On the 2016 Southend Council budget…

southend civic centre

So we come around to budget time again, in Southend-on-Sea, and it doesn’t make for exactly pleasant reading for those who don’t want to see the town cut away to nothing.

The Conservative government, in its wisdom, has decided that the Borough of Southend-on-Sea has £8.43m too much in funding, and so has issued another 28% cut to the council’s funding. In the national interest, we are told, but there’s a dishonesty at its core. The Treasury keeps loading the tough decisions onto councils to cover up the incompetence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, heading fast towards the point where vital services will become unsustainable.

In the light of all this, then, the budget constructed by the joint administration in Southend is a work of wonder, with services preserved and serious pain avoided. And having seen them utterly fail to scrutinise it at the three scrutiny committees last week, I can only presume that the Conservatives agree.

Read on…

Fluent in Flewitt: decoding Mark’s budget views

mark flewitt

St Laurence ward’s Cllr Mark Flewitt is an enthusiastic blogger, I’ll give him that. Trouble is…well, he’s not terribly good at it.

(Not to overuse the Mandy Rice-Davies quote, but you would say that, wouldn’t you? -Ed)

When it is deciperhable without prior knowledge what exactly he is actually talking about, he meanders around from subject to subject without much regard for his audience’s ability to keep up

(Again, you can talk -Ed)

His latest blog, for example, starts off claiming that Labour activists have been instructed not to talk about the economy on the doorstep. For the record, we haven’t: I had many such conversations at the weekend with Blenheim Park residents, particularly about how George Osborne’s recovery for the few has seen their wages shrink and their living costs rise.

He then goes on to give his thoughts on the draft local budget for Southend Borough Council. Credit to him, Mark is the first opposition councillor to actually venture an opinion on the budget, but his approach is a little scattergun.


Where idealism meets reality: Brighton Green Party’s folly

brighton green eric pickles

I told myself, after last week, that I was going to leave the Greens alone for a bit. I also have a general policy of trying to avoid commenting on localities where I don’t have an personal interest.

I’m about to break both of those statements of intent, I’m afraid, because down in Brighton things are edging dramatically beyond the usual standards of crazy which govern things down there on the south coast.

The Green Party in Brighton & Hove have decided to forgo any attempt at rationality, and embrace fantasy. Which would be all well and good were they not responsible for the local government managing the lives of 275,000 people.

Read on…

Southend budget: Vital services protected, despite £11m Tory cuts

southend civic centre

This afternoon, the draft budget for Southend Borough Council has been announced and made public by the joint administration. I haven’t had a chance yet to go over it in any great detail, so this is simply an overview of the headlines.

The most notable measures of the budget are:

  • Priory House care home has been saved from closure under the previous Tory administration’s policies.
  • No more children’s centres to close.
  • No more money taken out of Libraries.
  • At least £850,000 saved from new waste contract, with weekly service maintained.
  • To fund this, and plug the £11m gap in Southend’s funding resulting from Tory cuts, council tax will increase by 1.95%, which is equivalent to £2.19 a month, or  51p a week, on a band D property.

Read on…

Youth in Revolt

george osborne laugh

My generation are selfish bastards. It’s a well-documented thing.

We’re the “me” generation, I’ve been told more than once. We’ve had everything on a plate, we’ve had it so easy. When our parents had to work, we got awards just for turning up. Our exams got easier every year, not like the O-Levels Mum and Dad did.

It’s background noise, the hum which shapes our daily lives. Ungrateful. Undeserving. Spoilt. It gets to the point that we tune it out and carry on with our lives. Because what else can we do?

The truth from our perspective — from my perspective — however is quite different.

Read on…

Useless Southend Independents cancel each other out

southend civic centre

It has been, now, over a week since the fun and games of Southend Borough Council’s budget meeting, and a lot of the focus — my own included — has been on Nigel Holdcroft’s accusations of horse-trading against, err, his own administration, and Ron Woodley’s histrionics at his inclusion in the ambit of such horse-trading.

So I’m afraid that I’ve neglected to look at the actual votes cast on the borough’s budget for 2014/15. That is something I shall attempt, in part, to remedy now. It is, I note, difficult because at time of press the council had released no minutes for the meeting.

But from my own observations, and the observations of other bloggers covering Southend local politics, one thing has become apparent: in at least two wards, Independent Party Group councillors cancelled each other out.

Read on…

A Smoke and Mirrors Budget

For a document that was supposed to say where local taxpayers' money is going, the budget left a lot of confusion about what is being spent on what.

I’ve spent a while sat here, trying to decide where to start with this recount of last night’s local budget debate. I think I’ll begin with the esteemed John Halsall, councillor for Remenham Wargrave & Ruscombe and my opponent in last July’s (and the coming May’s) election. On his feet, speaking during the debate, Cllr Halsall claimed that this budget was preventing Wokingham from turning into Greece.

That is the sort of night, and the sort of debate, that it was.

The budget passed of course, though with the Conservatives having a majority of 36 (and all of them willing to gush over it like it was the second coming of Christ) you’d be staggered if it hadn’t. The Lib Dems abstained on all but the last vote, which they voted against. Which probably means something grand, but I’ll let them spin it for themselves to be honest.

So what was the most notable thing about this budget?

It wasn’t the that the council’s plans to limit the number of household waste disposal bags to residents, and sell them extras, is probably illegal. It wasn’t Cllr Anthony Pollock (executive member for finance) saying that the council were “right” to keep the public in the dark about the budget. It wasn’t the fact that the Tories demanded to know why nobody had come up with amendments and alternative budgets, despite the budget only being released for a week. It wasn’t the obsession with a short-sighted council tax freeze that will require a 2.5% hike next year just to maintain the same funding level without the one-year central grant. It wasn’t the endless tiresome (and inaccurate) claims that Wokingham is the worst funded local authority in the country.

It wasn’t even the mindblowing revelation that the council makes a frankly embarrassing profit on the green waste bins and bags it will be selling under its new scheme. (Incidentally, the council will be charging £60 for the bins and a previously free service. The bins cost them £25. That’s a profit of 48.3%. Similarly, the bags will be sold for £1 each, but cost the council only  15p each- a profit margin of 85%!)

No, far and away the worst thing was just how much of the local authority finances were not included within it. This is the real danger of the way Wokingham Borough Council has been operating. Over the last few years, many parts of local government in the borough have been spun off into separate and private companies. Adult social care is now handled by Optalis Ltd. Wokingham Enterprise Ltd controls the town centre regeneration.

These bodies don’t appear on the budget in their own right. Why not? And since the plan is still to sell off the library service (which Cllr UllaKarin Clark had the audacity to boast in as she packages up and price-tags it), how will that fare? Will it too disappear off into a black hole of unaccountability?

It is, really, just the same as the games before the budget was released. The Conservative administration believe they have an absolute right to rule, which will never be taken away, and thus there is no need for them to be at all open in their activities. They have failed any openness test, and as Cllr Pollock’s attitude shows up, they don’t care.

Cllr David Lee, leader of the council made some bold promises tonight:

“We will not cut any services, we will not cut our contributions to voluntary services, we will not raise council tax, and we will maintain our reserves.”

The question of the hour, Cllr Lee, would be how? And from everything that I have seen tonight it is a question which seems still to be worryingly unanswered.

But, at least Wokingham isn’t going to turn into Greece. Thank God for that.

Bins and Stealth Taxes in Wokingham Borough

The rubbish bin- where, I humbly submit, Wokingham's new plans for their waste collection services belong

Timing is a funny thing, isn’t it? Just last night I blogged about the Wokingham council meeting tonight, calling upon residents to come along and help hold the council to account, and today three pieces of related news drop into my lap.

Firstly, The Wokingham Times run a story titled “Council defends bid to privatise libraries“- about that libraries plan which definitely was outsourcing, not privatisation, and they absolutely aren’t the same thing, not even a little, no sir! Anyway the article didn’t reveal anything much new, apart from that libraries are going to be debated tonight at the Executive meeting. And, of course, the universally hostile response in the comments was uplifting.

Secondly, in the course of my day job over at Political Scrapbook, we published this story about waste collection. The basic thrust of the story is a letter, from Bob Neil MP and Lord Henley at the Department of Communities and Local Government, which seems to indicate that the the Department considers some of Wokingham’s plans to be illegal.

A bit of background first. Wokingham are planning on a number of changes to their waste collection services. Chief amongst these are the rolling out of new bags for household waste, which each household will be limited to 80 per year. Anything required beyond this will have to be purchased, at a rate of £0.40 per bag. In addition, there will be a new £60 annual fee for green waste collection, a service which was previously free. Somehow, Cllr Gary Cowan thinks that this will increase recycling, rather than fly tipping, in the borough.

But take a look at what Bob Neil thinks about this, in a letter published on their website:

“…it has come to our attention that a small minority of local authorities may be exceeding their legal powers in relation to charging householders for waste services.”

“In short, councils cannot introduce ‘backdoor’ bin charging for mainstream waste collections or waste disposal. Such stealth taxes are not legal and are contrary to the policy direction of the new Government.”

The “not legal” part seems particularly conclusive there to me. I’m reliably informed by local Lib Dem leader Cllr Prue Bray that this matter has been raised before. Apparently they were brushed off by the Chief Executive at the time. I hear that her successor is looking more deeply into it, and I commend him for it, as I really don’t see any room for ambiguity here.

So if even Eric Pickles and co think that Wokingham’s plans are illegal, the residents don’t like them, and they aren’t even going to work, it might be fair to suggest that the policy is a bit of a mess. Especially when I bring in my third piece of news: that the council spent £90,000 of local taxpayers’ money coming up with a mission statement that seems oddly similar to the last one:

“A great place to live, an even better place to do business”

When you’re facing your library services being sold off, adult social care services already sold off, new charges for waste collection (what was it that council tax was supposed to pay for again) and a local government that seems uninterested in what residents think, that seems like £90k well spent, at least! Right?


An Invitation to the Public Gallery of Wokingham Borough Council

You are cordially invited to a holding-to-account of Wokingham Borough Council, on the day of their budget. It take place at Shute End, at 8pm on 23rd February, and I look forward to seeing you all there.

On Thursday, the day I’ve been ranting to myself about for a while now will get here. Yes, Wokingham Borough Council will be debating their budget. Well, I say debating. Since I’ve called everything correctly so far, from their refusal to let anyone see it more than a week before time, to the complete unsustainability of year on year council tax freezes, I’ll reiterate my predication that it will be passed with a drab raising of hands from the Conservative majority.

Except, that doesn’t sound like democracy is supposed to work. Or at least, it’s not in my book. When was the last time that any of you felt you had any control over what your local representatives did in your name?

Do you remember when the petition against the privatisation of the libraries was going around? Maybe you even signed it? That was the first time that a popular petition had forced a debate at a full council meeting. It showed the concern of the people at how one of their valued public services. What the Conservatives do? They ignored the concerns, and belittled those presenting the petition. The whole performance was a complete disgrace.

There are some more petitions that will be coming up to the correct number soon, including one which will trigger a debate on the council’s decision to remove public toilets. But as long as the Conservatives think that they can do whatever they like and at no point face scrutiny or consequence, exactly the same thing with happen as with the previous debate.

So here’s what I’m proposing. On Thursday 23rd February 2012, at 2000hrs, Wokingham Borough Council we be debating the sham of their budget. I will be there, watching from the public gallery. If you want to see the contempt that your local government holds you in, if you want to come and voice your displeasure with their actions, then why not come and join me?

Every resident has the right to come and watch public meetings. The public gallery isn’t particularly huge, but we can get a fair number of people in there- and imagine how uncomfortable it would make councillors to know that the very people by whose votes are there are watching and paying attention to their words and votes.

Let me be clear: this will not solve the problems in Wokingham local governance. That will take time, and it will take effort. But this will be a start, a first step on the road to putting people back at the heart of politics. Wherever you consider yourself to be politically, come see our council in action.

If you want to, then the council chambers are at SHUTE END, WOKINGHAM RG40 1BN. The meeting starts at 8pm, and goes on until we’ve all lost any faith in humanity (though, if you’re there for 7pm then you can watch the Executive Committe eat their meeting, too). If you want to talk to me about any of this, then you can do so in public in the comments below, or in private using my contact form.

But it really would be wonderful to see you there.

UPDATE: Somehow I missed this on the agenda, but The Wokingham Times are today trailing a non-story about the library privatisation plans– with the only piece of new information being that the Executive Committee are debating it tonight. For anyone who felt a little distanced from the general budget discussions, this might be of interest to you.

I’ve written about the library plans before, but the gist of it is that after last May’s elections (despite having made no mention of it in the campaign) the Conservatives announced they were “outsourcing” the library service. No consultation, and no asking what anyone thought. The plan is to award a contract in May (after the elections, perchance?), but strong indications have already been made that US company LSSI will get it.

If you’re interested, the Executive Committee meet at the same place, starting at 7pm. I’ll definitely be trying to get there for it myself.