Aylen quits the Independent Group

The fallout from the Place Scrutiny Committee 13th July is that the Independent Group is down one.

Cllr Stephen Aylen (Belfairs) has resigned from the Group. In his own words:

I have been elected to represent the residents of Belfairs and I can no longer do that to an acceptable standard to my residents under the independent group control.
I was forced to make a choice between my residents and supporting the leader of the council.
Supporting the leader of the council would I believe seriously affected the residents of Belfairs and adjoining areas.

Cllr Aylen remains in the Joint Administration, although whether he remains Chair of the Public Transport and Buses Working Party remains to be seen.

This leaves the political composition of Southend-on-Sea Borough Council as follows:

22 Conservative
10 Independent Group
9 Labour
4 Liberal Democrat
3 Southend Independence
2 UKIP
1 Independent

It is clearly a fractured picture, with Labour within touching distance of being the largest group in the Joint Administration. This will make next May’s elections very interesting.

My budget speech from last night

Mr Mayor, this is my third budget speech. On each of the previous occasions I described those budgets as ‘miserable’, and in many ways that description can be applied to this one too.

Let me be clear though, and before some get too excited here, I will be supporting this budget.

So, ‘miserable’: how else can one describe the retreat of public services?

I remind members that we are making cuts because of an £11 million hole in our finances, a hole put there by the Conservative-led Government.

When members rightly blanche at the prospect of less bins, then I hope they remember why that is. When members rightly blanche at the prospect of more job losses, again I hope they remember why that is happening. And on May 7th, I hope they recall these, and other, cuts, and use their vote to pass judgement.

On the 9th of October, 2013, I wrote a blog post entitled “It’s about whether this administration has the will to support the most vulnerable in our town”. It was a reference to the then Holdcroft-led Conservative administration, and it was a direct quote from Cllr Ron Woodley, made at the previous evening’s Place Scrutiny Committee.

I think the evidence is clear, the will was not there. Since then the good people of Southend-on-Sea has passed judgement on that administration, and found them wanting.

In contradistinction, this Joint Administration is trying to support the most vulnerable. This includes those who use our care homes, and I celebrate in being part of an administration that has listened, and is saving Priory House.

We have had debates about the draft budget proposals, and I am pleased that my entreaties regarding public lavatories were listened to. I have long argued that the toilet provision which already exists is not adequate, the prospect of fewer left me quite uneasy. Notwithstanding the £11 million hole in our finances put there by Mr Cameron’s Government, we have managed to find savings elsewhere.

I am also pleased that the listening administration has listened to my pleas regarding textile waste collection; I am assured that kerbside collection is to continue.

Some have been scaremongering about waste collection. Some have objected to the contract renewal process. I guess the huge savings made by our officers will also attract scorn from those same people. Aside from the value for money argument, with an £11 million hole to fill how else do those voices expect this administration to act? We shall see when it comes to the vote who supports the saving of £825,000.

In the circumstances this is a very good budget. If we did not have to deal with this year’s savage cuts, £11 million imposed by the Conservative-led Government, then it would have been different in many respects. So, I call on all members to support this budget. I also call on them to join me in trying to change a national administration intent on savaging local government finances.

Getting the job done

A road being re-surfaced today

A road being re-surfaced today

Whilst it has not been a perfect start, it has been a pretty good start. I refer to the Joint Administration, whose tenure in charge at Southend-on-Sea Borough Council is about to hit the quarter- year mark – today is day ninety.

It appears to me that as compared to the somewhat turgid last days of the outgoing Conservative administration these ninety days have been characterised by the energy shown. The far-from-perfect Joint Administration, led in many ways by its Labour members, has shown initiative and vim in tackling some quite thorny subjects.

Progress is being made on seeing new social housing being built. Progress is being made in dealing with the eyesore that is Victoria Avenue’s derelict office blocks. Progress is being made with a number reviews of some of the more contentious decisions taken prior to June 5th’s red letter day.

Progress is being made on improving roads and re-surfacing works are in evidence across the borough.

Whilst it remains a challenge in challenging times, taking the town forwards is the goal, and progress has been made in those ninety days. We have been asked by the electorate to make Southend-on-Sea better, and we are getting the job done.

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.

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).

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.