My Place

This week’s sees the latest round of scrutiny meetings in Southend-on-Sea. Last night it was Place, a meeting that took just under two hours.

There were no comments about the Monthly Performance Report. As far as the Place Directorate is concerned it is all going well.

I asked a couple of questions regarding Allotments – Future Self-Management. My concerns rested primarily with access to allotment plots – I do not wanted self-management seeing anyone excluded from renting an allotment. After a bit of toing and froing I think I got the assurance I was after in this regard; I was told that the same rules and governance framework would apply under self-governance. I also sought assurance (given) that ownership of sites would remain with the Borough Council.

Cllr Mike Royston (Labour, Westborough) made a very valid point about access to sports facilities under the item Chalkwell Park and Priory Park Tennis Courts. He was concerned that charging for the two parks closest to his residents in Westborough would have a negative impact.

Under the Flood Incident Report – 24th August 2013 the officers referred to it as “extreme weather conditions”; it was also said that they were one in thirty to fifty year incidents. They then went on to mention another three or four such incidents in this year. I, naturally, pointed out that if we are seeing these incidents less than a year apart then they should more accurately be described as a one in one year event. A later explanation used percentages, describing the chances as being at 3% (it was dismissed as a matter of nomenclature) – I think 100% would be more accurate.

I stated that if these events are regular then they cannot be described as extreme. I hoped that this type of language was not being used as an excuse for failure or not doing enough

I also said that planning should now take account of the changes in our climate, and consideration made of draining and run-off issues when considering applications. I referred to the borough seeing more of its area covered by concrete, and to sewers that in many places have not been upgraded since Victorian times.

The minutes of the Chairmen’s Scrutiny Forum was briefly discussed. I wished I had queried the title of this body – I find ‘chair’ or ‘chairperson’ less sexist (especially as one of the chairs is female). On another note, all call-ins were made by Cllrs J I Courtenay and J L Lamb. I thought Group leaders and their deputies were usually credited with call-ins – has something happened to Cllr Ann Holland?

If this is a gateway then I am a Frenchman (si ce est une passerelle alors je suis un Français)

I spy, something beginning with 'G'

I spy, something beginning with ‘G’

To say I am not a fan of what Southend-on-Sea Borough Council has done in creating the Victoria Gateway somewhat understates it. My only crumb of comfort was that it was not the work of the Joint Administration that I find myself part of; it speaks volumes for the ineptitude of the previous Conservative administration.

I have argued that the shared space is dangerous, a view that I still hold. Council officers and Conservative councillors have disagreed with me, and doubtless they will continue to hold a view that is not only at odds with mine, but also defies the thinking of the overwhelming majority of residents I have spoken on the subject with.

At best it is a confusing spot. I was there today, and whilst taking some photos a complete stranger gave me his thoughts, unprompted. The road layout is a dog’s dinner, the largely barren space is owned neither by those of foot or on wheels. It is an ugly concrete wasteland.

The idea was that the A127 junction with the A13, where it ends, would become a window onto central Southend – a gateway to shopping nirvana, the pier, foreshore, and all its bounteous gifts. Those exiting Southend Victoria station would be welcome by the wondrous vista that is Southend’s High Street, drawn to it by the Gateway.

Ah the Gateway. In reality a alley that is largely hidden on first inspection. A wind-tunnel on many occasions, it resembles less a gateway than some concrete kettling device.

The photo here is of this gateway, and I have tried to ensure that I have used one that shows this gateway at its best – photos taken from other angles make the thing a near impossibility to spot. What sort of gateway is it that is so discrete? Of course, you negotiate the shared space, use the pedestrian crossing, and then find yourself heading towards the only available opening – but is this really a gateway? Not in my opinion.

Much like the Queensway it is a half-thought out idea that will doubtless have to have millions spent on it at some point, because at present this useless carbuncle is not fit for purpose.

And when the Seaway Car Park is turned into Southend’s very own Bas Vegas I expect traffic jams to further obscure the view.

Wishing the horse was a camel – Cabinet versus the committee system

It does seem at times that the topics that most engages councillors are those that directly affect the way they do their job. Item 25 on last night’s Full Council agenda was entitled: Possible Changes to the Constitution.

At this point I should issue a spoiler alert; the result was no change – we will maintain the status quo.

It is not often that I find common cause with Nigel Holdcroft, former Conservative leader of Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, but I did find last night’s proceedings odd. The irony here is that the debate boiled down to whether there are some councillors who are more equal than others, and in the debate itself this was a self-evident truth when Group Leaders’ utterances are considered to be more important than the rest of us.

We had a number of contributions, me included, before we concluded with a somewhat farcical (and twice taken) vote. Cllr Moyies evidently has troubled understanding the meaning of ‘or’.

In the vote we saw both UKIP (those that were present) and the Liberal Democrats (including their Cabinet member) voting en bloc to investigate the possibility of moving back to the committee system.

In the end it was a tight vote: 21 in favour of retaining the Cabinet, 19 for the committee system. Two abstained (Cllrs Flewitt and Woodley), and I wonder why. They were elected to make decisions, not sit on fences. The Mayor voted, which was also unsatisfying – I think chairs should only cast in the event of a tie.

The vote was carried by seven of the nine Labour councillors siding with the bulk of the Conservatives and a couple of Independents. I think us and the Tories wanted to maintain the status quo for differing reasons: they liked the model, we did not want valuable money diverted when so many cuts are to be made.

The keen-eyed will note that there were 42 councillors present for the vote, meaning nine were absent. Labour and the Liberal Democrats had a full complement; UKIP had two missing (commented on by Matt Dent here), the Independent Group had three absent, and the Conservatives were down by four. Whilst there will always be the occasional absence, last night’s was the most sparsely attended that I can recollect in my two and a half years as a councillor. It is not just at Full Council where absences occur, many of the committees are seeing gaps. I do not keep a track of who attends what, although I am tempted to begin doing so. It is noticeable that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are ever-present, yet the other groups, especially UKIP and the Tories, are less than assiduous in being present when requested.

Here is (roughly) my contribution to the debate:

When this council voted to broadcast its meetings on the internet I expressed my opposition to this – not on the principle (I am in favour of opening up our democracy) but because in a time of cuts this was a frivolous expense. I felt then that this was essentially a vanity exercise when many vital services were being squeezed.

I am ambivalent about the prospect for a return to the committee system. I have not experienced this system first hand, but my experience of the Cabinet system has not been unfavourable. I am more vexed by decisions made in this place than I am with the mechanics of how those decisions are reached.

We are facing yet more cuts this year, indisputable even if we can haggle over the precise figure. To consider making a change, invisible to all but a tiny minority of the electorate, at times of austerity is to navel gaze. This exercise comes with a cost, and one or more services that we provide will suffer because of it.

It is not a doorstep issue in my ward – residents have far bigger issues to animate them. As to the issue of councillors not doing their jobs that is for the electorate to judge; I only hope that Cllr Terry was not thinking of me when he made this judgement. I do find it ironic that there is a pressure group locally who complain about a lack of democracy – yet are self-appointed unelected spokespeople themselves.

I encourage all to think on this when casting their votes.

Place Scrutiny: health tourism, faith and failing schools

And so, to People Scrutiny Committee, and a full house from the Conservatives (unlike at Place). It began with a plea from the UKIP chair, Cllr Moyies, for brevity and an avoidance of technical terms: sounded like he was admitting that he was not up to the job.

The first question on the item A&E Performance came from Cllr Folkard (Conservative, Chalkwell) who proceeded to give his best UKIP impersonation when asking a number of questions about health tourism. It is tempting to speculate that Cllr Folkard believes that local difficulties are down to foreigners over here, monopolising our germs, etc. I sought some clarification on the issue, as well as making it clear that I believed we had a duty to treat the ill, regardless of their nationality. (I do wonder what sort of message Cllr Folkard intends to send out to the tourists the town aspires to attract.)

Whilst the CQC does keep a track of those in default as regards to payments to the local NHS, it cannot differentiate between those who fall ill whilst here, and those already ill who travel specifically for treatment. I should be noted that Cllr Folkard did not seek clarification on this point – his determination to peddle the latest scare story evidently overriding any attempt at seeking a balanced view.

There are no figures showing how many of Southend’s residents seek treatment whilst abroad. Cllr Crystall (Liberal Democrat, Leigh) said that the board had had sight of the figures on this issue. Cllr Moyies, from the chair, believed these numbers were important (quelle surprise).

Some statistics regarding A&E performance were circulated showing the performance over the last twelve months. It looked dire for the autumn and winter months, which is why Southend University Hospital A&E Departments was, at one point, rated the very worst in the UK. The two representatives could not guarantee that this would not be repeated in the coming months, although they did say that measures had been taken to try to avoid a repeat.

The Outcome of Consultation on the Permanent Expansion of Primary Places in Southend perturbed me. Two faith schools (Sacred Heart Catholic Primary School and St Helen’s Catholic Primary School) are getting public money to fund their expansion. I am opposed to any segregation at any level of education, and this is why I am opposed to this. By all means teach faith (and non-faith), but let’s teach all of our children together. I had an unlikely ally in the guise of Cllr Moyies on this issue.

The item School Organisation Data Supplement 2014 covered a report with all sorts of data within it, except what I think the most important – the effects of poverty. I will separately ask for this data. Whilst I want to see improving schools, it is vital that this reaches all social groups. I am concerned that there is a significant educational underclass in Southend-on-Sea.

I cannot report much from the Schools Progress Report (as it confidential), but I can report the following:

Nearly a quarter (23.4%) of those at a secondary school in the borough attend a school described as inadequate. A further 7.7% attend a school that Ofsted assert requires improvement. This means that nearly a third (31.1%) of all secondary school children in Southend-on-Sea are at a school that is described as below ‘Good’. This is an appalling state of affairs, appalling.

The meeting lasted two and a half hours. This is my version of events, not minutes or a verbatim record. Of course it is biased.

Two crocks at place

Last night was begun the latest round of scrutiny; last night the Jubilee Room was scene to the Place Scrutiny Committee. Here a third of the members of Southend-on-Sea Borough Council debated the latest issues to fall within the remit of the Place Directorate (and for some reason I want to say that with a Dalek voice – hmmm).

I walk (well, hobble) in only to find that my play for the sympathy vote had been comprehensively out-manoeuvred by Cllr Carole Mulroney (Liberal Democrat, Leigh) ; Cllr Mulroney has her left wrist in plaster in what looks like a far more serious injury than mine. (I make that three councillors this year in casts – Cllr Adam Jones (Conservative, St Laurence) had the most serious of the three of us with a broken leg (ankle?).)

The first thing I noted was that the Conservative group was down on numbers, including the vice chair of the committee – making this the first scrutiny I have attended without that role being filled. Aside from a visiting Cllr Courtenay and the chair, the Conservatives present made for a subdued and quiescent lot.

It looked like a slim agenda, but we managed to entertain ourselves for more than two hours.

We discussed the Private Vehicle Crossing Policy. I picked on a couple of points of detail:

Under ‘Minimum Standards to be Met’ was this: A proposed vehicle crossing must not adversely affect the availability of on street parking.

To my mind this means that dropped kerbs (to employ the vernacular) can now only go in where there are double yellow lines. I asked for clarification, which I did not really get. However, I hope this will be considered when the document gets amended.

Under Parking Area Size was this: A car parked in the parking space should not obstruct access to the main door of the dwelling.

This, effectively, means that the parking area must not be too small. I wanted clarification as to who and what access was to be ensured, and how this would be legislated for. I suggested that the car parking bays we install should be used as an indicator of minimum size.

There was a debate on who was to be consulted regarding approval for dropped kerbs, with the suggestion that this be the ward councillors and a responsible officer. The alternative was to use the Traffic and Parking Working Party.

We then moved onto the Low Carbon Energy and Sustainability Strategy 2015-2020. If silence is taken as assent this was unanimously endorsed. The two UKIP members made somewhat contradictory interventions. Cllr James Moyies (West Shoebury) queried the amount of borrowing and the slim returns projected, whereas Cllr Lee Burling (St Laurence) suggested that discounts could be offered to businesses – which would have an impact on revenue.

The consequences of climate change are serious, and to do nothing is at best a gamble, at worst reckless. This report is very welcome, and sets out some exciting ideas as to how the Borough of Southend-on-Sea can meet its obligations regarding reducing its carbon footprint. It looks like the Council is set to join the Climate Local initiative. I hope there will be opportunities afforded to explore ideas around improving and expanding the local public transport network, and possibly entertaining ideas for park and ride. Undoubtedly the proposals for utilising solar power etc will be realised in one form or another.

There was some debate over the potential witnesses for the in-depth scrutiny project (understanding erosion of the foreshore). I have to say that when the Chair suggested he make a decision for the committee on his own, later, I was not impressed. I was actually flabbergasted that he even suggested this, and fortunately so where others. The compromise (fudge) was that a subset of those involved in this project will consult.

Labour aghast at road damage payouts – and promise to work for better roads in future

My latest press release:

Reg Copley and JUlian Ware-Lane discussing pothole problems

Reg Copley and Julian Ware-Lane discussing pothole problems

When it was revealed recently that Southend-on-Sea Borough Council had paid out over £300,000 in compensation because of defects with its poorly maintained road, Reg Copley (Labour’s spokesperson for St Laurence ward) was aghast.This large amount was paid out during the last five full years of the previous Conservative administration.

“This compensation, presumably paid out to recompense for the damage to vehicles caused by Tory neglect of our roads, is money that ultimately comes from the pockets of tax-payers,” says Reg. “One wonders what else this money could have been used for,” he added.

“I suspect that this only reflects the most serious cases – one can imagine many not bothering to claim. As it is it amounts to more than £1000 per week on average, every week of the year.”

Labour’s spokesperson for Transport, Public Protection and Waste, Clr Julian Ware-Lane, has frequently highlighted the poor state of Southend’s roads, a real nuisance for motorists, cyclist, and pedestrians.

Julian said: “This is more financial waste from a Conservative controlled council, at a time when budgets are under pressure. I will work with the new administration to promote the needs of road users.”

Indie contemplations of divorce and new partners will have to be put on hold for another year at least

The Joint Administration is a working relationship based on a desire to take Southend-on-Sea forward, and to provide better leadership than was shown when the Conservatives ruled the roost. As a marriage of convenience it works, but all three partners in the arrangement would prefer to have not had to manage the relationship with their partners; having enough members to go it alone is the aim of all parties after all.

The Independent Group appears to eyeing up other partners already; to continue the marriage allegory – they are considering divorce even whilst still in the honeymoon.

The Independent Group’s electoral pact with UKIP, whilst apparently unofficial, was very much in evidence in recent elections. UKIP are not in the Joint Administration owing to objections by Labour and Liberal Democrats, and the numbers do not add up to an Independent-UKIP only administration.

Yet there clearly is a relationship between Martin Terry’s somewhat disparate band of members, and the quintet led by James Moyies. You cannot help but imagine that should the numbers ever make it possible, Cllr Terry would be proposing to Cllr Moyies whilst bidding adieu to Cllrs Gilbert and Longley. A four-way administration would be unwieldy, and I cannot envisage anyone wishing partnership with UKIP (Independent Group aside).

Currently the Independent Group have thirteen councillors, UKIP five, making a grand total of eighteen. Twenty-six are needed to form an administration with a majority, although being one or two short may make a minority administration feasible (that would depend on the determination of the remaining groups).

There are seventeen wards and the Independents are defending four of them next May, theoretically making thirteen gains possible (UKIP are defending none). Here is a table showing recent elections results, particularly those on or near a General Election – which is the backdrop to next May’s elections. (This year’s and 2011 (when the defending councillors next year were last elected) are also included).

2001 2004 2010 2011 2014 2015
Belfairs Con Con Con Con Con ?
Blenheim Park LD LD LD Con UKIP ?
Chalkwell Con Con Con Con Con ?
Eastwood Park Con Con Con Con Con ?
Kursaal Lab Lab Con Lab UKIP ?
Leigh LD LD LD LD LD ?
Milton Con Con Con Con Lab ?
Prittlewell LD Con LD LD UKIP ?
Shoeburyness Con/Lab Con Con Ind Ind ?
Southchurch Con Con Con Con Ind ?
St Laurence Con Con LD Con UKIP ?
St Luke’s Lab Con Con Ind Ind ?
Thorpe Con Con Ind Ind Ind ?
Victoria Lab Lab Lab Lab Lab ?
West Leigh Con Con Con Con Con ?
West Shoebury Con Con Con Con UKIP ?
Westborough Lab/LD Ind LD Ind Lab ?

Eight wins from thirteen is an unlikely scenario. I think any gains for the Independent Group are improbable, and losses would not surprise me (Prittlewell, Shoeburyness and St Luke’s seem vulnerable to me in a General Election year). UKIP had slim majorities in three wards this year, and this when turnout was low and their supporters most motivated. Their vote will weaken, and increased turnout (probably double what it was in May) makes success for them anywhere improbable – and certainly the likelihood of eight gains appears almost impossible.

Like it or not, Cllr Martin Terry, it looks like you might be stuck with Labour and the Liberal Democrats for a couple of years at least.


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