Wednesday, February 22, 2012

John Baron MP leads House of Commons debate on Iran

Yesterday in the House of Commons, John Baron MP opened a debate on Iran, calling for the Government to rule out the use of force and to reduce tensions by redoubling diplomatic efforts. The full-day debate was secured by John through the Backbench Business Committee. John lost the vote 285-6 – more than half of MPs abstained.

John argued that military action against Iran, whether by the UK, US or Israel, would be a disaster and could possibly spark off a regional war. Instead, John suggested, the West should offer Iran the opportunity of a new relationship, recognising Iran’s regional power status – which the US and UK largely created by their misguided invasion of Iraq. The precedent being Nixon’s rapprochement with China during the 1970s.

“The West’s policy of sanctions and sabre-rattling has failed. They have brought us to the brink of military conflict. Such is the failure of the West’s approach. Iran will not be deterred from her pursuit of nuclear technology.”

“A military strike would be calamitous. It would unite Iran in fury. It would not work. Knowledge cannot be destroyed by military action. Even within Israel, there are voices of caution. Meir Dagan – the hardline former Chief of Mossad – has referred to an attack against Iran as a ‘stupid idea’.”

“Yet, we refuse to rule out the use of force. Such a policy is not only naive, but illogical. We are keeping an option which all know would be a disaster, against a country which chooses to ignore it. Yet this option heightens tensions, and makes a peaceful outcome less likely”

“A fresh approach is required. Now is the time for the US to make clear to Israel that force should not be used. This would immediately lessen tensions and make conflict less likely. Longer-term, we should be prepared to offer implicit recognition of Iran’s status as a regional superpower. There is a precedent: the rapprochement between Nixon and China in the 1960s and 1970s was a defining moment, and the right decision. The US now needs to realise that this is one of those defining moments before calamity befalls the region.”

The speech can be read in full online:

During his speech opening the debate, John addressed some of the inconvenient truths which many are prepared to skate over when discussing Iran. These include that the November report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) provided no clear evidence of nuclear weapons development. John also pointed out that opportunities to better relations between the West and Iran had been missed by both sides.

I don't necessarily agree with all of John's position, but it is to his very great credit that he called the debate on this critical matter. On reading Hansard you see MP after MP thanking John for the opportunity for the Mother of Parliaments to debate on what may be a slide into war. It really shouldn't have fallen to a backbench MP to have to do this, but our man in Billericay has stepped up when we needed him to. Billericay residents can be very proud of their man at Westminster today.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Basildon Town Centre Masterplan Consultation

We have opened public consultation on the Basildon Town Centre Masterplan. This document in its final form will lay out the vision for Basildon Town Centre, but crucially will also determine what actually happens in terms of built works. In fact it will be a Development Plan Document and a material consideration at Planning Committee meetings. So far I am advised that reaction has been very positive, with a general recognition that something needs to be done to reverse the decline of the Town Centre. This is key as the Conservative Administration really believes in Town Centres over the Retail Park model for shopping and leisure. We simply don't think our Town Centres should be the second-best solution for those without cars. Social cohesion matters, and thriving Town Centres have the supreme virtue of large scale employment. This may be tough to deliver given the retail climate at the moment, but we can do tough.

I would be misleading if I left it at all sweetness and light though. There are two major issues: the new FE College and moving the market. The new college is funded by the development of an area of Special Housing Reserve land at Dry Street. This is owned by the Homes and Communities Agency and they have got approval to give monies from a housing development to the FE College project instead of returning it back to the Treasury. So, we get a new College, which our young people desperately need, housing on non-Green Belt land, which our builders and then our people desperately need, and then an institution in Basildon Town Centre with around 2500 students, which the local economy desperately needs. All good? Well, we have to give up an important green space to do it, so it is a judgement call. Needless to say, the local Councillors for Nethermayne Ward are not happy, and I respect that. The other problem is that the new College is set for the current Market site, so the Market is proposed to move to St. Martin's Square. This proposal has made many of the existing traders very unhappy as they rely on permanent cabins on the existing site, which are not proposed for the Square. I am trying to arrange a meeting with them soonest, but there is no magic answer to this one.

As for the local Labour Party, I genuinely have no clue on what they think. This worries me a lot as Regeneration has generally been apolitical in Basildon. No one is in favour of bad housing or empty shops. So, I offer the opposition any briefing of meeting that they wish. I don't expect them to love me, and we will end up with some sort of disagreement, of that I am sure, but I don't want the representatives of an important view point and a large chunk of our Community not to understand the Administration view, even if they don't agree with it. Basildon Councillors are vigorously political, but let us make sure we row about facts, not fictions eh?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Congratulations Angela

It occurs to me that I missed a huge story in my blogging for which I apologise. We have a Baroness Basildon in the form of our former MP Angela Smith, and I cannot think of a more deserving individual. That may surprise many, given we sit firmly on the opposite sides in politics, but only a fool would not recognise Angela's enormous talents and sheer commitment to the ordinary people in our community. People may rail against the House of Lords, but it works well to capture and retain such people in Britain's public life. The work of that chamber is often very impressive, if inconvenient for the government of the day. Angela keeping a role in public service is case to point as well as a quiet satisfaction to many in Basildon.

In fact Basildon has always been fortunate in our MPs. We now have the endlessly hardworking Stephen Metcalfe in Basildon proper. In Billericay we have John Baron, decent, intelligent and really holding the government to account on serious foreign policy matters of the day. For Wickford we have Mark Francois, brought up in Basildon and an astonishingly talented man. God knows where our community would be without such representing us at Westminster.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Houses aren't evil

I caught a trailer for Channel 4 News the other day where the journalist was on a building site and said something like 'a rare sight in Britain, a house being built'. Except it's not that rare, in Basildon at least. We have had a steady stream of housebuilding down the years, and that has continued though the latest downturn in the economy. This is a good thing. Construction has a long supply chain, so and keeps a great many people in work, including the not insignificant number of builders and building suppliers in Basildon. There is also the simple fact that people actually need homes to live in. This should be obvious, but somehow and to some people it doesn't seem to be. We have an expanding population and our sons and daughters need somewhere to live. So, we need homes for starters, some social and affordable, some private, and then we need homes for those moving up the economic ladder, because we don't want to lose them to other communities. As per the title, houses aren't evil, but from some of the rhetoric applied to them you would have thought that they were.

Of course, the key point with housing is where you build it. In Basildon we haven't built on the Green Belt, preferring to keep in our current urban footprints. That doesn't mean blocks of little flats by the way. In fact, builders tell me that the best returns at the moment are from high quality family homes. However, the problem with a policy of building on land in the urban areas that is not Green Belt is the proximity of other homes, which often means objections. Some of these are justified, some are not, and some are put in terms that living next door to a newly built home leads to the destruction of mind, body and spirit. Houses really aren't evil.

It comes down to this. We need more homes, in Basildon and elsewhere, but we don't want to turn our semi-rural community into an urban sprawl. Local Labour's policy is 'not one brick'. It really is. They don't want any building anywhere. As far as they are concerned if you want a new home in Basildon, whether you are on the social housing waiting list or a company director, you can just shove off. Apparently, Basildon is perfect in every way you see. It's full. Move along. That this is crackers doesn't seem to deter them.

Meanwhile the grown-ups are getting on with managing actual growth, because the whole country needs it right now.

I don't know where Channel 4 were filming, but it wasn't around here.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Dale Farm: Where now?

One of the many Dale Farm myths has been the supposedly staggering costs of the clearance, with figures of £18m or more bandied about. This has usually been by people who did not wish the Council well, but unfortunately the astronomical figures have also been taken up by some of the mainstream press. Well folks, there is a difference between a budget and a spend. In this case the budget was set by two factors: the need to cater for a worst case scenario that was regarded as highly unlikely; and the need not to put the clearance under budgetary pressure to cut corners and do something unsafe. The worst case scenario, which was a much longer and more violent operation, did not happen and the clearance eventually accounted for 7 relatively minor injuries. So, Council spend is a somewhat over £4m and while the police spend is not in yet it is likely to be well below their maximum budget of around £10m. These are very large sums, but in the ways that these things are calculated it is considered that it was an efficient use of resources. However, I would much rather have spent the money on making Basildon Borough better in a more positive way.

There is the other matter of cost recovery, which is likely to result in bills of tens of thousands of pounds for each Traveller family. The Traveller 'supporters', who advised them have very carefully limited their own liability of course and so they can retire back to their comfortable houses and leave the people they care so much about to pick up the tab. Their rubbish advice has resulted in a clearance and crippling bills for the people they have supposedly been representing. So, what are they doing in the face of total failure? Why they are carrying on with the same confrontational and adversarial approach that has worked so well. One has managed to rack himself up a staggering legal bill and liability to compensate the Council in the process, so we will see if he has the hundreds of thousands of pounds he will need to settle it.

For those that have been gloating that the travellers have no assets and that we won't get a penny I would remind that Basildon Council has a legal duty to recover monies owed it. Further, I would hope that, even if you don't like what we are doing, recent events have shown that the Council is pretty efficient once it decides to do something.

What now? Well the legal site at Dale Farm is now over-occupied, and that cannot be allowed to continue. While we can give a bit of leeway, the problem is that crowded caravan sites are very vulnerable to things like fire. This is why caravan density and spacing is taken so seriously in the various regulations that pertain. The Planning conditions on the legal site control the number of pitches that are allowed, and these will be enforced.

For the travellers, my advice is do ditch the useless 'supporters' that have been advising you thus far. Especially get rid of the anarchists and cause-whores from London and further afield. They pretty much destroyed public sympathy for the Travellers when they decided to bombard the police with bricks and urine. As for your longer-term representatives: all they and they  have done is got Dale Farm cleared and got you on the wrong end of a huge financial claim. They are in it for the cause, not for you. Assuming what you want is a legal site or sites somewhere then stop treating this like a war, stop playing the race card and find someone to represent you who is not just in it to big themselves up. The last time we tried to do a deal to find alternative sites a Traveller 'supporter' destroyed the process by issuing a press release on the confidential talks that were taking place. If you keep these same people then you will get nowhere.

It would have been far, far better if this had happened ten years ago by the way. Following the site clearance, and the way the Travellers and their 'supporters' have behaved a solution that pleases everyone is probably impossible to achieve. That is when you negotiate in good faith. The traveller community and their 'supporters' should try it sometime.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Dale Farm: Clearance Nearly Complete

The clearance of the illegal part of the Dale Farm traveller site is nearly complete. The work has been carried out without any undue interference, thank God, and an injunction is in place to prevent any illegal reoccupation of the site.

Unfortunately, this is likely to be only the latest phase in an ongoing story. Some of the travellers from the illegal site have moved onto the legal portion next door. The Council cannot allow protracted occupation of the legal part with a vastly increased population of caravans. This is for very practical reasons of fire and service access, and because it is downright dangerous. Caravan sites by their very nature have to especially guard against fire. There was a tragedy on the illegal part of Dale Farm for example. Too high a density of Caravans are simply too much of a hazard to the people in them.

There is also the matter of costs and other legal matters to conclude. The taxpayers of Basildon Borough expect the monies due to their Council to be recovered, and we will certainly be pursuing those who owe us. 

Predictably, most of the traveller 'representatives' and 'supporters' appear to have moved on to other things. After years of giving the Dale Farm residents the worst possible advice and then throwing their own urine at the police another cause beckons I suppose.

That St. Paul's thing looks fun...

John Baron MP criticises Government over Dartford Crossing toll increases during Commons exchange

MP says new technology on existing Crossing should be tried before toll increases introduced

Today in the House of Commons during Transport Questions, John Baron MP criticised the Government for planned toll charge increases to fund the construction of a second crossing so that congestion could be eased. The Government has proposed to increase toll charges to £2 and then to £2.50 in 2012. John has previously raised this issue with Government Ministers and has written to the Government outlining his objections as part of the consultation – see Notes to Editors.

John said:

“Government thinking is flawed. Given that the existing crossing makes £35-40 million profit a year, why not first introduce Automatic Number-Plate Recognition technology at the existing Crossing to see if this solves the problem of congestion, before raising tariffs to fund a second crossing?”

“With a new Secretary of State in post, can we now have some fresh thinking on this issue?”

The Minister said in response that the Government did not think new technology would solve the congestion problem and therefore toll increases are necessary to help fund a second crossing

John said afterwards:

“Increasing toll charges in these difficult economic times is a nonsense. Hard pressed businesses and families need all the help they can get. New free-flow technology would substantially ease congestion. Nothing would be lost in seeing if this works first before raising toll charges for a second crossing.”

“I have written to the Secretary of State requesting a meeting and will be inviting other Essex MPs if I am successful.”

John is, of course, absolutely right on this one. Hiking the crossing fees in these difficult times makes no sense and the options for a second crossing are hopelessly limited anyway.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Richard Howitt ejected from Basildon Council site at Dale Farm

Richard Howitt was ejected from the Basildon Council site at Dale Farm on Wednesday 19th October. The key facts are:
  • The general area in question was a site controlled and operated by Basildon Borough Council. 
  • Access to the site was, and is, strictly controlled because of the general requirement for proper insurance and the real risk that the site would be targeted by violent protesters. 
  • All visitors have to go through an accreditation process, which includes the issue of safety gear. This typically takes a day, so apply on the Wednesday, and access granted on Thursday etc. 
  • The site includes a media area, arranged for their convenience but also to prevent journalists getting in the way of heavy machinery etc. 
  • Subject to obvious practical considerations, journalists do not and did not confine themselves to the Council's media area. Interviews and reports were made from many other locations in and around Dale Farm. 
  • Richard Howitt had asked to come onto the Council site and was accredited for Thursday 20th. There is an email trail to his office confirming this. He was not accredited for Wednesday 19th. 
  • Mr. Howitt came on site in a media vehicle, with gate security mistakenly assuming he was a media staffer. He then proceeded to the Council's media area and presented himself for interviews and so on. 
  • The operational command structure decided that Mr. Howitt should be removed from the Council site. That means exactly what it says; the Dale Farm clearance being run under the standard Gold/Silver/Bronze model that is used for large scale operations. It was not a decision for Councillors, though I am fully support it and I would have made the same call had it been up to me. 
  • Mr. Howitt was duly removed from the Council site. 
Facts aside, the question is was it right to remove Richard Howitt from the Council site? On the basis of the simple application of the rules that have applied to everyone else, including at least one other MEP, then the answer is surely yes. About the last thing that was needed in the middle of a clearance operation that had already turned violent was someone wandering around in a business suit with no safety gear, insurance and where the party in question could not be relied on to obey instructions.

There is also the matter of the astonishing bad faith displayed by Mr. Howitt in sneaking onto the Council site when he was officially due the next day.

Hang on though, what about free speech? Well, what was stopping Mr. Howitt exercising his rights somewhere else? There were plenty of journalists not on the Council site, why didn't he go and talk to them? I note that his ejection from the Council site did not not put an end to his media activities on that day.

What was he even doing there?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dale Farm Clearance

Held off posting for a while because of the legal processes associated with Dale Farm and then the sensitivities of the actual clearance. Frankly, I couldn't risk posting something that might further complicate the situation, so a bit of self-censorship was called for. Now though I think it is time to reflect on what has been going on.

First of all, no-one at Basildon Council wanted it to come to a forced clearance. Ridiculous and contemptible accusations that we are driven by testosterone or bigotry are just rubbish. The reason we are where we are is simply because the Dale Farm Travellers have been used as political pawns by a succession of self-interested people to boost their egos, their causes, or in some cases their incomes. The Travellers have been consistently given awful advice that prevented any effective negotiations with the Council, including when an 'activist' decided to wreck the ongoing negotiations we were having with the HCA to find alternative sites. For that individual his cause was more important than the Dale Farm families. He didn't live there of course.

Then we had the poor people of Cray's Hill, the village next to Dale Farm, who were consistently ignored by the do-gooders and hangers-on 'helping' the Travellers. Apparently, that community didn't matter you see. Well, the main reason why Basildon Borough Council has stuck to its guns over Dale Farm has been those forgotten people. Planning Law is there for many reasons, but one of the most important is to restrict what can be built right next to where you live. The largest Traveller site in Europe had a poisonous effect on Cray's Hill, but almost no-one seemed to notice or even care. Certainly the Labour Party was indifferent, both locally and nationally. In fact our local Labour party seemed to relish the idea of people who largely don't vote for them having their lives wrecked. It was appalling to see how much they hate some parts of the Basildon community, and I don't use the word lightly.

What about the Travellers? Well, I am going to be blunt: but any rational definition of the word, Dale Farm was a slum. It was even run by a couple of slum landlords who collected the rent. It had no proper sewage or basic facilities. If I had tried to get a housing estate built to those standards then I would probably have been locked up, but somehow Traveller 'culture' means that it is fine for them to live in rubbish housing. Unfortunately, the attitude that Travellers are free to live in conditions that the settled community largely moved on from a century ago is prevalent among the various do-gooders that surround them. The result is that Travellers'  social outcomes are catastrophic in terms of life expectancy, education, mental health, treatment of women, alcoholism and so on. Traveller culture is going to have to change, if the various professional enablers that surround them allow it of course.

Within the parameters you apply to such an operation, the clearance has gone well. The Council team have been excellent, and Essex Police have been nothing short of brilliant. They got control of the site against appalling violence with a minimum of injuries on all sides. The courage and professionalism of both Essex Police and the police from other forces has been inspiring. Despite the stupidity of the activists supposedly supporting the Travellers in finding all sorts of ways to put themselves in danger everyone has walked away from this. That is surely the most important thing. It should also be noted that it was these outside activists that caused all of the trouble on the site. For me it was epitomised by that Drama Queen with the crucifix, dancing around with a religious symbol that means nothing to her in one hand, apparently she's a Muslim, and with a coffee in her other hand. You just know she will be on some other protest next week, if it will get her into the newspapers that is. Meanwhile, the actual Travellers have only protested peacefully, because they are reasonably decent people who are not in this for a laugh.

So, we will press on with the clearance, not because of any macho posturing but because in the final analysis the law has to apply equally to everyone, and that's it. Dale Farm has always been about fairness and equality before the law. Being a minority culture does not get you out of obeying the law and this position has been confirmed by the highest courts in the land. It is also the view of the vast majority of the people of Basildon and of this country.

In the end, clearing Dale Farm was simply the right thing to do.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Dale Farm and Racism

Most of the commentary from those supporting the illegal Traveller site at Dale Farm has included some accusation of racism. The implied, or sometimes explicit statement is that Basildon Council and the settled community are motivated not by a desire to see fairness and equality under the law but by some pathological hatred of Travellers. That Basildon has the largest number of legal Traveller pitches per hectare in England seems to make no odds, we still must be a bunch of racists.

Well, here is my experience: people who casually bandy around accusations that question the motives of others usually do it because of something within themselves. Accusing others of corruption in the first instance and without any evidence for example is a good indication that the accuser would be in the market for a brown envelope if the opportunity arose. Such people cannot conceive that others would not behave in that way, because that is what they themselves are like.

So, on to the people who bandy about accusations of racism, my experience with them is that is because they themselves nurture some deep-seated hatred and so assume everyone else must as well. On the activist left, hatred is usually reserved for the settled middle-class, who are detested because they obey the law and refuse to share is some world-revolutionary view. In the Dale Farm situation the settled community in Cray's Hill doesn't even register with the protesters on the site, because, frankly, they hate them and everything that they stand for. So, one community is lauded and the other ignored and treated with contempt, except to be labelled as racists of course.

Well folks I have a disappointment for you. Most people live their lives without hate and think that those who palpably burn with it are kind of sad. My advice to the people who equate the Dale Farm clearance with ethnic cleansing is first to read a history book or two and try to actually understand what the term means and secondly to have a bit of a think about your world view.

If you find yourself burning with hatred for any group then you are badly in need of a change, or a religious experience, or something.