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.

Place Scrutiny, Monday April 13th

I was somewhat unwell at the beginning of the week, yet I managed to get to Monday’s Place Scrutiny Committee.

The only item I asked questions about was number fifteen: Parks and Green Spaces Strategy.

I asked how palm trees added to the borough’s biodiversity. The inadequate reply skirted around the question, which seemed to suggest that palm trees do almost nothing for biodiversity. I noted that palm trees have now been installed at the new Tescos roundabout on the A127; and offered the opinion that these expensive and ill-suited trees do almost nothing for local wildlife.

I wondered why the strategy offered no guarantees for open spaces, and was pleased by the portfolio holder’s (Cllr Longley) commitment to preserving our open spaces.

The strategy includes “all residents to have easy access to a public open space of at least 0.2 hectares“. I wondered how this was going to be achieved for Milton’s residents. I am not sure the relevant council officer really knew the answer to this one either. This one will definitely have to be filed under ‘wait and see’.

++ Kursaal, Milton, and Westborough wards have less than 0.3 hectares of open space.

Misled, misinformed, lied to, or just plain incompetence? – take your pick

On the agenda at last night’s Place Scrutiny Committee was the Review of Shoebury Common Flood Defence Improvements.

This report recommended that we note the options review document – Shoebury Common Flood Defence Review, December 2014. This document was prepared for Southend-on-Sea Borough Council by Mott MacDonald.

I voted with the Conservative administration through 2013, and I explained my reasons at the time (see Shoebury Flood Defences – doing the affordable for an example). Basically, in times of constrained finances I had to vote for the cheapest option.

To be honest, the costs quoted did vary at the time, but on every occasion these showed that the Council’s preferred option as the cheapest. Given that we had to improve the sea defences in the east of borough (and so ‘no wall’ was not a viable option) I felt I had no alternative. My view was supported by Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors, as well as the Conservatives.

To quote from my post (written on 17th October 2013): The Council preferred scheme is costed at £4.5 million; this compares to £9.3 million for the BERA scheme and £8 million for the FoSC option.

I was of the opinion that we had to have a review, there clearly was a lot of ill-feeling towards the council’s scheme by those living in Shoeburyness. However, I expected to speak (I called in the report) in defence of the previous administrations recommendations. I could not see how the facts could have changed.

I then began to read the Mott MacDonald report. The executive summary included this: While the proposed preferred scheme within the PAR would have provided a functional and robust flood defence with a reasonable economic return it is clearly unacceptable to local resident groups in its current form.

So far, so good. However, I then began to examine the summaries for each option. I confess to not being overly concerned to the details behind each scheme, when money is so tight one has to focus on what each one costs.

This table summarises the seven schemes’ costs.

Option Baseline costs Whole life costs
PAR 5.0 34.4
FoSC 6.4 35.5
MARMUS 3.6 29.3
BERA 3.4 18.1
Glass Walls 5.9
PAR Option 2 4.6 33.7
PAR Option 3 4.4 33.5

Costs are in £millions
PAR – Project Appraisal Report – Black & Veatch Project
FoSC- Friends of Shoebury Common
MARMUS – also sourced by FoSC
BERA – Burges Road Residents Association

The above table shows that the Council’s preferred option (PAR) is not the cheapest – far from it. It is the second-most expensive. This raises some very serious concerns, concerns that I aired last night.

The first is about which set of figures to believe. Whilst the schemes deliver different solutions, when a decision is being taken based on cost then these numbers have to be right. Cost was a significant feature of the discussions we had in 2013, and on every occasion we were assured that the Council’s preferred option delivered the best value for money.

I am either very stupid when it comes to basic arithmetic, or I have been misled, misinformed, or plain lied to. And not just me. This applies to all fifty-one councillors who sat in the chamber last year.

This is no trivial affair. We could have spent over £34million based on duff information; £34million of tax-payers money.

I could be wrong. There could be a very simple explanation. However, nothing I heard last night was in the slightest bit satisfactory.

We all know that the last, Conservative, administration liked to fritter money on useless vanity projects, and this looks another to add to an already long list.

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.

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.

The education encouragement process

They were expecting large numbers of spectators and so the Place Scrutiny Committee was moved from its usual committee room setting to the main council chamber. This created a more formal evening (although these things are never that informal) and a colder one – the chamber is not a warm place in autumn or winter. In the end the attendance from interested parties was not so great and we could have kept to our usual venue – although there may be merit in always using the chamber for the scrutiny committees.

There were a couple of items likely to illicit excitement in the wider community – Shoebury flood defences and the future of the library service in the borough.

My view of the proposals to beef up the sea flood defences in the east of the borough is unchanged; in an era of climate change and likely sea-level rises we cannot afford to do nothing. Therefore, it is a choice of schemes, and in a climate of austerity we must go for the cheapest option that provides the best solution. This is the council’s preferred option. I am not a usual supporter of the schemes dreamt up by the current administration but I have yet to hear anything to convince me that the alternatives are better.

However, I did ask about the provided costings and why these differed from earlier costings. I was unimpressed with the answer that the variations were minimal. The council preferred scheme is now costed at £5.182 million (up £0.6M from £4.5M). The Friends of Shoebury Common is now costed at £10.360M (up £2.3M), and the BERA scheme is now shown to be £9.128M (down £1.2M). If the council thinks these monetary movements are trivial then this explains why they are so adept at wasting tax-payers money.

The library debate generated a little heat and very little light. How anyone thinks it a step forward to opt for the libraries in the leafier part of town over those in the deprived areas is beyond me. The waffling portfolio holder reminded me of Soviet era spokespeople who could relay news about increased tractor production and record grain harvests, whilst ignoring the tyranny and penury inflicted on its citizens. I, of course, would wish to stand up for all libraries, not just those servicing Tory voters.

I am not blind to economic reality, yet I am also acutely aware that the borough is already failing its younger citizens whose educational attainments fall some way short of national averages. An earlier agenda item addressed the need for a Southend skills strategy – something the Tory administration is in desperate want of. Apparently the library changes are part of a “vision” for the town. Good grief! Quite how we improve the skill-sets in the town whilst simultaneously removing facilities that educate is a mystery to me.

Cllr Martin Terry and his rejected pink sack

Cllr Martin Terry and his rejected pink sack

Near the end we had a debate on refuse collection, specifically the rejection of pink sacks. My input was less about invalidly rejected sacks than about the perceptible rise in the number of pink sacks that are being rejected in some areas for having no-recycling items in them.

I think the rise is coincidentent with the ending of black sack supply and the residual supplies being exhausted. This debate was notable for the filibustering by the portfolio holder. He will not be receiving prizes any time soon for coherent or concise answering.

Apparently, rejected pinks sacks on the public highway are picked up after 48 hours (at what cost?), whereas those on private land are left as part of the education encouragement process. Newspeak is alive and well and residing in Southend-on-Sea.

Anyway, Cllr Martin Terry enlivened proceedings with an example of a rejected pink sack. His invitation to the portfolio holder to examine it was declined owing to a lack of gloves. Next time he knows what to bring to chamber!

Place scrutinized: a less than happy cllr

Last night’s Place Scrutiny Committee began with a question from a member of the public. David Webb in asking his question announced that the Westcliff Community Association will not be running Westcliff Library. I am not sure what he thought of Cllr Jarvis’ response to his question – I found it gobbledegook.

I made a small contribution to the debate on the loss of foreshore. I asked how far west along the foreshore was looked at – as far as Two Tree island was the answer. I mentioned the potential detrimental impact on tourism, and queried whether climate change and rising sea levels would make flooding more likely once added to the changes to the foreshore.

I expressed my disappointment with the review of the Victoria Gateway shared space. The nature of the review, in my opinion, meant that residents were largely excluded from contributing. I do not like the road layout although I accept that this is unlikely to change owing to a lack of funds. Worse, though, is the shared space which I maintain is dangerous and confusing. I requested a vote on the report, which I lost 12 – 2 (the other objector being Cllr Byford).

The Barling Representative wants a giant blue cock in the open space. Others suggested greenery and a fountain.

My frustrations were compounded when told that my disappointment could not be recorded in the minutes. The minutes are next to useless as a record of what actually goes on in our meetings.

I accept that the proposed changes are an improvement, but they do not go far enough. I am afraid we are tinkering at the periphery; there are some profound design errors at the shared space. Whilst the accident statistics (so far) do not indicate it is any more dangerous than before, people I speak are very critical. It feels dangerous and confusing, even to the young and able bodied.

I am still hoping that a proper crossing and safety railings will be installed one day.