted last night on the Health & Adult Overview & Scrutiny Committee which saw the Chief Executive of the Medway NHS Trust in attendance over the issue of Blue-Badge charges

It was a difficult situation for Mr Devlin; he clearly had tried to placate the audience in advance with an A4 folded leaflet which explained a series of concessions to Blue-Badge holders but to no avail.

The major issues which arose from the meeting which makes the Medway Trust move indefensible

  1. All other hospitals in Kent offer free parking for upto 3 hours or a flat charge of £1 (Gravesham / Darent Valley) for Blue badge holders. Medway NHS trust is now a major outlyer on this issue
  2. Limited consultation with Medway Governors; a number who were present in the audience indicated either no / very limited consultation with governors. This was disputed so I suspect the next Medway NHS Trust AGM could be interesting; if you are an NHS governor its worth going over the minutes and notes. Full transparency?
  3. No acceptance that car parking charges was a priority to which consultation with the Council was required; surprised me because parking charges at hospitals are probably one of the most controversial issues and having some form of public discourse could be way of reducing conflict. Appreciating fully there is no legislative requirement for such efforts but its bad PR.
  4. No comment on my alternate proposal that normal parking rates (which apply to a larger number of bays) were re-adjusted to subsidise in whole or part the cost of parking for blue-badge holders as a means of raising revenue.  The idea of equity was raised but this ignored the fact that those with disabilities required positive affirmation due to the conditions they have vis-a-vis those without. The Chief Executive was talking about levelling a playing field for all users; an interesting position for disability advocacy groups I suspect.
  5. Budget figures varied widely from £100,000-£180,000 raised; no prior testing had been undertaken so how this budget conclusion was reached remains a mystery; assuming they are using similar 'take-up' rates to normal parking users
  6. A refusal to endorse the Council position that the Hospital adopt free parking in disabled bays; and an almost obstinate position that as Councillor's we had no authority to impose. There was no concordat.

There was an acceptance that due to Conservative-led budget cuts and re-organisations that hospital trusts are in an unfortunate situation financially; the problem was the lack of consultation, information and how it was handled. The Trust must improve itself to this end if it is not to end up in a similar situation in future over other issues.

The Trust did make clear that those on benefits or who are on lower social income brackets would be given concessions but then stated that these would apply to all those that park anyway so was not specific to blue-badge holders. 

In addition; no statistics were provided on the 'take-up' rate of such concessions on normal parking bays; though that would not be directly comparable as those on blue-badges tend to be on lower income brackets due to their condition.

In all the Chief Executive did as best he could but he was trying to justify the indefensible; as a society we do place a value-judgement on those with disabilities and we do lend them preferential treatment; this proposal crossed the line

Not only does it leave Medway Hospital users worse off in comparison to most/all other Kent hospitals but it could have been potentially avoided in my mind with a better parking policy

Monday, 20 August 2012

Police cuts bite

When Tory Portfolio holders locally claim we are seeing an increase in neighbourhood policing they are of course playing with the truth as resources are skewed and massaged.

Anyone who has attended a PACT meeting will note, or not note, the presence of a regular Police constable to listen to your issue. This is going to get a lot worse as the budget cuts begin to bite.

This is going to be a real problem; if Police are going to stop attending these public forums we will see a real disconnect in neighbourhood policing. The resource question is very worrying as communities still need a strong and robust Police presence; my campaign to secure the Alcohol Control Zone in Luton has been met with concern around resource; though incorrectly.

And lets not forget that where once we had 2,3 or even 4 PCSOs on our beat per ward on a regular basis this has now been ruthlessly slashed because of Tory budget cuts.

The numbers below highlight the reality on the thin blue-line; a line that in rural villages across Wouldham, Eccles and Burham is quite literally a real concern about how often Police can attend or be a visible presence. 

So far the Tory cuts are as follows (note the exception):

Police Officers cut
Avon and Somerset
Devon and Cornwall
Thames Valley

Labour is the party of law and order; when Labour left office there were record numbers of police on the street, over 16,500 more than in 1997 in addition to over 16,000 new PCSOs.  

Helped by the record number of police officers, crime fell by 43 per cent under Labour and the chance of being a victim of crime was at the lowest since records began

Friday, 17 August 2012

Alcohol Control Zone a step closer

Positive news on the campaign to secure an Alcohol Control Zone for Luton last night despite the expectations going into the room that the Officer's report would lend itself to a rejection.

It was clear from the presentation and discourse that the statistics and fact-based approach did win over a sceptical audience. It is worth saying that compiling statistics on any crime where alcohol is involved is very difficult; the basis for the last control zones in Gillingham and Strood were based on the proximity and concentration of premises where alcohol can be purchased, consultation with the community and statistics on Alcohol-related anti-social behaviour.

The simple truth is though that Police attending a crime can not make an assumption on alcohol consumption unless proven by equipment or by blood test; that is perhaps why statistics on alcohol-proven crime is so difficult to find and actually substantiate. Who can tell you whether someone is under the influence?!

The statistics I presented last night correlate; as incidentally do many such cases; levels of relative anti-social behaviour in Luton with surrounding areas including the current Chatham Alcohol Control Zones and Control Areas elsewhere in Medway. The evidence base also looked beyond our borders to Canterbury and other local authorities who have a far more proactive approach to zones when compared with Medway; this suggests to me that the Police need to be engaged more proactively.

I of course need more evidence and statistics and will be looking forward to meeting the Police and the Portfolio Holder do go through my analysis from overall crime / anti-social behaviour statistics that are publicly available on the website.

Another area of concern was around this issue being a new one; as far as residents aware I have consistently raised the extension of the zone at full council and indeed in the media.

The Police are under a very resource constrained environment due to funding cuts; that does not mean however they should not be community led; and more importantly responsive to community led demands where required. There is such a requirement in Luton.

There was an argument last night from one notable member saying that Alcohol Control Zones were not being enforced currently; that is an issue which the Portfolio holder needs to resolve but that does not negate the effectiveness of some of these zones in Medway in other areas. 
The Police response as indicated in last nights report was also misleading; the Police were asked to comment on a proposal of which they had not yet seen any geographical context. It was also misleading to claim resource skew before the proposal had even been seen by the committee in the Director's comments. It was almost as if someone was angling for an outcome

This control zone is about giving Police powers and the community an ability to challenge on whether those powers are being used effectively; it does not mean officers will be taken from other wards in Medway as was inferred; operational judgements on resource allocation are different from whether or not certain areas have powers... and sometimes it is right to challenge the Police in certain areas where the community knows there are problems. 

This should happen in resource constrained environments or good; it is evidence-based policing.

The zone is about community participation in managing their environment just as much as it is about the zone itself. It is not about diverting officers into the area; and any reading of the guidance legislation will see that operational decisions are made independently of any such zone.

The Police are there to serve the community in partnership; part of the reason why PCCs are seen as necessary is because the government feel they have become disconnected with the public; I do not subscribe to that view but I do believe engagement can result in positive outcomes but only when it is based on rational discourse.  

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Boris ready for take off?

Reading some of the press today and over the last week since the closure of the Olympics you would be forgiven for thinking that Boris Johnson was the Prime Minister; such has been the usual August (silly some might say) commentary on his performance.

From zip wire performances to dancing to the Spice girls; it seems Boris is quite literally walking on water

Boris has worked it right; being suitably close to the events to take some form of public credit by association, but not too close indeed to be seen to be taking too much credit. I must admit; the man has an ability to connect which defies all political logic - though a Prime Ministerial candidate he is not.

It is not unsurprising to see the prospect of an Estuary Airport raise its ugly head again; and indeed from snippets over the last week we should all be very worried indeed.

Despite the commentary from local Conservatives that the airport was solely about the May election in London to placate a voter caucus this has turned out to be utterly false.

Boris is fixated, totally and ruthlessly fixated, on getting increased airport capacity through an airport in North Kent. Indeed so fixated he whispered the word in the ear during the Olympic celebratory photocall to Cameron. He has friends too it seems; this blogger warned the day Justine Greening MP was appointed that this was a Tory slap in the face to the local community; the fact that George Osborne is apparently persuaded means most of the big-hitters in government are now within spitting distance of the bulldozer ignition. 

Boris wants a legacy; Osborne wants growth; Greening wants rid of Heathrow and Cameron is weakened. 

We all knew this anyway you may say; except we didn’t. Justine Greening MP had, in theory, an ambivalent and impartial position to the idea; it is now clear from remarks that unless she is reshuffled she will be clearly pushing for an Estuary Solution when this consultation comes through. Justine remember snubbed Medway by refusing to visit and also delayed any response to a cross-party open letter. How long have we waited for this consultation to start?

Tory Councillor's need to get real; she is not interested in being fair minded.

Cameron, perhaps aware of the electoral implications is being more cautious; looking instead to 'kick this issue into the long grass' which is, despite the concept, an insult to residents. 

Not only has the government undertaken a u-turn but we now have to continue to feel the threat of an airport for a further three years. This issue will have been a Tory political football since 2008; a total of 7 years of perpetual press and Tory games; immensely damaging to any argument for investment for the Hoo Peninsula and for our local community.

It is why you simply can not trust a word from Conservative MPs and Councillors; the former were caught publishing letters and playing catch up in Winter last year despite the warnings from all sources the issue was coming up; they all put their heads in the sand and trotted out the government line. 

The second category have had to be forced, literally through constant opposition barrage, to have a proper campaign; they voted against running it in 2009/10 and have been totally wrong on the approach. Pitting Cllr Chambers against Boris Johnson is simply a farce. Remember also that the LEP (Conservative Council's predominantly) have also given a green light to long-term hub airport expansion; they left this door wide open.

It is this delay and clear game playing by Conservatives that led me to conclude, and this is supported by the Labour Group, that a referendum would be the most sensible way to send Cameron a message.

It would also allow people, whether opposed or not, a say on an issue which will fundamentally change the civic nature of our towns for a generation or more. All polls consistently point to a rejection of the idea by a large margin; all political parties locally would push activists to oppose; indeed I suspect there would be a race to be as aggressive as possible to oppose. The Yes campaign is totally fragmented and has no activist bast at all; they will be overwhelmed.

The Tories of course are desperate not to have such a referendum and have consistently over exaggerated the costs and played with the truth; but as every day passes the argument that Medway residents deserve a voice gets louder.

Some reading may be bored of this issue already; I want it resolved once and for all and for the Conservatives to stop treating Medway residents like flotsam; a public vote would I believe would send a message to Tories that no means no, and should you ignore this, the result will be felt in the ballot box in future years.

Employment Prospects

We now seem to be in a familiar pattern across Chatham & Aylesford when it comes to labour market statistics or for the average person - jobs – a detailed look at the figures gives plenty of cause for concern.

In Medway, Labour have highlighted Nomis figures which show that 58 more people were claiming out-of-work benefits in July than in June. In total 7,195 people, or 4.3% of Medway’s working age population, were claiming out-of-work benefits in July, with 2,090 having done so for over a year.

Chatham & Aylesford has an unemployment rate of 4.6% which is way above the regional average of 4.1%; the lack of jobs therefore matters and so does the comparison with neighbouring areas who have seen more favourable (if you can call it that) employment prospects.

Despite the right wing commentary the results were poor for the regions; London was responsible for around half of the total growth in employment suggesting that may well be something in this (perhaps Olympics hiring  in not only the venue but support services aligned (hotels / cleaning / transport)) and it will be several months before we can tell if this a temporary upward blip or if it represents more suitable growth in employment. 

Employment performance is also typically a lagging indicator, it also reflects what was happening 12-18 months before. Unless the economy turns around soon the situation can get very much worse and if the Eurozone crashes (as some Eurosceptics are salivating over locally) it will. 

It is why I am left aghast at the total inaction of Conservative MPs who are scrapping Future Jobs Funds and undermining educational opportunities for young people; this does not surprise me given the backgrounds of the current crop of Conservative leaders; out of touch with the reality on the ground.

Indeed, whilst the small fall in youth unemployment is welcome, we still have over a million young people out of work. 480,000 young people have now been out of work for over 6 months and 265,000 of those have been out of work for over a year. 

Tinkering around the edges over the last 18 months has not been enough; Tory MPs will be judged and are being judged on their economic failure to see growth.