Friday, 28 December 2012

So how did I do?

Well its certainly been an eventful year for this blogger.

So how did my crystal ball predictions of 2012 do (remember I made them just after Cameron's bounce after the EU Budget veto last year)

1) Boris Johnson will win the Mayoralty election and Labour will win the London Assembly elections. Labour will make gains against Liberal Democrats in urban centres in Council elections across the UK.

  • 100% accurate. Boris won the mayoralty with a 3% lead in a tight race. Labour secured eight of the London Assembly's 14 first-past-the-post constituencies, gaining two from the Tories, which left them with six. In the local elections Labour gained 823 councillors nationally, as the Tories lost 405 and the Lib Dems 336. 

2) The government will announce a cross-party review on aviation and will formerly look into the possibility of an airport in North Kent - consulting with local authorities in the region. Medway Conservative MPs will not apologise for mis-representing the airport position to the public for 3 years

  • 80% accurate. The government announced an independent review on aviation which will yes, formerly assess whether a airport in North Kent is feasible. Widely seen as a grass kick exercise after which the Transport Secretary was reshuffled. Medway MPs have still not apologised for calling this entirely wrong and nor have they accepted the government has undertaken a u-turn in considering any proposal for an airport on the Peninsula

3) The Olympics will be a success and will mark the change in economic fortune for the UK. There will be recession - albeit a small one - in many industry sectors from January-July 2012

  • 80% accurate. The Olympics did see growth of 0.9% on the quarter but the UK is certainly not out of a recession caused by George Osborne making the wrong call in 2010. Await Q3/Q4 data but looks like growth has returned albeit very weak. George cut before the economy recovered which is why we are still stagnating as other countries in the G7 saw growth. Tories on course to borrow more in 5 years then Labour in 13 despite all the hot air on cutting taxes and deregulation. Tories broke their own golden deficit reduction target rule of zero-deficit in five years.

4) Rehman Chisthi will become a PPS

5) Medway will continue to have appalling KS2 and Primary school results. The 11+ fiasco will be hushed up with a move to primary-school based testing absolving the politicians of all responsibilty; there will be a further move to re-organise Primary Schools in Medway.

  • 100% accurate. Medway came bottom of table on KS2 results and Primary school OFSTED reports were pretty poor as well; relatively speaking to other locations. The 11+ fiasco was clouded in one consultation after another after another about whether exams should be taken in Primary Schools or centres; which to this day I think is still out to consultation (seems to be mentioned monthly in Messenger).  There was an announced change in Primary schools with expansion in Chatham; two years after Ridge Meadow was closed on the bank of incorrect stats

6) Councillor O'Brien will make an unsuccessful bid for the Police Commissioner role but will be outfoxed by a KCC-sponsored candidate with populist appeal.

  • 50% accurate. Cllr O'Brien did run for PCC and he was outfoxed, but by another Medway Conservative; an individual known to court popular appeal it sadly ended in a flat rejection from the people of Kent.

7) Councillor Chambers will continue as leader of the Medway Conservative Group, ostensibly as a result of weak and incapable positioning of Conservative back-benchers in Rochester & Strood who will of course remain loyal to him to the press

8) The next Medway Conservative Council budget will be as balanced on paper but as usual unbalanced in outcome. This years budget, which is currently in deficit to the tune of £7.9m, will not be equalised. Money will be taken out of reserves to cover up shortfall.

  • 50% accurate. Too early to tell (still waiting for Q4 out-turn). 

9) The Better for Less programme will see massive, but covered-up, delays in rolling-out across the Council. It will not save £2.4m, but this will be deftly accounted for in overspends in other budgets to hide the delays that always happen with PwC projects.

  • 0% accurate. Too early too tell. Probably incorrect at this point.

10) Councillor Les Wicks will be re-shuffled in April/May 2012

  • 0% accurate. Cllr Les Wicks remains very much in post

11) Further Medway Liberal Democrat wobbles will continue to cause damage as the party squabbles about its future. The party will further retrench itself into defending urban seats rather than focusing on sub-urban areas it could win in 2019.

  • 80% accurate. Cllr Stamp furore continues to damage this year with claim and counterclaim still going back and forth. Lib Dems locally are still incapable of organising themselves but the rump that remains however has stuck with it. Leaks suggest they will focus on retaining the Councillors they have but hard to verift.

12) Train fares will go up by 5-7% and bus fares 6-10% at the end of 2012 despite Conservative pledges. IPSA rules will be changed so Tory MPs do not need to disclose transport as an item on Parliamentary expenses.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Keep Kent's Street Lights On

The Labour Party in Kent knows, as we develop our manifesto for the Kent County Council elections next May, that spending will have to be reduced for certain services. 

However Labour believe that turning of street lights across the county between the hours of midnight and 5am to save money is unacceptable. 

The Conservative Cabinet reported that it was ‘pleased’ people who took part in the consultation on the budget proposals (422 people out of 1.2million) saw turning off street lighting was the most acceptable way to save money. 

The savings would be around £600k – not an insignificant sum but compared to what the council wants to save, it is not a significant amount. 

The consultation also revealed strong concerns about the impact turning street lights off would have on community safety and levels of crime. We share these concerns and they should take priority over potential savings. 

We all know the effect losing the light from one street light has to our streets when a bulb is awaiting replacement – imagine that for streetlights all across the county at the times when we need it most; walking back from the train station, your local pub or from work. 

We certainly would not feel anywhere near as safe walking any distance in such levels of darkness and these concerns have come up time and time again when discussing this issue on the doorstep with residents

Warwickshire County Council took the decision to turn their street lights off between the hours of midnight and 5:30am – after just one week tragically an eighteen year old student was killed after a collision with a taxi whilst crossing the road. 

Taxi drivers are calling for the council to reverse their decision as they are reporting such instances are due to their peripheral vision being affected by the lack of light. 

Kent County Council must not risk the safety of our residents by turning the street lights off; the relatively small savings are far outweighed by the effects turning street lights off would have on community safety. 

 An e-petition has been created here for those in Kent to sign

Rochester Airport

The issue of Rochester Airport is one that dates back to before my time in local politics; indeed the plans to develop the site in 2000-2002 were when I was still at school completing my A-levels such was the period of time between now and then.

This matters because many of my constituents in Blue Bell Hill village and surrounding areas are impacted by this proposal.

What is not known or to which has been reported in the press are that the plan Conservative Councillor's are now supporting is effectively a similar plan to the one they themselves rejected in May 2003. 

If the Tories had acted responsibly a decade ago we would have a fully modernised and developed airport and an industrial park which would have grown from 2002-2008.

There is a long history to this issue which goes back almost a decade in time but the nuts and bolts of this issue surrounds the fact that Labour and the Liberal Democrats made a decision to put out to consultation the development of the airport site as part of the Local plan framework which was in development at that period. 

It came to ahead because Marconi decided to close down its operation in Rochester, which included airborn travel of parts to other centres in the UK, in favour of freight. As a result the Council having lost a major income stream put out to consultion a series of options including; wholesale closure of the site with a significant open greenspace so giving public access; or the option for part development whereby the airport was secure but with a portion developed into a high-tech industry hub.

There were a series of localised objections at the time from Conservatives - who suddenly found some deep pockets - rightly so in some cases seeking to protect the site as is the right of the local community. The issue was referred to the Inspector for review:

The Inspector's conclusion on Rochester Airfield in 2002 is summarised as follows:

 "The most contentious aspect of the Deposit Plan is undoubtedly the proposals in Policy S11 which involve the closure of Rochester Airfield and its redevelopment for a Science and Technology Park, along with housing, open space, and associated areas. This proposal attracted by far the majority of the objections, totalling over 3,300 objections from over 1,600 individuals and organisations. In principle, I have concluded that this is a soundly-based proposal which would accord with many key elements of national, regional and strategic planning policy. However, I consider the Plan gives insufficient weight to the importance of the existing Rochester Airport, and recommend a redevelopment option which allows the development of a smaller Science & Technology Park, but with the retention of a general aviation facility and omission of the housing element." 

This compromise position of retention of the airport and part development was adopted at the time by the Labour and Liberal Democrat Council in a Council vote. The then 38 Conservative Councillors voted to keep the airport site in its entirety, but the combined votes of the other members - totalling 42 - voted to develop the site as per the Inspector's report. 

This above statement made in 2002 is exactly what the Tories - now some 10 years later - have now come to accept.

The newly elected Conservative Councillor John Ward even said of the proposal to part develop

"It is not an ideal outcome—indeed it is a political fudge, satisfying no-one fully"

I understand that circumstances have changed - and I agree the proposal by the Council is reasoned - but the administration have not been honest with what they stood for in 2002/03, and they have also misrepresented the Council position at the time to state that the then administration wanted full development

That is the reason why the airport leaflet was heavily spun and as to why the electorate are being subjected to a barrage of attempting to re-write history. The column today by Cllr Jarrett that this is the legacy of the Conservative administration is rather ironically true; they are selling the land at the trough of the market with likely limited interest; but they can not deny that it is a policy that they would and did oppose in 2002/2003.

The current proposal is reasoned but the timing will cost Medway taxpayers; not only is the commercial real estate market at rock bottom but if anyone has been up to the industrial estate in Rochester near the airport you will see dozens and dozens of empty units; including Comet which closed this week. 

The Tories are simply out of touch with reality if they think they will maximise return for the rate payer.

The press want to know why Labour has not rejected this proposal outright and have been chasing for some form of opposition; there is no such because it was our proposal in 2002 after the Inspector's Report as they have been told time and time again! There is no row on the concept merely the timing. 

In May 2003; Cllr Rodney Chambers instructed Council officers to stop work as part of a range of initiatives worked out in advance, in anticipation of gaining an overall majority in the local elections (on an airport platform; opposition to Cliffe Airport and that of Rochester Airport). The irony isnt lost now the Tories are in government!

As a result of the election that year the Tories acted swiftly by ensuring that all activity towards proceeding with the compromise policy in the Medway Local Plan ceased.

At the time residents were promised a 'long-term lease' for the airport's operators but that never did materialise. The Conservative group also at the time opposed development, and identified a number of residential and employment sites that 'came' to light after the Inspector's report.  

If they had only accepted the Labour and Lib Dem compromise at the time then  investment would have been easily attracted and the airport facilities may have been modernised and maintained. 

Cllr Chambers called it wrong in 2002/2003 and for moving to accept our position some ten years later once again the towns have been subject to a Conservative opposition policy based on opportunism at the time but which has come back to cost us today.

You have done the right thing but a decade late

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Pickles Poll Tax hits thousands

Today we had the final cabinet meeting of 2012 in a very stuffy room but with all the usual self-congratulation that residents have become use to from our Conservatives in Medway. 

Those in the audience even spotted Cllr Les Wicks; but not surprisingly for a Cabinet meeting there was absolutely zero mention at all about our recent Primary School league table shame; not one peep from any Cabinet member. It was the elephant in the room...

The item you will be hearing a lot more about from the local Council is the appropriately termed 'Localisation of Council Tax' agenda item, or what is dubbed the Pickles Poll Tax.   

The Council has to make significant savings; and as a result is being forced to remove benefits from some of the poorest and most vulnerable residents, including the disabled; it is however not remotely local because central government has ring-fenced and fiddled with the parameters so much that it leaves Medway with very little room for flexibility
The conclusion will mean some of our most vulnerable working-age residents, who have little money now, will be forced to pay even more. Indeed, the larger the family the higher the payment to the Council with in some an extra £940 per year to find next year alone; an average payment of £233 per person has been calculated. In total 14,180 residents will have to pay and the impacts will be largely felt on young women from 18-24. 

Sometimes it is right to say the Conservatives do things for a reason and targeting those on benefits makes easy politics and plays a nice wedge issue with the electorate. It is cynical but the Tories on 28% are now grasping for someone to blame; it will never be their economic misjudgement of course to cut too aggressively in 2010; but the result is palpable, we are not all in this together

This policy wont help because it is economically bonkers; targeting those least able to pay and those less likely for the Council to be able to accrue the money from is not a recipe for fiscal stability or future success

These people did not cause the recession but they are now paying for it; this at the same time millionaires are getting tax breaks and working people are being taxed by the Chancellor

The Pickles Poll tax shows you what it truly means when the Tories say we are really in this together. 

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Bottom of the table

And today who did the Medway Conservatives volunteer to meet the BBC News; the poor Officer who only started in late 2012 and who had nothing to do with the results in question.

Councillor Les Wicks should have had the decency to go onto camera and at least try and give a credible response as to how Medway is going to improve. Instead he is nowhere to be seen.

His report card is below and for most it does not read well:

The Medway Conservative Council is backed by Conservative MPs; many of those Councillor's who are canvassing and campaigning for our local MPs are the same people dropping the ball on local education. They are simply not the solution and the area needs a Labour Council that will focus on leadership and on our failing schools.

For a fascinating and analytical piece on the Key Stage 2 performance in Medway I can recommend the excellent piece by Peter Read on the 'Shocking KS2 results.' Peter is seen as an independent expert on education in Kent and Medway and is trusted by thousands of parents.

Medway MPs have promised to take up the case; lets see whether we see any significant improvements over the next 12 months.

Education of our young people matters so much which is why we need new political leadership.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Council E-Petition Flop

We all know that local Conservatives ignore local democracy; we have had Council meetings slashed, an overly centralised Cabinet system and a total lack of consultation on a multitude of Council projects and schemes.

It does not come as a surprise therefore that whilst there are currently 52.7m internet users in Britain, representing some 84.1% of the population that our flagship e-petition scheme has been a total flop. 

We have had only seven e-petitions since 2010 and to make matters worse we had one that only secured 1 signature.

Who is responsible for Democracy in Medway; one leader Cllr Rodney Chambers.

Not fit for purpose? Lets see if we change the platform.

Smokes and Mirrors

Part of my real hatred about scrutinising the Tory Capital and Revenue Budgets is the smoke and mirrors in reporting on overspends on original budget estimates.

Officers have got into an unfortunate habit of reporting overspends against increased budgets as opposed to original estimated costs given to the public. 

You may be confused 

Below are two examples of financial mismanagement which the public may indeed be aware of over the last 0-10 years

Walderslade School: If you look above the budget estimate it stands at £5.51m and to the casual observer it effectively hit this budget target with an 'ambivalent face'. What is never disclosed is the original budget estimate for this project was £3.2m. This project therefore went over original budget estimate by £2.3m but because at some point during the project we voted for an increase it is all ok. Is this really scrutiny? Not a smiley face

Strood Civic Centre: If you look at the above the budget estimate is £800,000 and it received a very 'smiley face'. What is never disclosed is the original budget estimate for this project was £700,000 . Not a smiley face

And lets not start on the biggest example of this which is the Chatham Bus station which went from £5m to £7.3m and still costs are ongoing 

The Council - for whatever reason - never reports the original budget estimate. Instead the Tory-led Council goes over budget, votes itself a budget increase on said programme (usually out of Council Tax or reserves) and then scrutinises itself against this raised budget. It then reviews these budget within the context of the said incompetence and awards itself a happy face.

It is utterly infuriating and dishonest politics.

Last week I challenged this type of smoke and mirrors at the Business Overview & Scrutiny Meeting but to no avail.

I wonder why!

£60m debt legacy

Last Thursday it was revealed the true extent of Medway Tory mismanagement of the Council budgets which already highlight a prospective £60m liability on the books up until 2015.

On the above the Medway Conservatives will leave a budget deficit of £23.5m in 2015/16 and a cumulative loss over the next 3 years of £60m.

This is simply a staggering amount of money and comes as a direct result of Conservatives gerrymandering our money to leafier Tory areas in Surrey and elsewhere.

And what makes matters worse for taxpayers is that this prediction includes 2% per year average Council Tax increase. The days of Council Tax freezes are over.

Our Medway MPs must be aware of this black hole in the Council books but have failed to lobby for a fair local government settlement.

If Medway Labour win in 2015 the finances will be in a total mess because of the Tories. 

This is the message to all those who want to make a difference; our Tories may be about to follow a 'scorched Council' policy which will leave residents and the next administration with some very unpalatable choices

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Osborne needs an agenda for growth

So with icy winds and snow you could be forgiven for thinking today is all about missing the obvious slip ups, but not so. Today we get a verdict on the core strategy of this government which has it reduced the deficit and to deliver on its own five year plan.

Does George Osborne have the grit to get us through or is he spreading himself to thin and exposing himself to the bitter winds of austerity?

In 2010, the General Election was fought over the economy and the public showed they wanted a Coalition. Labour warned at the time that if the Tories were elected their policies would take us back into a double-dip. After the election, the Summer Budget showed the bitter truth to the folly, that they wanted a pacey five year deficit reduction cycle and punchy upfront cuts to get there. 

Osborne and Cameron staked their political credibility on this economic prospectus and today the public get to see it was based on a totally false premise; that at a time of global downturn that the private sector could solely pick up the slack and that budgets for school buildings and other key services could just be brutally slashed without impact. That by standing up for millionaires that trickle down economics on its own would work. That by undermining rights in the workplace and making jobs more insecure this would lead to economic empowerment.

Let is go back to that first budget and CSR; Osborne cut the building schools for the future budget which today he will re-announce. Osborne predicted the deficit would be slashed but yet debt is ballooning to unparalled highs. Osborne said we should hold his judgement to account on spending; yet he is still in post after calling it totally wrong; a double-dip caused by Downing Street but which is felt on your street.

The public has no confidence in the economic credibility of the current government

On recent polls Labour is ahead or outpolling on economic credibility despite it being only four years since the worst global economic crisis since the 1930s; the difference to then is that whilst other countries have rejected austerity (like the US and Northern Europe) ours has endorsed a different right wing approach. 

The result is clear; those who invested and planned for growth recovered quicker, those that followed austerity have failed.  

And the reality on the ground is stark; David Cameron and George Osborne’s economic policies are not working: 

Failing on jobs, growth and the deficit: Prices are rising faster than wages, our economy has flatlined for two years and long term unemployment is soaring. This is causing long-term damage to the economy. And because the benefits bill is up and tax revenues are down as a result of this economic failure, borrowing is rising so far this year – meaning the government is failing on the one test they set themselves. Raising taxes and cutting spending too far and too fast has backfired. 

Long-term plan for our economy: Banking reforms are being watered down, they’ve failed to deliver on infrastructure investment to strengthen our economy for the future and business is rapidly losing confidence in the government’s ability to make long-term decisions. 

Standing up for the wrong people: The price of this government’s economic failure is being paid for not by the Carlton Club or Cecil Club elites but by people on middle and low incomes who are being asked to pay more, while millionaires get a tax cut – worth an average of £107,000 for 8,000 people earning over £1 million. 

What Labour have consistently said is we need an economy that grows, where everybody has a stake and where the rewards are fairly shared. 

So these are the tests for today's autumn statement:

We need a plan to create jobs and growth, which are vital to get the deficit down and catch up all the lost ground of the last two years. Labour's five point plan includes using the funds from the 4G auction to build 100,000 affordable homes, bringing forward infrastructure investment, a temporary VAT cut and a bank bonus tax to fund a jobs guarantee for young people.

We need long-term reforms to strengthen our economy and ensure that other countries do not continue to race ahead of us. This should include a British Investment Bank properly backed by the Treasury to boost lending to small and medium sized businesses, a long term plan to rebuild our infrastructure and radical reforms to separate retail and investment banking. 

We need fair action to help people on low and middle incomes with the rising cost of living. That means cancelling the fuel duty rise in January, at least until next April. And it means rethinking the plan to give a tax cut to millionaires on the same day that taxes go up for millions of pensioners.

We need to see a change of course from David Cameron and George Osborne, not more of the same. 

Today is a test for our three local MPs - will they stand up for our area or will they continue to back a totally flawed economic prospectus which as all our residents can see, feel and know has not worked. 

Monday, 3 December 2012

Local Press must be Responsible

As someone who engages with the press I know that the local media do a great job - under difficult and pressured circumstances from people like me sometimes to be fair - to report the news and I know many are respected for their impartiality and ability to reflect both sides of any debate sensibly and rationally.

Reading the editorial today in the Medway Messenger am deeply concerned that local paper is not reflecting, fairly, the public divergence of opinion including residents across Medway. Some of whom believe rightly that Leveson, as an independent judge, came up with some very reasoned and considered proposals.  Proposals which sought redress for the public, and more importantly those who have suffered because of media intrusion.

Whilst many of the public may not have read the 2,000 and odd pages of the report; many trust that Leveson came up with his proposals after sitting through all the evidence presented to him and do believe that it is time for action. 

You may be thinking that a partisan blogger like me would say that wouldn't I because that is the Labour party position; but then a political party incurring the wrath of most of the press is not exactly good politics but there are cases though when a responsible party of government has to put aside and eschew populism and step up.

It is also worth reminding that Leveson was independent of party politics and his conclusions were independent.

The responsibility of a good paper - local or not - is to fairly and rationally consider the proposals and state its position with reason. The local paper has in recent weeks presented news with a clear anti-Leveson slant and not sought to press the public or its readership on its views. 

It has congratulated the powerful who agree with its position whilst seeking little comment, at least locally from civil society and opposition parties, from those that do not. 

It was honest today for the editor to print a clear KM position. It was right because it had been suspected for weeks in the way news had been reported; but its level of vitriol to any who seek any form of underpinning was in my mind over-exaggerated to put it mildly.

With all polling pointing to a clear caucus in favour of independent statutory underpinning – the Messenger are presenting, dangerously for its circulation, good people as extremist parodies and characters. I also suspect the editor has been leaned on by not only industry allies but also his leadership who also pay the bills; but that of course isn't mentioned. Do we really have a free press when press barons have zealous control over editorial positions? Discuss.

Statutory underpinning will not result in state control, and will not end the free press, but will codify the codes of conduct and structures for redress. It has worked without leading to imposition in other countries - many long-standing democracies - that utilize the system. Without underpinning the public know that the system will not change and history will repeat itself as it has done time and time again.

Since 1947, there have been three Royal Commissions, two reports by Sir David Calcutt in the early 1990s and countless select committee reports. On each occasion, the press was exhorted to reform itself. It failed to do so until the last moment, and even then, the reforms were not good enough. The lock in at the Last Chance Saloon has lasted for 65 years.

When Calcutt reported in 1990, it gave the press 18 months to show the new Press Complaints Commission could work. Home Secretary David Waddington promised statutory press complaints commission would be set up if Calcutt’s conditions were not met. But in 1993, when the second Calcutt report said the PCC had failed and a statutory body was needed, the Government did nothing.

I appreciate me penning this piece means I perhaps lose favour with the vested interests but then if elected, I believe people will respect the fact I can step up and independently represent views of the public.

The KM Group has a responsibility to the public to be pluralistic and fair minded. Local coverage of Leveson should not just have been a lobby; and for that it has forfeited trust on the part of its readers and that damages those journalists who do work day-in, day-out in seeking both sides of every story.