A look at the Tories in opposition

This week has given us an opportunity to see how Southend’s Tories are shaping up in Opposition. It is early days, yet some trends are already developing. The most obvious is just how isolated the Tories are, and how crushing the defeats of recent years have been.

They decided to go for a named vote in yesterday’s Full Council, which served only to show just how big a job they have to get anywhere near power in the next few years (they lost this 15 – 28). Nominally there are two opposition parties in Southend-on-Sea, but UKIP are developing a tendency to vote with the Joint Administration.

The Conservatives have nineteen councillors at the moment, and I think that there is still some way to go in their retreat. They have a very fragile hold on some wards in the east of the borough, and can only claim a clean sweep in just three wards (Chalkwell, Eastwood Park and West Leigh). It was telling that they were overlooked by the Mayor on occasion as most of the business was being undertaken on ‘our’ side of the chamber.

Former portfolio holders are showing some mettle at the moment and some intelligent questioning is coming from them. When they stick to the detail they are worth listening to, but some cannot resist grandstanding, and giving every appearance of thinking the electorate wrong and they were right. If I can offer any advice I suggest a little humility should be practised.

Cllr James Courtenay is intent on rescuing his reputation, somehow believing that we will all suddenly believe in the reverse of what the evidence has shown us in recent years. This is not going to happen, and if he continues to attempt this hopeless salvage operation he will only make himself look ridiculous. Cllr Lamb put in a measured performance, as did others. Some have given the impression this week of jostling for position in an anticipated leadership contest, although this may be my fevered imagination.

It is no good complaining about the cost of reviews and then in the next breath attempting to trap the Joint Administration into committing money elsewhere. Cllr Flewitt’s somewhat lacklustre plea for wider consultation, for instance, deserves an explanation about its funding just as much as any second look at flood defences, etc.

I am also minded to remind those who once reigned supreme that if they had not made so much of a hash of things in the first place then these reviews would not be needed.

I am uncertain whether the Tories will ever regain power in Southend’s Council chamber, although the cyclical nature of politics suggests their time will come again, one day. One thing I am certain of, though, is that this is not going to happen any time soon. The race back to the top is going to be a marathon, not a sprint, and unless they start admitting to their failings in office it will be a long run marathon.

Defeat is a time for reflection, a time to take stock and to admit to failings. To think that you have nothing to learn is to fail to listen to the electorate, and this is the road to nowhere.

Place Scrutiny Committee 14th July

Last night I attended the first scrutiny of the new Joint Administration. Place Scrutiny Committee had some interesting moments, and what follows (as usual) is my take on things, and not a verbatim record of the whole near three hours. It is not chronological, although I have not deliberately gone against this either – my note taking is somewhat random at times.

The petition on the removal of the taxi rank on Campfield Road (in Shoebury) was discussed, and I made a couple of inquiries. The petition had 759 signatures attached to it, and Cllr Anne Chalk (Independent, Shoeburyness), who instigated the petition, wanted the Cabinet’s decision to ignore the plea for the removal of the rank referenced back; this was rejected 6 – 9. The portfolio holder (Cllr Martin Terry) infused the debate with a couple interesting comments, neither of which I could disagree with. He said that he was “a fan of the spy car when used properly” and that he was “parking scheme-phobic”.

The Shoebury Flood Defences were discussed under the Draft Corporate Plan item. I expressed my concern that using terms like “more acceptable”, as well as other language employed by the portfolio holder, suggested that the review was being pre-judged. The portfolio holder assured the committee that he would keep an open mind (despite saying quite the reverse earlier). We shall see. Conservative members wanted this item reference back; they did not get their way as this was rejected 5 – 12.

I requested, under the Review of Statement of Licensing Policy, that the re-introduction of the Cumulative Impact Strategy be considered. I was pleased to note that the portfolio holder made assurances that this would be considered.

When it came to the item on Highways and Transport Capital Programme I contributed to the discussion on streetlight replacement (by LED technology). I asked that where columns had to be replaced the heritage streetlights, especially in the conservation areas, would be replaced like-for-like. I received the good news that this would be the case.

The In-depth Scrutiny Project for Place will be ‘Southend Foreshore Erosion’. This was contested, but this environmental topic won out 8 – 7. In the debate Cllr James Moyies (UKIP, West Shoebury) asserted that as UKIP MEPs had more influence than other MEPs he could inquire whether European funding might be forthcoming! Apart from the reality-contradicting nature of the first part of his statement, it did make me wonder how he could offer such a suggestion given his party’s stance on the EU. Nonetheless, despite this offer, Cllr Moyies voted against the project.

In general I thought the meeting went well. It seemed to generate a number for requirements for written responses, more than I can recall for any other scrutiny committee that I have attended, and only time will tell whether this an augury of things to come.

MMXV

This is my first look at next year’s local elections in Southend–on-Sea.

ward defending in 2015 winner in 2010 (last GE)
Belfairs Con Con
Blenheim Park Con Lib Dem
Chalkwell Con Con
Eastwood Park Con Con
Kursaal Lab Con
Leigh Lib Dem Lib Dem
Milton Con Con
Prittlewell Ind Lib Dem
Shoeburyness Ind Con
Southchurch Con Con
St Laurence Con Lib Dem
St Luke’s Ind Con
Thorpe Ind Ind
Victoria Lab Lab
West Leigh Con Con
West Shoebury Con Con
Westborough Lab Lib Dem

The current situation in Southend-on-Sea has the Conservatives as the largest party with 19 councillors, some 7 shy of the 26 needed to have a majority of one. The Independent Group (13), Labour (9), and Liberal Democrat (5) have a Joint Administration. UKIP, on 5, are also in opposition.

The Joint Administration has a majority of 3. To survive beyond a year they have to keep their majority, if not actually increase it. How likely is this? Well here are the facts, and a few guesses.

Next year will see the local elections held at the same time as the General Election. This means that turnout will increase (probably double). It will also see the three main parties dominate the news agenda, and possibly a fourth in the guise of UKIP will join them. The way our democracy works at the moment means that UKIP have an almost impossible task in getting any MPs, and the Prime Minister will come from either Conservative or Labour ranks.

So, let’s look at the wards. The Tories should hold Belfairs, Chalkwell, Eastwood Park and West Leigh. However, as this May showed surprises can happen and none of these will be held without concerted effort – the days of super-safe Tory wards in Southend are over. Note that these wards are all in the West.

The Liberal Democrats are only defending one ward, and whilst I imagine the Tories will push hard here, the Lib Dems will, almost certainly, concentrate their dwindling resources here.

Labour is defending three wards. I think victories in Victoria and Westborough should be straightforward enough. Kursaal has been quite unpredictable in recent years – I was predicting a Labour success here this year; this was taken by UKIP (with a 36 vote majority).

Labour will be hoping for the hat-trick of successes to be completed in Milton. The Tories will be hoping their vote will be boosted for the General Election. Expect a tight contest.

My home ward, Blenheim Park, is now represented by three different parties. This is almost always a marginal.

The Independents are defending four wards, and only in Thorpe is success assured. Prittlewell is another ward represented by three different parties and promises an intriguing contest. Shoeburyness and St Luke’s are currently an all Independent Group preserve, but the Tories will be hopeful in Shoeburyness, and Labour is a well-placed second in St Luke’s.

Southchurch is one that the Independent Group will be hoping goes to them. The challenge for them will be how to make their voice heard in a General Election year. The results in the last General Election year show that they struggle when the turnout goes up.

The Tories will hope that they can hold St Laurence and West Shoebury, a far from certain prospect.

It is all quite unpredictable, but the Tories will be lucky not to make further losses. I think Labour will make progress, the Liberal Democrats remain static, and the Independent Group will stutter. This will mean the Joint Administration will get another year at least (and I suspect quite a few years more).

Clustering

Those of us who value council housing (as a former council tenant I certainly do) are delighted with the momentous news that Southend-on-Sea Borough Council is (at last) likely to build some new council homes. Of course this has yet to be agreed by the Council chamber, but seeing this long cherished aspiration within touching distance of being achieved is a moment to celebrate. This is something that all within the Joint Administration will have good cause to cheer about, especially Labour who it is that has largely made this happen.

James Duddridge MP (Conservative, Rochford and Southend East) sees this as an opportunity to scoff at the new administration’s achievement. Matthew Dent justly castigates the hapless MP for his unwise words (James Duddridge is wrong to oppose new council housing for Southend) and I will add a couple of thoughts to supplement Matt’s wise words.

Firstly, if clustering is a bad idea for social housing, is it a good idea for other types of housing? I am all for mixed communities and I call upon Mr Duddridge to join my campaign to end the clustering of million pound homes on Thorpe Bay sea front. We could also tackle the blight of expensive homes clustered in the Marine Estate in West Leigh, as well as that cluster in Chalkwell Avenue.

The locations for the new council homes may not be ideal, but you have to work with what you have got. I hope that more council housing building will be announced at some point, and this will be dependent on the availability of money and land.

This clustering has arisen largely as a result of the previous (Conservative) administration’s failure to insist that developers stick to the requirements for social and affordable housing when planning new developments. I hope that the current administration will make sure that in future we do see need before greed.

The Conservative MP also shows that he cannot envisage anything without seeing a chance for a quick buck. I can see no other reason why he thinks social housing should be provided by the private sector. This is an opportunity for the Council to provide much needed homes whilst retaining ownership. The land is, at present, a public asset (and therefore owned by all of us) and I see no reason to give this away.

Onwards, and eastwards

We have a change of administration in Southend-on-Sea, officially. Tonight (Thursday) Cllr Ron Woodley (Independent Group, Thorpe ward) was voted in as leader 31 – 18 over Cllr John Lamb (Conservative, West Leigh). There was one abstention (the mayor) and one absentee.

UKIP backed Cllr Woodley, although they remain in Opposition – a role they share with the Conservatives. However, it should be noted that many in the Independent Group were very pally with UKIP tonight, somewhat disturbingly in my opinion. The UKIP leader was gifted an outside body appointment by Cllr Martin Terry – doubtless in appreciation of their electoral pact.

Cllr Woodley leads a Joint Administration consisting of the Independent Group, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats. The seven person Cabinet contains three from the Independent Group, three Labour, and one Liberal Democrat.

I had argued for Labour to be a part of this Joint Administration, despite realising that working with other parties will be a test in itself. Labour has its chance to implement some of its policies, possibly all from the manifesto if it wields its influence wisely. You enter politics to make change happen, and the chance to do this cannot (or should not) be ignored.

The Labour Group will have to ensure that it carries the local parties with it on this new venture. There will be members who will feel uncomfortable with us aligning ourselves with our political foes – even for just a year – but I am confident that they will see the benefits. We must ensure that we retain our distinct voice, and I will endeavour to take my part in this.

One interesting fact – the political centre of gravity has moved eastwards. Six in the Cabinet represent wards in the east of the borough – Thorpe (2), Shoeburyness, Victoria (2), and Kursaal. The west has one representative, from Blenheim Park.

Gun jumping

When I was first told that there was going to be a press conference yesterday I was a little surprised. The press conference I refer to is the one announcing the establishment of a Joint Administration on Southend-on-Sea Borough Council.

My surprised stems from the fact that the Joint Administration does not, and cannot, exist until it has been voted for at tomorrow’s Full Council. (Note: whilst the media refer to it as a Coalition, the agreement document refers to a Joint Administration.)

I, and my Labour colleagues, have yet to even sign the agreement – the final version was only issued yesterday (after the press conference) and we are due to sign tonight. I do not expect anyone to rebel, but the headlines in today’s newspapers do jump the gun somewhat.

I understand that there are situations where announcing in advance and leaking are necessary – this is not one of those. Who runs the town is decided by the fifty-one who sit in the Council chamber; for a Leader who talks about “open democracy” he has not got off to a good start.

The numbers are close: the Independents (who now include Cllr Velmurugan, back from exile), Labour and the Liberal Democrats total 27. This gives a majority of three. However, absence or a wobbling councillor or two could see a very close vote. The Conservatives and UKIP are 24 in number, and whilst they may not vote together (and UKIP could even support Cllr Woodley) I kind of like the idea that my vote in the chamber means something.

I have refrained from writing about the prospect of a Joint Administration and will tackle the subject after Thursday’s vote.

I should state that this blog has always been my independent and individual voice, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Labour Party as a whole, and I guess I will have to include the Joint Administration in this caveat – for the foreseeable future anyway.

Victors, and their majorities

Here are the winners in the local elections in Southend-on-Sea.

ward winner party majority second*
Thorpe Martin Terry Independent 1606 Conservative
Chalkwell Nigel Folkard Conservative 382 Independent
West Leigh Fay Evans Conservative 349 Liberal Democrat
Shoeburyness Nick Ward Independent 334 Conservative
St Luke’s Caroline Endersby Independent 302 Labour
West Shoebury James Moyies UKIP 300 Conservative
Belfairs Mo Butler Conservative 270 Independent
Milton Cheryl Nevin Labour 266 Conservative
Westborough Kevin Robinson Labour 244 UKIP
St Laurence Lee Burling UKIP 219 Conservative
Eastwood Park Andrew Moring Conservative 197 UKIP
Westborough Mike Royston Labour 191 UKIP
Victoria Margaret Borton Labour 186 UKIP
Leigh Carole Mulroney Liberal Democrat 173 Conservative
Southchurch Derek Kenyon Independent 146 Conservative
Blenheim Park Floyd Waterworth UKIP 123 Conservative
Prittlewell Tino Callaghan UKIP 121 Conservative
Kursaal Lawrence Davies UKIP 36 Labour

(*Both Westborough’s majorities are calculated against the third placed candidate.)

It is difficult to say what this all means as these were unusual elections. Kursaal is very marginal again, it has a history of delivering narrow victories. Thorpe looks like nothing short of an earthquake will shift the Independents.

For Labour our safest ward delivered the smallest majority, and our most marginal the biggest. I do not believe there has been a big change in demographics or our support – the strong showing for UKIP obviously changed the electoral dynamic.

The hopes for the Liberal Democrats in West Leigh were not realised as January’s narrow by-election Tory victory was turned into a pretty handsome margin this time around.

Elections Southend, a worm’s eye view

Polling commences tomorrow, this is when it is anticipated that the first postal vote ballot papers start hitting door mats. Whilst the focus is on May 22nd, the ten per cent who vote by post will start making their choices very soon. Since postal voters usually have a 70% turn out, and local elections can attract as few as 20% turnout overall, it is pretty obvious just how significant tomorrow is. Modern polling lasts three weeks.

On the eve of the start of polling I thought I would commit my view of the campaign so far. Being immersed in campaigning I cannot pretend to have either a dispassionate or remote view, and so what follows are my impressions gained with all the narrowness of perspective and with attendant bias.

There are three full candidate slates; Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat. There are two conclusions to be drawn from this: one is that the other parties do not have the capacity to achieve a full slate. The second is that the three main parties are the only ones ambitious enough to try to represent the whole borough.

Whilst there are a couple of places where UKIP and an Independent are both on ballot papers, it does look like some sort of avoidance strategy has been going on.

Some put great store by the number of posters on display. This is a mixed picture; as far as I can tell Labour has the most on display, with the Independent Group second. I have seen a few Liberal Democrat posters, but almost none for the Conservatives. I have seen no UKIP posters at all, anywhere. I would not read too much into this, except that it used to be a feature of Tory campaigns to plaster the town in posters. They have either changed strategy or (more likely) their supporters are reluctant to show their colours in an unfavourable electoral climate.

UKIP have the only billboard I have seen. The local media appears to be showing some bias to the Independents and UKIP, but this is likely as success for them is a bigger story than if it were to be true for either of the major parties.

Leaflets, ah leaflets. UKIP, as far as I have seen, appear to be relying on national ones, having nothing localised. They are also absent from doorsteps. This means that they are relying on Farage and lingering anti-politics sentiments. If any were to be elected they may have managed this without any campaigning – which would leave those of us out in all weathers all-year-round somewhat bemused.

Leafleting by other parties is patchy. The resources of the major parties suggest that they are doing stuff in most wards, although I have yet to see a Lib Dem leaflet in the east of the borough. Some households, those in wards where the result is not seen as a foregone conclusion, will see much paper descend on them.

Hustings? I now know of three. Manifestos? Just ours. The letters pages in the local press – well, let’s just say some candidates have suddenly found a voice. Nastiness – not much in evidence, although there is an alarming tendency for some candidates to make some very exaggerated claims. Labour plays with a straight bat, but it is noticeable that some clearly desperate individuals making all sorts of nonsense claims. I suspect this is a strategy that can only backfire. One expects the Independents to jump on any passing bandwagon, but the Tories are being especially creative this year.

And the big debating points? Judging from the literature I have seen almost everyone is desperate to be seen as ‘local’, as if anything else were possible in borough elections. It is evident that some party candidates are playing down their party credentials. As for policy, it seems that some see the way the Council runs itself (by using the Cabinet system) as more important than anything else. More important than cuts, housing, library services, schools, litter, etc. This demonstrates a number of things: a thirst for power above any ideas about what to do with that power, a lack of ideas, shyness about their real intentions. Blabbing on about ‘your priorities are my priorities’ or being opposed to party politics actually says nothing about what they will do if elected. A failure to produce a manifesto or anything resembling a cohesive plan may well mean that they will have to fight amongst themselves to make any progress, before tackling any opposition they may encounter.

The best campaigning team? Need I answer that one?

 

Manifesto launch

 

The Labour Party in Southend-on-Sea is launching its manifesto for the local elections

 

Westcliff Library (649 London Rd, Westcliff-on-Sea SS0 9PD)


6pm Tuesday 6th May

 

The manifesto will be introduced by Labour Group Leader Cllr Ian Gilbert.

 

Many of our candidates and councillors will also be present.

 

Copies of the manifesto will be available, and there will be a Q&A session for those who wish to find out what Labour wants to do for the borough.

 

Full Council, Thursday 17th April

First, an apology. I was ticked off by the Chief Executive for questioning the mayor’s authority, and rightly so; I was wrong. At the break I apologised unreservedly to the mayor, Cllr Brian Kelly, and informed the Chief Executive that I had done so. I did offer to make the apology to the chamber and was told it was not necessary. This now puts it on public record.

And so, to the business: I asked a question about the scrutiny system, and my follow-up inquired how a decision on the move of the Seaway Coach Park involving a mere three councillors circumvented the scrutiny system. This elicited a somewhat flustered response from the Leader. Cllr Holdcroft complained about having been given no notice of this question, and neatly avoided having to tackle the point I was trying to make.

I commented on the minute regarding my motion about Fixed Odds Betting Terminals. I said I was grateful for the concessions regarding planning and betting shops. I added that the administration’s response did not address the issue about the high stakes and rapid gambling possible in existing betting shops via these FOBTs. I added that a number of local authorities had adopted similar motions to the one submitted by me, and that I was somewhat disappointed by the administration’s response.

I asked, in response to minute 941 (Selective School Places 2014) whether the Council could include in the information to be collected metrics regarding eligibility for free school meals. This information could then be used by the authority to set a target for grammar schools to ensure that their percentage of students who are eligible for free school meals mirror that of the borough as a whole. Eligibility for free school meals is a good indicator of poverty. Grammar schools are lauded as meeting the aspirations of all, allowing the poor access to a good education; my request would test this.

The meeting included two very good speeches. Cllr Ted Lewin (Liberal Democrat, St Laurence) spoke very eloquently about the accident and emergency provision at Southend hospital. Cllr David Norman (Labour, Victoria) made an impressive defence of his chairing of a recent Development Control Committee – it being challenged by a number from the Independent Group.

Later on in the meeting we got the answer to the question: who now leads the Independent Group? Cllr Brian Ayling announced that he is the new temporary leader. It raises all sorts of questions about who applied for it and if there was a contest at all.

At the end we got a number of tributes to the retiring Leader of the Council. Despite our political differences I cannot deny Cllr Nigel Holdcroft’s ability. However, I confess to being more moved by the words of Cllr Stephen Habermel when he spoke about Cllr Richard Brown (Conservative, Chalkwell) right at the end of the meeting. Richard is retiring next month through ill health. Richard is a very likeable person and someone I have known through (our opposing) politics for many years. He was helpful in some of my appeals against planning applications, and was always an amiable and gentlemanly face in committee and the chamber. I will miss him, and I wish him the very best in his battle with illness.

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