Thursday, 31 October 2013

Recording Council Meetings

The government has announced that it will be creating a new law that will allow residents, bloggers and journalists to report, blog, tweet and film council meetings in England. 

This follows previous attempts by the Department for Communities and Local Government to force councils to be more transparent, after a string of councils have continued to prevent individuals from recording council meetings on health and safety and legal grounds. 

We have history locally here; within the last month the ruling Conservative Group refused a member of the public to record the proceedings of an Overview & Scrutiny meeting on Thursday 3rd October (See Point 436) on the £4.4m spend of taxpayers money on the Rochester Airport. This type of casual disregard for the public is all to common place.

Public access to meetings is a key part of holding local councils and public bodies to account and it’s wholly wrong for people not being able to record or film in public meetings for spurious legal reasons. 

Whether through Freedom of Information law, filming council meetings or publishing data, transparency is a critical check on those in power and an essential part of defending our liberties.

If Tory Councillors in our area wont move on an issue of common sense we need laws to protect the public interest.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Council Car Fleet needs review

A responsible opposition also serves to highlight where we would save money and protect the public pound.  

A cost cutting measure that I believe should and could be looked at quickly concerns the current and extensive Tory Council car fleet (see below).

I believe Medway could significantly reduce the cost of staff transport that may result in a substantial saving for taxpayers.

Medway has a significant number and combination of lease vehicles provided to staff and employee-owned vehicles. This combination not only means that the Council is adding significantly to local congestion and requiring additional parking (and it has several staff car parks that are in city centre areas) it is also blighted by the fact that the Council has no real understanding of what state all these vehicles are in as far as I can understand.

Identifying the problem is one thing, but dealing with the issue is an entirely different matter and that is where you can learn from best practice.

By using local transport and having access to the cars when they actually need them, rather than frittering money away on an expensive fleet (including maintenance, fuel and car parking space) the council has reported considerable savings.

I have since tried to chase officers of our Council on the cost of the car fleet and have been met by static and complaints it would take too long to compile the information. A worrying fact given one would assume the maintenance and cost of transport with vehicles is usually expensed on separate accounts in many organisations.

This is not to say that all vehicles would be managed in this way; but a certain number could be through use of companies like ZipCar. I appreciate this may take some time given legacy arrangements but over the medium-long term having fewer assets that depreciate in value would be helpful to the public purse.

I will be raising this at audit committee soon. 

Tory Council Tax Rise on cards

Despite the warm words in today’s paper from the Medway Tories on efficiency and effectiveness there is still far too much waste and casual disregard for the public pound. 

It has all but been confirmed that the Medway Conservative Party will increase Council Tax on hardworking residents next Spring.

The record of a 33% increase in Council Tax over a decade is highly likely to continue. The one consolation is that the Labour legacy of the lowest Council Tax in Kent will remain.

When it comes to managing the finances this Council has a lamentable track record and MPs that simply aren't willing or able to hold them to account. 

Remember the Local Budget this year that simply didn’t add up; the botched Chatham bus station; the multi-million pound Stoke ‘Bridge-to-nowhere’; the Strood Civic Centre car park; the ‘dodgy’ Medway Tunnel and the countless other overspends over the last 10 years. Remember also this is the same Tory Council that has refused to cut down the Pravda sheet paper roll, or look at the CCTV cars despite Eric Pickles wide-fingered lamentations. The same Tories that promised not to scrap weekly bin collections in 2007 are now claiming, audaciously, to have re-introduced weekly collections on every tweet from the Council e-media team in 2013. 

This is a two-faced and rotten Conservative Council that is happier fiddling with press releases on the Bedroom Tax then serving the most vulnerable residents. The record on education is woeful; our local NHS is under special measures; a Council that talks about diversity but whose administration oppose Equal Marriage proposals. The same Medway Tories that last week scoffed and cheered at the profit some members made out of under-valued Royal Mail shares; but shed not one whimper of sympathy for the lowest paid for a Living Wage.

The wrong values that are corrosive and a Council that doesn’t listen and costs us all in the pocket.

Liberal Democrat bloggers and members have a simple choice; you can bend over backwards to support Tory MPs if you so choose but it is the residents they and you purport to serve that are being so callously let down. Liberal Democrat voters have already made the move long ago. 

These are Tories that don't listen to residents; Sure Start users in Chatham;  elderly residents on Nelson Terrace in Luton; the residents concerned about the airfield in Rochester South and Horsted and the thousands stuck in Chatham traffic jams every weekday and weekend. The list goes on and on, week after week; Chatham high-street small business traders and teaching assistants just in the last six months.

From over-zealous and mis-budgeted parking charges, ‘Medway Matter’ Pravda sheets, CCTV 'Vulture' cars, Mayoral fine-fingered food frippery and now Council Tax rises. This is just the recent news items.

All Council’s borrow but it is what they spend it on that marks the difference; the Tories would rather spend £4.4m of public cash to fund a very publicly decried tarmac runway on the Rochester airfield to help fyling elites.

If you are going to attack Labour to borrow relatively small and costed sums; don’t have copious multi-million pound projects botched or mired in controversy hovering over like a foul smog-like legacy.  Don’t have a local development framework bogged down so far in bureaucratic bungling it serves as a running joke.

Labour would rather help small business and Sure Starts not airfield flyers. Labour would rather spend money on low paid cleaning staff and teaching assistants for struggling schools, and not wine and ginger beer for Mayoral Tea-party Tories. Labour would rather improve our residential roads then see the introduction of a Medway tunnel tax that will soon have to take its toll from Medway residential road budgets when the RBT grant runs dry.

The left does believe that the state can do positive and empowering things; but it also believes that institutional Conservatism and outdated local government structures need to be reformed. 

The last Labour Council abolished several layers of Local Government in Medway that created the Unitary Authority; the legacy was low Council Tax for all. A similar and brave position needs to be taken on reforming and recasting how the Council works with the public pound after 2015; when the legacy from this incompetent shambles is a black-hole.

A Council Tax rise is now on the cards for 2013/14; but make no mistake this Council; its political leadership; and its institutionally conservative structures are not spending your money wisely, and are certainly not listening to you about how to spend it. 

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Fly-tipping challenge

One of the five big complaints I get raised as ward Councillor in an inner urban ward is that of fly tipping in alleys, near roads and outside private properties.

It is a scourge that local Councillors are regularly told is getting worse across the country; yet actually that may not quite be the truth.

A study has found that Southampton remains the place worst affected by fly tipping in the South East but Medway has shown the largest increase in incidents since 2010/11, contrary in fact, to the trends seen elsewhere. 

I have compiled the data from the ever exciting DEFRA stats on Local Authority fly tipping (2012/13) vs the same stats in 2010/11

  • First - Southampton - 8,708 incidents (10/11) to 7,819 incidents (12/13) - FALL 
  • Second - Milton Keynes 5,321 incidents to 3,531 incidents (12/13) - FALL 
  • Third - Medway 3,130 incidents to 4,576 (12/13) - RISE 
  • Fourth - Basingstoke & Deane 2,879 incidents to 2,198 (12/13) - FALL 
  • Fifth - Hastings 2,873 (10/11) incidents to 3,464 (12/13) - RISE 
  • Sixth - Brighton and Hove 2,227 (10/11) incidents to 2,076 (12/13) - FALL 
  • Seventh - Reading 2,179 (10/11) incidents to 2,139 (12/13) - STATIC 
  • Eighth - Swale 1,918 (10/11) incidents to 1,925 (12/13) - STATIC 
  • Ninth - Test Valley 1,881 (10/11) incidents to 785 (12/13) - FALL 
  • Tenth - Dartford 1,777 (10/11) incidents to 1,304 (12/13) - FALL 

It seems very odd that Medway has seen a marked increase in flytipping reporting whilst other areas have seen a notable fall.  

I will be challenging this in more detail

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Zero Hour Shame

We need real action to end exploitive zero-hours contracts and rising insecurity in the workplace Families in Medway, Aylesford and across the country are facing the greatest cost of living crisis in a generation. 

Prices are increasing, wages are falling and for many hard-working people there is rising insecurity in the workplace. One of the worst examples of this is the exploitive use of zero-hours contracts. I’ve spoken to many people in Medway and Aylesford who are employed on zero-hours contracts and they’ve told me of the struggle they and their families face on a daily basis. 

According to recent estimates there could be as many as 1 million workers employed on zero-hours contracts - with a big increase since the Tory-led government took office - and they are now used in one in five workplaces. 

The Tory-led government has failed to act on zero-hours contracts. It emerged that a ‘review’ of the issue initiated by Business Secretary Vince Cable earlier this year consisted of three officials spending part of their time “speaking informally” with stakeholders. 

Zero-hours contracts mean insecurity and stress for too many families in Medway and Aylesford. We can’t let this continue, which is why I have campaigned and exposed the extent of contracts used by Medway Council. Assuming 11% of the Medway workforce is on zero-hour contracts this means many thousands could be in insecure work arrangements.

The Tory-led government has failed to act. According to recent estimates there could be as many as 1 million workers employed on zero-hours contracts - with a spike since the Tory-led government took office - and they are now used in one in five workplaces.

A Labour Government would ban employers from insisting zero-hours workers be available even when there is no guarantee of any work, stop zero-hours contracts that require workers to work exclusively for one business and end the misuse of zero-hours contracts where employees are in practice working regular hours over a sustained period. 

Both employers and employees need flexibility but this shouldn’t mean people in Medway and Aylesford lacking job security and having to be flexible about whether or not they can afford the weekly shop. We’ve got to put a stop to it and that is what Labour is determined to do. 

Hard-working people should feel confident and secure at work; ending the exploitive use of zero-hours contracts is an integral part of achieving this.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Parking Fines

As a backbench Councillor, and resident, I have written in detail about the Council CCTV cars and my case that our Conservative administration is being over zealous when it comes to raising money from parking fines.

Several months ago I read with concern a report that highlighted that Kent and Medway were the second highest issuer of PCNs in the country. From this I placed a members item into Medway Council to review the source of fines and for this to be reported.

The above figures highlight the level of operation under which are Conservative Council operate and a number of things stand out:

i) Overall PCN issuance in real terms
ii) The revenue from the CCTV cars has decreased over a five year operation 
iii) The revenue from fines at bus stations has increased over a five year operation 

I have since requested further information on this:

i) Overal PCN issuance in real terms

The number of total PCNs issued by Medway Council has increased dramatically over the last five years. From approximate 47,500 issued in 2008/2009 to some 61,500 in 2012/13. That is an increase of 30% on figures from 2008/2009. 

ii) CCTV Cars

The Conservative administration has been spinning to the media that there is significant demand for the vehicles and that they primarily operate outside schools. Yet when challenged on this the number of requests was below 500 and the majority were institutional requests and not those made by residents. When probed further on the number of tickets issued outside schools officers could not supply details; despite the fact the administration used this as justification for the cars in the first place.

The cars operate 7 days a week for 52 weeks a year or 365 days. Schools operate for 35 weeks a year for 5 days a week and closing and opening times last for two hours a day.  You can see immediately how the Tory spin falls apart; it was most interesting given media briefing that officers could not provide month P&L statistics. I will wait and see...

Officers have been tasked with coming back with a monthly revenue breakdown and the proper stats on those fined near schools. If evidence does not exist than it is very odd the administration portfolio holders are briefing it to the media blindly; but then Tory portfolio holders barely questioning lines is not uncommon.

The profitability of the car is also falling. Given the costs of the car over its period of operation were some £620,000 this can be broken down into annual costs of either £124,000 per annum (5 years) or £103,000 per annum (6 years) based on averaging out costs from Council Press statements. The car made a profit of £134,000 last year not taking into account costs; at best this car is now close to break even. 

It is for this reason I have called on the cars to be scrapped; they are a massive reputation liability and they do immense damage to the PR of the Council. If they are not operating outside schools as is claimed they serve little purpose with the damage to the Council as a clear result. 

iii) Bus Lane Fines

Almost converse to the fall in fines from the CCTV car has come the rise in fines from bus lanes

The massive increase has ostensibly come from the Chatham 'Dynamic' bus facility that was botched from inception to completion by the Conservatives and that cost the taxpayers millions of pounds to build; and whose costs have never truly been totally pinned down.

Residents will remember the CCTV cars operated outside of the bus station until the media uncovered this.

The Council has made recent attempts to change the lay-out at the bus station but it is clear from these figures that huge sums of cash have been raised from this source. 

I will continue to work on this but from these figures it is clear huge sums of cash have been raised as a result of the Chatham Bus Station either directly or indirectly from CCTV car fines, or indeed now fixed fines. 

Given this bus station has been an unmitigated disaster its legacy isnt just the over budget capital spend but also its sting on residents.

Snow Angel Scheme

Part of being an elected Councillor is to lobby and push the administration on ideas that could help residents.

Whilst a lot of residents rightly focus on the disagreements between the administration and opposition there is more often agreement about how we can challenge problems; it is a pity that these topics are never really covered in detail but then arguments tend to lead to more paper sales.

One such initiative is that of Snow Angels and Wardens that I am pushing strongly at present. 

A scheme that has been trailed and rolled-out across a number of local authority areas; from Telford & Wrekin, Portsmouth, Lambeth and York to name but a few. From Labour to Conservatives the idea is a good one and deserves to be considered.

The initiative is extremely simple in that the Council or its contractor would supply a number of volunteers with snow spades, high-viz vests and grit to clear pathways in their local community during periods of snowfall or ice.

The cost of the initiative is not significant and can be fully matched by existing revenue budgets for snow contingencies. In many areas with larger rural communities the cost has been supported by contractors out of existing budgets.

The initiative I believe would be very popular in communities with established engagement and in rural areas. Many Parish Councils in other areas of the country have led on this programme.

The government guidance on resident led clearance of snow is clear despite the myths on health & safety.  The government guidance  ('the Snow Code') to local authorities makes clear residents can clear stretches of path and encourages them to do so. Across rural areas many residents and Councillors have taken it upon themselves to do so anyway during periods of extreme weather.

I have submitted this initiative to the Regeneration Overview & Scrutiny Committee as a work programme item for the next meeting and have written to senior decision makers to look at this idea before the onset of winter.