Friday, 19 July 2013

Keogh Review on Medway Maritime

The NHS was founded sixty-five years ago by a Labour Government that recognised Britain needed a health service that was available to everyone according to their need and regardless of their ability to pay. 

It is one of Britain’s, and Labour’s, proudest achievements but the NHS has come under criticism lately. Things do go wrong, and poor care needs to be exposed and rooted out.

The recent Keogh review contained challenging but accurate picture of care standards and failings at the 14 trusts including Medway Maritime. We must, however, remember that the problems identified in these hospitals are not typical of the NHS or of the care given by NHS staff. We should seek to learn from this report and not use it to tarnish the many doctors, nurses and NHS staff who look after us in our NHS.

We must however challenge the problems identified in Medway Maritime. As a Councillor I have repeatedly raised at Full Council with senior Conservative Councillors to get a grip on public health which is worryingly ignored in Gun Wharf despite our woeful indicators. A recent Health Audit for Medway placed us in the worst indicator in the South East region and the problem is worsening because policy makers ignore the policy solutions which can prevent health problems.  

Having local politicians who ignore public health is a concern because as the KM said today; Medway A&E has significantly worsened since 2010 with it now being the worst in waiting times in the country; we have had the botched closure of the NHS Direct in Chatham Dockyard and real concerns around the merger with nearby hospitals. This added with rising MRSA, C Difficile infection rates, falling worker satisfaction levels and cuts to staff. I dont trust the Conservative Party has the right instincts to act on this problem.  

Politicians should be wary but the KM editorial is right; we need a tangible timetable for improvements from the government which does not involve privatising services by the back door; and yes, we need MPs who will focus on it as a priority.

The vast majority of doctors and nurses working in the NHS perform to a very high standard day in, day out, but everyone in the country will be worried that some hospitals are letting people down. Sir Bruce Keogh’s excellent and important report found “frequent examples of inadequate numbers of nursing staff”. It is important to remember that since the election, the NHS has lost over 4000 nurses.

All hospitals face the challenge of dealing with more and more elderly patients with complex health problems, who can’t be discharged safely into an overstretched social care system which has been cut by £1.8 billion since the election – one of the causes of this winter’s A&E crisis.

To protect the NHS from the immediate crisis, Labour would use the ‘underspends’ in the NHS budget to put an extra billion pounds into social care over each of the next two years. This extra investment comes from the money the Chancellor could have spent on the NHS but chose not to and would relieve the pressure on A&Es as well as helping more elderly people stay healthy and independent in their own homes.

We also need to safeguard the NHS for the future. Labour has put forward bold proposals for a genuinely integrated NHS and social care system, bringing together physical health, mental health and social care into a single service to meet all of our care needs. Our Councillor's locally are pushing on public health issues from smoking cessation to obesity; we support measures to introduce minimum alcohol pricing. All of these opposed by the Medway Conservative Group. 

The NHS’s 65th birthday is an opportunity to celebrate, but if we’re going to commemorate future milestones then we need to make sure our NHS is strengthened and protected.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Airport threat isn't trivial; it is deadly.

The news announced by Boris Johnson over the weekend that he has dropped the £80bn Island Airport proposal does not come as a surprise to me and nor I suspect to key but apparently ‘trivial’ opposition campaigners.

The Mayoral plan has been pretty clear since the original proposal was mooted in 2008 and more importantly not rubbished by David Cameron. This early history is important because as time has progressed plans have become more developed; the tempo for Cameron obfuscation on this from day one has been a long and protracted process; pre-general election he was always able to dither and laugh off Boris Johnson, but now it all looks hollow. It is no surprise we are in an official government consultation on aviation. No one is laughing and not one Medway MP has threatened to resign.

The anger locally isn’t just how we ended up here. A slow, protracted but clear process of Tory movement and a community that has responded to the Tory threats; not trivial but brave. A community angered by how a debate about an Island slipped onto an on-site solution post the General Election; at which it was explicitly stated that proposals on Grain would not be considered to campaigners and at Cameron Direct events. The Conservative Party then appointed Justine Greening - a ‘convenient’ Heathrow opponent - and undertook a u-turn to consider options. The ratchet change on an airport in North Kent is visible to those who have watched this from Boris first mooting in 2007/08. I have always feared the Island solution was only ever to get a debate on aviation in North Kent by pushing a high-cost but unfeasible proposal; when the Grain options first appeared in the ‘Tory’ Sunday paper of choice (Sunday Times) it was shocking insomuch obvious they would do this. The Tories needed a proxy to start an aviation debate; the right wing media aided and abetted.

The 2012 blow-back from Kent (which had local Council elections in May 2013), Liberal Democrat Parliamentary opposition, poor performance of Greening and the political realities of coalition required government to kick this into the long grass; but the threat always remained despite pundits watching Boris Johnson for every whimper and nuance. We know that several core members of the Tory government are in favour; the former guru Hilton and Osborne are key names in support it is alleged. Boris has been a distraction from government moves; a useful distraction.

Tories locally are being disingenuous about how we have ended up here. London Tories think we are trivial perhaps because those in Medway were in abject denial for several years; many thought it wasn’t a serious proposal; and that delay I believe has let down our residents. They could have done more but didn’t.  There is a long history on this blog going back almost five years of how Tories ignored the threat until Labour started a major leaflet drive on the Peninsula. Within a month the tempo of the Tory campaign had changed.

The changing goal-posts were seen by Labour as the threat it was which is why you can go back to 2009/2010 to see questions and motions tabled for action; all ignored or voted against. Labour in 2012 called for an immediate cross-party borough referendum but was rubbished; the idea however remains a strong and reasonable one. The Tories claimed it would lead to a ‘Yes’ outcome despite all polling suggesting a massive majority against a mega-airport. It is now sadly true that the longer the Tories have opposed the tighter the outcome; which is why I am angry for Isle of Grain residents that it was not pursued with haste. The cost argument was never justifiable if the ballot were held on same day as other elections.

From opposing a borough referendum at a time when a clear majority opposed any Estuary Airport, to being outflanked by Conservative-controlled authorities in West London who then took up the idea themselves, and sought and now secured a clear democratic mandate to oppose Heathrow expansion.  Such a terrible idea that we see its widespread use across other local authorities.

The key point for those on Grain is that if the government was to withdraw from Heathrow in 2015 no one can claim it was not at the express wishes of the people who were balloted; meanwhile and crucially Medway sits in a sea of uncertainty. If the government does go ahead with Heathrow the impact is conversely more damaging; a loss of one high-profile MP and angry residents who specifically opposed expansion in a ballot.  The inaction on a verifiable referendum is significantly more damaging then people are aware; the lack of any direct say by people in Medway either way means something in Westminster to those who pull the real decision strings. The ballot on the Peninsula is unverifiable because it was not held in a democratic way.

My real fear is that residents are being let down because Conservatives whose primal fear is to lose in 2015 rather than to protect our towns. The simple truth is that one backbench MP is largely an irrelevance; campaign efforts, though high profile, can be dismissed by government because the vote is not verifiable. Poster campaigns are visible and welcome but only if the outcome is measurable in terms of influence in Westminster. I salute the efforts of Councillors – many Labour colleagues - to work the community on this issue but my overarching fear is that the current engagement strategy from Tories is piecemeal without a mandate from the people we serve across the entire area. This mandate has to be above-and-beyond simply electing a Tory administration in 2011 where the main local issues on the ballot paper were not airport related.

This blog is written for today but in two years time the day of reckoning will come. Should the Estuary Airport be the accepted solution and the people have elected a Conservative majority government then posterity will judge whether more could have been done. Folly to those that vote for the government.

The community on the Grain Peninsula should consider selecting candidates expressly opposed to the Estuary Airport in 2015 and run them against the current Conservative ticket for the Council. Cameron needs to be sent a message that his de-facto Party representatives on the ground will not be rewarded; imagine the message it would send if Conservatives were to win in 2015 in wards where his party has spent years threatening. It would send a message to Number 10.

The stakes could not be higher; the prospect of an airport will change Medway for decades should it happen; the time to act on a ballot is slowly slipping. Medway residents are not a ‘trivial’ concern; it is a time they were given a say.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Rochester Airport a visitor centre?

The Tory group has heavily lent on the historic significance of spending £5m of hard-earned tax-payers money on a primarily 'recreational' Rochester Airport. 

One of the key lines is the successful heritage and site as a potential tourist centre for visitors so requiring significant improvements.

One quick google however reveals that the Council has barely advertised the airport as an apparent centre for tourism or heritage visits previously and nor is it on established tourist routes. Nor has the Council made an major effort to advertise the airport open days in previous years when compared with other major tourist attractions.

The airport does not feature on the Blessed bus tour route which links in with the core tourist centres; [perhaps because residents would see the number of 'To Let' signs undermining the economic demand argument positioned in the Tory draft strategy document]

If you are going to justify tax-payers pounds on the benefit to heritage it surely would be sensible to have undertaken analysis on potential footfall to any new heritage centre. Surely some scenario testing future revenues to be generated from improvement or visit to the site. No scenario testing on revenue projection or tourist/visitor footfall has been undertaken.

The point is that with the Council suffering an unprecedented level of cuts from government the level of spend here is simply not justifiable on this poorly written draft document whose main claims don't stand up.

Residents have seen time and again Tory projects which have ended up overpriced or overspun; if good intention could deliver on regeneration we would have Rochester Riverside developed by now. Chatham would be the hub of Medway and would be booming; instead the hot air has resulted in huge spends of public money. 

If you are going to justify spend on historic heritage and public interest it would be useful to see what the reality of current interest is. 

Putting that aside; the improvements to the heritage part of the site do not actually cost that much; the primary subsidy remains that of spending on modern facilities for recreational fliers. 

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Rochester Airport Park; Units to Let

A very warm weekend undertaking a community petition in Lordswood but have taken a break to watch the Murray match.

On the way back from Lordswood I drove past the Rochester Airport Business Estate that is, according to reports, seeing a 'great amount' of interest to locate Aviation aligned business. 

In addition; I took a glance across the fences into what is the current Rochester Airport. 

A few things stood out: 

Not one notice or welcome paying reference to any history of the site at all which is so heavily lent upon as the reason for investment on the airport site and in the Tory press release. For an organisation so emphatic about the heritage of the site and investment to modernise you could be forgiven for thinking they didnt want lots of visitors.

The other noticeable point were the numbers of 'To Let' signs highlighting what the glib Tory spin cant. The Business Estate clearly isnt performing with the existing number of units; the spend of £5m of taxpayers money of additional units next to a non-commercial airport next door will change what? 

For Let Signs on main road situated next to the main entrance

Former Comet site. Empty.

 Commercial premises sign; inside the estate proper.

Another factory empty

The Tories can pay taxpayers pounds to commission expensive outfits to write favourable papers all they want on this (and they did the same on the Bus Station and Brook too); but anyone with a drivers licence and an iota of common sense can take a look around the site and note the number of unit empty signs. 

Even if there was an argument for £5m investment; and there is no doubt the site does need infrastructure improvements; it is clear this should be spent solely on the business park not used to subsidise a primarily recreational persuit. 

Friday, 5 July 2013

Would you spend £5m of taxpayer money?

Looks like someone has been reading my blog on the Rochester Airport, but not unsurprisingly dealt with the substantive points so let me make them clearer.

A five page draft proposal which still does not add up; unless we can get clarity on some key issues.

Can I point out to my right wing readers that this is a 'draft' report which means people are supposed to scrutinise and assess the validity or otherwise of consultation responses. 

Putting that aside; as the report currently stands; my former post stands but I now position my concerns into bullet points:

  • The report (Appendix 1) clearly indicates the airport will retain a primarily recreational usage. This is not therefore by definition an investment which has a ROI on the airport itself; merely using the business revenues generated from the planned business park to fund the recreational airport improvements. Why should the business park investment (some £5m investment) also fund improvements to a non-commercial airport? Why should the money from this go to support what is a recreational pursuit?
  • The report cites a ‘great interest’ in this proposal from business; Whom? A reader cant see in the report any named major business expressing a guaranteed interest in the expanded business park? 
  • Does the spend on the airport improvements primarily benefit existing but 'non-historical' recreational flyers? Should public money be spent on supporting historical preservation at this scale of millions when rate payers are suffering cuts to essiential frontline services (e.g. Sure Start / Roads)?
  • The long term financial viability of the airport as a commercial hub given the new runway does not make it more commercial. Do aviation businesses (again unnamed) wish to relocate to a centre with a non-commercial runway for cargo? What is the statistical and real evidence base for this?
  • What is the current occupancy rate on the current Rochester business park adjacent to the airport? What are the current business rental rates and how will expansion impact local business already operating close to this site? Again no content in the report
  • A statistic of 1,000 jobs has been cited; presumably based on office space vacancy rather than actual business interest? Can this be clarified?
  • Is it really honest to call the fund the 'South Medway Development Fund' when it is actually fully Medway Council taxpayer funded from reserves and given it will only benefit South Rochester?

None of these questions have been answered sufficiently in the report or by the subsequent press statement

£5m could be spent investing in Chatham town centre; or Rochester Riverside or modernising existing infrastructure in Strood at the Medway City Estate. It could be used to cut taxes on thousands of existing small businesses struggling in the current climate. Is this really the most cost-effective proposition? What makes this business case compelling?

This is a significant sum of public money and its clear the phyiscal infrastructure beneficiaries are not the majority of residents, but those with an active and valid recreational interest. 

No one would deny investing £5m in securing jobs is right; the point is whether this scheme is the best Return on Investment for our taxpayers £5m; it self-evidently isn’t on this report.

The report itself is in-substantive and poorly written; the appendix summary  vague. It really is a weak business argument being used to justify quite extensive and expensive groundworks (which are ironically detailed and mapped). 

The Tory press statement clearly ignores the fact that people have simply lost confidence in the ability of the Authority to run major programmes; which means we need more facts before we blindly agree to spending this sum of money. 

How many white elephants with blue rosettes have been blown up by the Tory administration in glib PR and glossy leaflets to be blown away by the headwinds of reality and scrutiny? 

I have every support for those of the Medway Aircraft Preservation Society and those that use the site but the clue is in the statement on whether this is a business case

Taxpayers want to know that with very limited finances; services creaking; suggestions of taxes rising; and potholed roads encroaching; this type of financial spend is reviewed. The spend in the report is not ostensibly used to fund historical preservation anyway; its going into mainly hangers and runways for current modern planes.
If the airport were a valid commercial enterprise I could see the argument for using the investment return from the land being sold off to invest in the airport. 

I waited to read the report before jumping to this conclusion but it is too poorly written for me to come to any other conclusion that in its current state I could not on good faith see it pass. When Sure Starts are being slashed; roads in my ward are potholed and we are justifying cuts to services and staff in the Council I cant look people in the face and say this is the best investment for the taxpayer. 

Rochester Airport is a recreational airport and that means quite simply that lots and lots of public money is being used to subsidise its improvement. In these times of austerity when government is cutting local Council budgets we need to prioritise spending to the best business case; and this isn’t it.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

£5m Tory bet on recreational Rochester Airport

Many of my regular readers will be numb by now at the staggering level of fiscal incompetence that we witness almost weekly from the Conservatives in Gun Wharf

Last week we had the latest fiasco; the £27m botched Planning Strategy which will cost £100 for every man, woman and child in Medway. Add this into the KM stories on the Chatham Bus Station fiasco and the flawed one-way system flow in Chatham and a theme comes through in just 10 working days of news. We have a cabinet that simply does not challenge officers to the appropriate level in Gun Wharf; it is an incapable and incompetent administration led by a weak and increasingly feeble leadership. Tories incapable of managing a crisp packet opening without a fiasco, let alone a major multi-million pound project.

The Tory Cabinet will be discussing the airport next Tuesday and a number of major questions are arising about whether £5m of public money is being spent well. The report is worryingly vague. 

I blogged on this before when the Council rushed out the announcement on improvements to this airport without any notice to anyone (around Christmas holidays last year). Quickly put out after was an overtly partisan Rochester Airport update leaflet refusing to acknowledge it was effectively a u-turn on the cast-iron pledge they made to the electorate pre-2003 that none of the current Rochester Airport site would be touched or developed.  That was the same election incidentally they claimed the Conservative Party would never build an airport on the Hoo Peninsula.

The story that local Conservatives have spun a yarn on Rochester airport is not surprising; some Tory Councillors still feel the bus station was a model of good governance (no joke they really do)... and the line is that times have changed. And to that end they certainly have; developing and selling a site at the trough of the commercial market now compared a site with real development potential in the late 1990s / early 2000s. Managing the taxpayer £ coming second again.

The content though on this Rochester Airport report should worry any sane and rational individual looking to invest £5m of public money. Rochester Airport is  according to the report ostensibly a recreational airport; it has limited to negligible major commercial or cargo use and it is a hobby-horse for a small number of enthusiasts. 

Now I have no problem with enthusiasts lobbying for the best for them and I salute them for the efforts; my job however as an opposition Councillor to scrutinise £5m of Medway taxpayers spend and highlight whether I believe it is on an economically flawed proposal; and where the limited potential upside is not going to residents but on those with a hobby.

Many of our residents are driving on potholed roads; having to stomach cuts to Sure Start budgets or a rising local business tax burden to operate a business. We have terrible health inequalities and our Care Homes are being hived off to the Private sector because we have, apparently, no money left.

Except we now do. 

When it comes to finding £5m for an airport and its surroundings however; money can be found almost without question. To say it smells rotten would be remiss; the money is going into a cleverly devised fund called the South Medway Development Fund. It sounds impressive until you note they money only goes into the airport and surrounding site... more South Rochester perhaps.

Taxpayers money will be used to fund these improvements for the primarily recreational airport (Airport Strategy Document; Appendix)

And what do residents get out of the investment; well less visibility over an Airport which is likely to be off-limits to anyone without the money for a plane or a licence to fly one. The users however of this recreational airport will be getting new facilities...

Perhaps though some jobs? Taking out the Return on Investment on this £5m on an airport with limited commercial scope; I cant see how any major commercial or avionics company would want to be sited near it. Why would you if you couldnt fly key materials?

And is there a demand for commercial premises surrounding the site at present? No there is not; I can merely point to anyone who has driven up the Maidstone Road and you can immediately tell there are a significant number of empty premises (including last timed I checked the former Comet).

The last major commercial operator for Rochester airport pulled out a decade ago (Marconi) and BAE Systems as I understand does not even use the airport for commercial use. There is limited demand as I understand for any expansion of commercial premises from existing operators despite the clever spin in the consultation document about 'spin off' companies from BAE. The claims made were so utterly vague about 'potential' interest they were meaningless.

I'm always suspicious when someone claims a 'great deal' of interest before even a plan has been submitted. I would be very interested to see if the Council has actual tangible names of major business who would be willing to commit to investment. Enquiries are not the same as active interest. This statement is far too vague to be acceptable; I believe it deliberately so. 

Let us suppose however there is an active business interest in moving onto the site; the money from the resultant sale of Council land should then go into improving residential roads and cutting taxes on existing small business in the towns. People rightly will want to choose the best course for this.

The only business that will certainly benefit though is that of the Coffee Shop which has been planned into the proposal. Nice to see someone has the priorities... 

I believe this is another dodgy programme by a Conservative party which is not acting in the public interest. It is almost as if the lessons over the Medway Tunnel, Chatham Bus Staton, Aveling & Porter (yes its still a car park) and the Brook would have been learnt. Instead we have small business already struggling in Medway and Tories spending millions on hair-brained schemes which I believe of limited value to the taxpayer.

You can read the full Cabinet report here; it is a scary read for what will be £5m spend of public money.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Medway Queen highlights community coming together

Some really positive news for the Medway Queen Pub in Luton and Wayfield.

A real community effort and the first 'Community Right to Bid' in Medway as a result. Whilst the community is leading the efforts the ward Councillors have been providing support and advice. 

This is exactly what good local Council members can do when they work with local residents.

Medway Armed Forces Day

A few snaps below from Medway Armed Forces Day which was held on Saturday 29th June.

The day was to celebrate the work of our armed forces but also for families to have fun.