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.

Licensing in Southend – have your say

It is not often I reproduce Southend-on-Sea Borough Council press releases, but as this one really does affect Milton I am making an exception.

Southend residents are being invited to say how they would like the Council to judge licensing applications in future.
They are urged to give their views on the principles the Council proposes to use for the next five years when considering licensing applications for alcohol, entertainment and late night refreshment, (hot food or drink between 11pm & 5am), under the Licensing Act 2003.

By law, the Council, as the Licensing Authority, must publish details of its draft policy and must also consult a range of people about this – including trade groups, residents, faith and equality groups.

Once a final version of the Licensing Policy Statement has been agreed it will take effect from January 2015 and last for up to five years.

This draft policy has been drawn up according to the Licensing Act’s four key objectives to:
• prevent crime and disorder;
• promote public safety;
• prevent public nuisance; and
• protect children from harm.

The draft policy can be downloaded from the Council’s website.

Copies are also available from the licensing team on 01702 215000 or via the Customer Service Centre at Southend Civic Centre, Victoria Avenue, Southend

Responses must be given in writing by Sunday 5th October at the latest, and can be emailed to licact2003@southend.gov.uk

or posted to:

The Licensing Authority,
Southend-on-Sea Borough Council,
Civic Centre, Victoria Avenue,
Southend-on-Sea, SS2 6ER.

Procurement of third party services

I have been making inquiries about how Southend-on-Sea Borough Council procures third party services. Here is a brief explanation of the classifications and thresholds.

Under the Councils contract procedure rules we have 3 classifications of contract, minor, medium and major.

For minor contracts of value up to £50k we request that Council Officers obtain 3 quotes. Under these rules these contracts are not required to be advertised, in the same way as medium and major contracts. Officers must approach 3 companies to provide written quotations for anything over £5k in value and are required to keep an audit trail of their actions.

The threshold for tendering was increased to £50k from £25k nearly 5 years ago to enable council officers to release council funds faster into the economy and to allow them more discretion to invite more local companies to quote for work while also easing the burden of the tender process for a relatively low value.

For contracts over £50k but below the OJEU thresholds, contracts must be advertised on our council website and on Contracts Finder which is a national government database of all contracts below the OJEU threshold. Contracts over the OJEU threshold are also advertised on the Council website, in OJEU and any relevant trade journal.

Going forward the Procurement team are introducing a new e-procurement system which will allow suppliers to register their interest in different types of work, all values of work will go through this system allowing more transparency and audit trail of contracts award, especially for minor contracts.

I am concerned that the £50K threshold is too high, and may not be delivering best value. I would like to see a debate around whether we should lower this.

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.

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