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.

Meeting of the Council held on Thursday 23rd July 2015 (up, down, up, down, up, down, up down)

Five hours of debate last night at Full Council, and my abiding memory is of the farcical attempts to get a named vote. Named votes are very important as it records how every councillor votes on a particular issue.

I cannot help but be left with the impression that the rules are designed to make the whole process look arcane, and it is quite difficult to get the numbers and timing right. In the end the Labour group must have looked ridiculous. The rules are obstructive to democratic processes and are in sore need of revision. I would prefer a system where there is a presumption of a named vote, or at least a sensible chance of getting one.

In the discussion on minute 121 (Blenheim Park Pavilion Proposal) Cllr Courtenay (Conservative, Blenheim Park) called Cllr Longley (Liberal Democrat, Blenheim Park) “a liar”. Although a rather limp apology was extracted by the mayor, Cllr Courtenay really ought to curb his hot-headedness. I am objecting to the proposal because I fear that this will lead to the loss of public open space. I also worry about the proposed sale of alcohol here, which is not only new to the area (no pubs or clubs in the near vicinity) but is also right next to two schools.

I was quite surprised that the third councillor for this ward, UKIP’s Cllr Waterworth, did not make a contribution to this debate.

My urban wood idea got a couple of mentions in the debate on minute (In depth Scrutiny project – 2015 / 16). I had to chuckle when Cllr Aylen (Independent Group, Belfairs) called me “Wares Lane” – this took me back to my bedsit days (perhaps more on that on another day).

Minute 135 (Delaware & Priory Update) was the cue for the Conservatives to indulge in political point scoring. They expressed (faux) concern over the terms and conditions being given to new employees in this venture; somewhat rich given their Government’s sustained attacks on the very poorest in our society. I pointed out that the Government’s cuts had caused all sorts of problems, and asked the portfolio holder to confirm that “notwithstanding the cuts the project is still on target and, unlike the plans of the previous administration, we are still to provide a council-run care service”. Cllr Moyies (Southend Independence, West Shoebury) was able to confirm this. Responding to concerns about the wages of the apprentices likely to be used, Anne Jones (Labour, Kursaal) referred to “a wage for the future” – a nice catchphrase.

Agenda item 22 was the Review of Members’ Allowances. In the end we voted for no increase in allowances, anywhere, and some modest reductions in some places too. For a majority losing free ink, paper and stamps was a step too far though. I voted to accept the recommendation in this regard, but this was lost by 18 votes to 25. It seems that for most councillors their allowances being used to purchase paper and ink, etc, was untenable.

I proposed that all increases to special responsibility allowances be rejected, and that any proposed reductions be accepted. This was effectively the reverse of a proposal by Cllr Ayling (Independent Group, St Luke’s), who wanted the allowances to rise as recommended (as a recipient of an SRA, Cllr Ayling of course has no personal interest in this!). My amendment was carried 28 -17.

We then got onto what I thought was a very interesting item: Revised Contracts Procedure Rules and Financial Procedure Rules. I have been pressing for changes here for some time, and whether the council will admit that the revisions are down to me or not, I am claiming a victory of sorts. I do think the types and bandings could be revisited, but it is a start. I also hoped that there would be an explicit bias in favour of local businesses in Southend-on-Sea. Cllr Walker (Conservative, Eastwood Park) saw fit to make a particularly inane comment, and thus demonstrated his ineffectiveness as a scrutiniser of council business.

In Part Two we had the debate on the Adult Social Care Local Authority Trading Company. I cannot report on the debate, but I can report that on the vote on whether to accept this three Conservative councillors abstained, effectively a vote to reject this. They were Cllrs Jarvis (West Shoebury), Lamb (West Leigh) and Phillips (West Leigh). That is three Tories (at least) who are opposed to the administrations at trying to save the council care homes. Shameful.

And finally, it is very noticeable that we end meetings with fewer councillors present than we start with. The Labour Group in its entirety stayed to the end, all nine of us. This is not true of other groups. I am not about to name names, but I do wonder why so many find it acceptable to leave whilst business is still going on. This not only lets their residents down, it lets their parties and themselves down. Of course, in extremis leaving earlier is entirely justified. But if you cannot last the course then you should not seek public office.

Budget first impressions

I got a brief first look at the budget proposals last night. The next few days I will be attempting to absorb the details, I may even have a few suggested amendments. So far, though, it is a story of more cuts and more job losses. The scale of the proposed cuts – a mere (sic) £7.3 million – is less than the numbers bandied around last year (anything up to £14 million was suggested) and this has got to be good news. The job losses, numbering somewhere between forty and fifty, are very disappointing.

In amongst the detail, which I confess to not being fully familiar with at the moment, are the library cuts and the closure of the residential care homes. Council rents will be going up, and this looks like it will be an above inflation rise. Council tax will be frozen, something made almost unavoidable because of central Government diktat. (A rise can be made, but in reality we would gain 0.5% at most.)

My portfolio (Public Protection, Waste and Transport) looks like it is getting an unexciting budget – but I will reserve final judgement for now. There is a new (albeit temporary) car park for the site of the old Queensway House and this is expected to provide £75,000 in revenue; I am slightly puzzled though as to where this will come from because if it takes its customers from other council car parks there will be no net gain. The Highways service is losing staff – I am awaiting clarification on what this actually means. I am pleased that my campaigning to de-clutter the town as regards to street signs is being rewarded (although this is being done to make a saving rather than improve the street scene, I will take it whatever is the driver). I am also pleased that the street lights are to be replaced with environmentally friendlier and cheaper to run LED replacements. This is something I have mentioned a few times in conversations – so I am not sure whether I can really claim credit for this.

The opposition alternative, if one is presented, will not be so much a budget but rather a collection of amendments. To stand any chance of being passed it will have to be agreed amongst the three opposition groups (Cllr Velmurugan is not included in these discussions – he will invariably support whatever the Tories come up with) and this will necessitate compromise. One thing is certain, the next few weeks will see much drilling down through the detail in these budget proposals, coming up with possible alternatives, and attempting to persuade other

Southend’s budget – who voted, and how

Here is the officially recorded list of who voted and how in the budget meeting on February 28th. I am not sure how long these have been up and I am aware that this is some weeks after the event. I am also aware of just bereft of detail the minutes are – there is no flavour of the debate and you would never believe it was a six hour meeting just judging by these. The minutes can be found here.

The opposition alternative budget:

In favour:

Cllrs Assenheim, Aylen, Ayling, Betson, Borton, Chalk, Collins, Crystall, Gilbert, Godwin, Grimwade, Anne Jones, Lewin, Longley, McMahon, Norman, Russell, Terry, Van Looy, Ware-Lane and Wexham (21)

Against:

lrs Brown, Byford, Caunce, Courtenay, Cox, Day, Evans, Flewitt, D Garston, J Garston, Habermel, Hadley, Holdcroft, Holland, Horrigan MBE, Jarvis, Adam Jones, Kaye, Kelly, Lamb, Moring, Robertson, Salter, Stafford, Velmurugan, Walker and Woodley (27)

Abstentions: The Worshipful the Mayor, Cllr Carr (1)

Absent: Burdett & Morgan (2)

A number of Cllr Ron Woodley’s amendments were defeated.

The Council Budget 2013/14 proposals were then voted on.

For:
Cllr Assenheim, Aylen, Ayling, Brown, Byford, Caunce, Courtenay, Cox, Day, Evans, Flewitt, D Garston, J Garston, Habermel, Hadley, Holdcroft, Holland, Horrigan MBE, Jarvis, Adam Jones, Kaye, Kelly, Lamb, Moring, Robertson, Salter, Stafford, Terry, Van Looy, Velmurugan, Walker and Woodley (32)

Against:
Betson, Borton, Chalk, Collins, Crystall, Gilbert, Godwin, Grimwade, Anne Jones, Lewin, Longley, McMahon, Norman, Russell, Ware-Lane and Wexham (16)

Abstentions:
Cllr Carr (1)

Absent: Burdett and Morgan (2)

You will note that nine Independent councillors voted for the budget; had they voted against it it would have been defeated. Cllr Anne Chalk was the only Independent to join with Labour and Liberal Democrats in attempting to vote down the Tory budget.