Place

Place scrutiny this week. There were no Questions from Members of the Public – I struggle to recall when we last saw that.

Highlights included a discussion on the parking charges under the item Draft Fees and Charges 2016/17. Fees for green waste bins also generated a debate, particularly around the scrapping of the 39 week permit; only 52 week permits will be issued in future.

Under the item Draft General Fund Revenue Budget Cllr Courtenay (Conservative, Blenheim Park) asserted that the administration were “fleecing seafront users” because of the increase in car parking charges. As part of his response, the portfolio holder Cllr Martin Terry (Independent Group, Thorpe) stated that “yes, we are targeting visitors”. I hope this is not seen as a disincentive to tourism.

The Member’s Requests List (Ref No 15/11) was referred back to Cabinet. This was proposed by Cllr Assenheim (Independent Group, Shoeburyness) and carried by 10 -1; I was the sole councillor to vote against.

There was, shall we say, an interesting intervention from the Leader under the Introduction of a Policy in respect of the Installation of Bollards. Cllr Woodley (Independent Group, Thorpe) gave a lengthy account of a spat he had had with a neighbour over broken paving slabs.

The meeting lasted for two hours and eighteen minutes.

Still working for the residents of Southend-on-Sea, in spite of the cuts

As the Conservative Government’s austerity agenda continues to bite we, in local government, are faced we another round of tough decisions. Another year, another unpleasant budget.

Yet, there are choices, and Southend-on-Sea’s Joint Administration is choosing to preserve what it can of the vital public services it provides. Prudent management of the borough’s finances has enabled us to soften the blow, and the savings from the new waste management contract has seen over £1 million in savings.

Local Conservatives have expressed opposition to the new waste management contract – and had they managed to get their way then one can only imagine the consequences for the borough. We know that their plans threatened our libraries, libraries whose future is more secure now that Labour has significant input into the running of the town. Children centres are also safer under the Joint Administration tenure in charge.

Of course there will be pain; job losses and increase council tax bills are never a pleasant thing. This is a consequence of Government plans that are seeing austerity continue. Whatever one thinks of the Government’s plans, the attack on local government finances cannot be denied. As a local councillor I am regularly asked to provide things that come with a cost. Of course I, and my colleagues, do what we can. But I cannot magic resources out of nowhere, and with shrinking resources one is faced with the reality of being part of a Council that will be forced to raise charges, and to trim wherever possible. This is true this year, and yet no service is under threat – at the moment. One cannot only imagine that many more years of this and we will see services cut beyond reasonable usability.

EFA – it’s Hedley democracy

I guess there are two main things that emerged from yesterday’s Essex Fire Authority meeting. The first is that there are some very disrespectful Conservative members. Notable is Cllr Guglielmi who chose to laugh aloud when a Labour member was expressing concern about the process of choosing the options to be presented in the consultation regarding cuts. Tories may find mirth in the prospect of job cuts and a degraded service, this socialist does not.

The work workshop suggested two proposals be put forward in the public consultation exercise. Cllr Hedley chose to arbitrarily add a third. Evidently he sees the EFA as his fiefdom; unfortunately for him I do not. However clunky he may think the process, it must be adhered to. Doubtless he is used to the nodding dogs in his party just agreeing with everything he says. I suspect he finds the prospect of a Labour group actually scrutinising what he does quite unsettling.

The consultation exercise is akin to offering a perfectly healthy patient a choice of limbs to be amputated. Whilst I am not blind to the state of the economy (and one wonders just how much mismanagement Osborne can get away with) I do not see my role as being compliant to job cuts, degraded services, and residents being made to endure greater risk.

Doubtless a Labour-run EFA would be forced to make difficult choices. But I have no doubt that these would be made with a heavy heart, not glee. We would also engage with the workforce more, and explore every alternative to the cuts with utmost vigour.

Full Council: Joy, beautiful spark of Gods, Daughter of Elysium, We enter, fire-imbibed

Cllr Julian Ware-Lane with friends from Southend Welcoming Refugees

Cllr Julian Ware-Lane with friends from Southend Welcoming Refugees

That council meetings can sometimes be very dull will surprise no-one. Yesterday I had more than one person inquire of me “is it always this boring?” Not always, not often in fact, but sometimes, yes, they can be very tedious.

The agenda for Full Council appeared quite light, yet somehow we managed almost three hours. The Conservative Group seem intent on criticising processes that were put in place when they were in administration. Don’t they realise just how ridiculous this makes them look?

Cllr James Courtenay (Conservative, Blenheim Park) put up an impressive display of petulance. He is an affable guy outside of the chamber, but inside, last night, he not only had a go at the Joint Administration, he also decided that the Town Clerk was fair game. He also adopted a tactic of intervening in almost every debate, which was a real treat for the fans of his somewhat whining style.

Six motions were presented, including two of mine. Amongst the six was one proposed by the Leader, and seconded by Cllr James Moyies (SIG, West Shoebury). This was entitled Changes in Electoral Arrangements. This proposes a reduction in the number of councillors from fifty-one to thirty-four, and these to be elected in all-up elections beginning in 2018.

I am no fan of all-up elections, particularly with the first past the post system. I am even less keen on a reduction in member numbers. Thirty-four is less than what Southend-on-Sea had before becoming a unitary authority, and the increased workload that entails. Whilst the cuts mean all sorts of unpleasant things have to be put up with, I regret that we now have to consider diminishing our democracy.

The evening began with lobbying by Southend Welcoming Refugees.

Longley replaced by Betson

Owing to Councillor Graham Longley’s fall in October the following changes to the Cabinet, Cabinet Committee and Cabinet Working Parties are being made:

(a) Councillor Mary Betson will replace Councillor Longley as Executive Councillor for Enterprise Tourism & Economic Development.

(Councillor Betson has resigned from various positions which she could not retain as an Executive Councillor, including membership of the People Scrutiny Committee and chair of Audit Committee, and replacements will be dealt with at Council next week).

(b) Councillor Betson will replace Councillor Longley on the Cabinet Committee.

(c) Councillor Gilbert will become the sole Deputy Leader.

(d) Councillor Betson will be substitute for Councillor Gilbert (but not as Deputy Leader).

(e) Councillor Betson will replace Councillor Longley as Chairman of the Cabinet Working Parties which he chairs.

Mary Betson doubles the number of women in the seven-person Cabinet.

Two EFA meetings

Two Essex Fire Authority meetings in as many days. The first was the main body, and the interesting item (as far as I was concerned) on that agenda was entitled Organisational Change.

Organisational Change has been forced on the EFA (who oversee the Essex County Fire and Rescue Service) by the huge cuts imposed on all public services by the Conservative Government. The four Labour councillors on the EFA tried to tweak the recommendations to include a commitment to no compulsory redundancies.

I said that whilst aware of the challenges the cuts are giving the Authority there were always choices. The cuts, described by one Tory member as ‘savings’, were ideologically driven, I added. I, and my Labour colleagues, believed that we should endeavour to protect jobs. We lost the ensuing vote 16 – 4 (with one abstention). At least the Labour quartet can hold their heads high with the realisation that at least we tried to protect the workforce.

Earlier today I attended the EFA’s Health, Safety, and Welfare Strategy Group Meeting. We discussed accidents at work, and at the scene of the incidents that fire fighters attend. We looked at a number of metrics for both Essex and nearby fire authorities. Essex does compare favourably, although there is always room for improvement.

Snog, marry, avoid (don’t bother puckering up, Ron)

There are fifty-one councillors in Southend-on-Sea Borough Council. Three for each of the seventeen wards.

The Great And Glorious Leader Of The Council, Ron Woodley, is suggesting that the number of councillors could be reduced by a third, saving £250000 (according to reports).

Going from fifty-one to thirty-four will save money, although I disagree with the sums allegedly saved. Since we must keep portfolios, etc, the special responsibilities, and their allowances, will still exist. We only save on basic allowances – which I think saves us less than £147900 per annum.

The Borough had thirty-nine councillors before becoming a Unitary Authority; and the addition of a dozen members was argued for on the grounds of increased workload. I doubt that the merit of that particular argument has gone away.

We could, of course, save money by reducing allowances.

Going from three to two councillors for each ward does allow for the intriguing game of ‘guess who is for the chop?

This must be an easy guess for Thorpe ward – one imagines that the author of this bright idea would be the first to volunteer for the Carousel. Adios Ron.

This grand version of snog, marry, avoid for our electorate does allow for some gladiatorial selection meetings. Will Lamb lose out to Evans and Phillips? Will Byford emerge triumphant in Eastwood Park – seducing those liable to believe his battle-cry of “we are full up” – leaving either Moring or Walker to contemplate a longer retirement than planned. Will Folkard again be reduced to finding yet another safe ward for his polemic abilities. Turning three into two will see all sorts of egos bruised as colleagues fight it out in the battle to survive this cull.

I think we should be looking to make savings in the chamber, but I am not convinced that a reduced membership is at all advisable. One notes that Parliament itself, author of the cuts, is increasing its membership by way of the Prime Minister bestowing so many peerages upon his friends. A classic example of do as I say ….

The need to make savings does not make any of the work go away, and so to enact a cull can only lead to a reduced service for those who elect us. As the town’s population grows it strikes me as perverse that we seek to distance those elected to serve – for distance is an inevitable consequence.

We are supposed to treasure our democracy, not knock it around to suit one agenda or another.