Friday, July 20, 2007

Cash for Honours, what the...

So, sixteen months of headlines, the PM and his closest circle arrested, politics in Britain dragged through the mud and what? A file goes to the CPS further action. What on earth is going on? The only possible reason to drag this process out, spending over a million pounds and interviewing 136 people was if the investigation was going somewhere. No-one with the slightest sense of the public interest would inflict so much damage on our institutions unless they were utterly confident that someone would end up in the dock charged with something serious. This leads to exactly two scenarios: either Assistant Commissioner John Yates had made very serious error of judgement in continuing an investigation when there was little prospect of a resulting prosecution or the CPS have refused to prosecute despite the police making a good case.

Now Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, has been ordered to produce a report into the way the honours investigation was carried out. Too right.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Start of Wickford Town Centre Procurement Process

Basildon Council Cabinet this evening, and we started the process to find a development partner for the project to redevelop Wickford Town Centre. The Cabinet supported the proposal, except for the Labour members, whose stance was articulated by their Deputy Leader. It was along the lines that because there were some local concerns at the Wickford Master Plan, upon which basis the redevelopment will occur, that we should not proceed. Of course, it is always vital to consult with local people and to take their wishes into account when regenerating the place where they live, but anyone who has ever been part of a large scale development project will know that there are always concerns. It is pretty difficult to keep everyone happy when building an extension to a house, never mind when hundreds of homes, shops and public facilitates are involved. If any opposition was the benchmark then nothing would ever get done, and it should be pointed out that the Council's surveys, and election results where independents have stood on an anti-development ticket, have showed a healthy majority in favour of a new medical centre, a new swimming pool and community centre as well as a better High Street and new homes in Wickford.

Anyway, Labour voted against and so the battle lines are pretty much drawn in Wickford. With Labour, developers would carry on cherry-picking the prime development sites on a piecemeal basis. With the Conservatives we get coherency in development, and public infrastructure gets constructed too. It is a bit odd though, Tories wanting central planning and the socialists of Basildon Labour in favour of a market free-for-all. I wonder what the people of Wickford will think of that.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Targets are out of fashion

There is to be a 'bonfire of red tape', at least according to the new Brown government. Of course we have heard this before, when Ruth Kelly was running the Communities and Local Government department. Now this has been re-announced by Andy Burnham, Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Well, I will believe it when I see it.

In Basildon we have always balanced central government targets with actually doing the things that local people want, like keeping the Council Tax down and collecdting the bins weekly. The targets can't entirely be ignored, however, because the government can make trouble for local Councils that really don't co-operate. So, we have adopted a balanced policy towards them as opposed to treating them as the Word of God like the government intended, but there is still a cost in terms of the Council's focus being on Whitehall instead of on local people.

Now if Brown could just give Basildon more than the absolute minimum Revenue Support Grant...

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

John Baron presses the Point on Iraq

From John Baron, MP for Billericay:

The current situation in Iraq is a depressing reminder of the mistake we made by invading on the basis of false intelligence. Our troops are doing a good job in a dangerous situation, but progress is painfully slow. The political stalemate between rival ethnic and religious groups is proving difficult to break, and is continually being reinforced by a combination of sectarian violence and terrorism.

Having opposed the war, I believe it is important to learn the lessons of this disaster and ensure that any future military action is wholly justified by robust and authoritative intelligence which is independent of political influence. This was certainly not true of the key 2002 Iraq dossier, which wrongly claimed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.

What has come to light since the Hutton Inquiry is the extent to which Government spin doctors were involved in the drafting process, making suggestions and even writing parts of the dossier.

Indeed, we now know that it was the Foreign Office press officer John Williams who produced the first full draft of the dossier on the 9th September 2002 – one day before John Scarlett, Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, produced his first draft. The Freedom of Information Commissioner has ruled that Ministers ought to publish this document, but so far the Government has refused despite the fact the Williams draft was originally intended for publication. So what has the Government got to hide?

I have challenged Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and the previous Foreign Secretary on the issue in the House of Commons. A Parliamentary motion I sponsored recently attracted good cross-party support from over 50 MPs. I also secured a Parliamentary debate to put the spotlight on this draft dossier - but still the Government remains obstinate.

Tony Blair’s legacy as Prime Minister was the Iraq debacle. If Gordon Brown is serious about beginning a new era of open Government without spin, then he should make a start by publishing the Williams draft.

Boris Johnson to run for Mayor of London

Boris for Mayor! It does have a ring to it, and with all due respect to the other candidates in the selection process, Boris Johnson will almost be certainly the Conservative challenge against Ken Livingstone. In politics you need all sorts of people, and the dull but worthy certainly have a place, however Boris does not fit into that category. He is brash and noticeable, and he hides what must be a formidable intellect behind a slightly bumbling, but engaging exterior. He would be an ideal candidate for Mayor of London, where public profile is a first requirement. It worked for Ken, after all.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Basildon collects the rubbish every week; MPs think we're right

Alternate Weekly Collections is bureaucratspeak for collecting refuse to recycle one week and everything else the next week. Quite a few Councils have gone over to this, but now a parliamentary committee has come to the conclusion that this might not be such a good idea after all. On Basildon Council I am proud to say that we have never had a serious conversation about going over to collecting the rubbish every other week. For us the reasons not to do it were so obvious that it didn’t seem worth wasting any time over, but clearly not everyone shared our view. How elected members elsewhere got past the fact that people having to store rotting food waste for two weeks could not but make for smells and files, never mind rats and other vermin, is a bit of a mystery. That ordinary people wouldn’t like it was also pretty obvious, and several Council administrations that went down this road abruptly found themselves with more free time after the local elections in May. I heard one moron trying to defend his Council’s policy on the radio by saying that ‘Cambridgeshire was running out of holes in the ground’ for landfill. I was somewhat surprised as I had not imagined Cambridgeshire as one enormous rubbish tip, and his argument also misses the point. The issue is not recycling, which pretty much everyone reckons is a good thing, but Councils trying to save money on recycling by cutting the rest of the refuse collection service. Politicians do their people a disservice when they try and mislead, not that many people have been fooled this time.

It’s not difficult, weekly rubbish collection is both right and popular. That’s usually a winning combination.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Basildon knows all about Modern vs. Traditional

It appears that traditional buildings, you know brick walls, modest windows and tiled roofs, are actually more sustainable. In terms of energy-saving, brick and tiles beat glass and aluminium hands down, and the only surprising thing is that anyone is surprised. It has been the continual conceit of generations of architects that all that went before was useless and that modern materials and design methods mean that we can radically improve on basics of building construction, especially for housing. In Basildon that gave us concrete warrens that fell apart in two decades and estates that designed in deterioration and crime. I am sure that architects of that generation were as keen and sure of themselves as the current crop, but the problem is that no-one can really be sure of a building's viability until it has been up for few years. Look at the old Paternoster Square next to St. Paul's or the Bluehouse estate in Laindon, both considered exemplars of modern design when built, both demolished a few short decades after construction because the passage of time has shown them up to be awful.

In Basildon we are doing a lot of regeneration, so I see a lot of designs. Some are very good, but a depressingly large number are effectively taking a punt with the lives of the people who will have to live with them. Housing in particular is not a good area for experimentation, because of the concentrated misery that can result when you get it wrong. To be blunt, architecture awards are not a priority Basildon District. If you want to do something build something radically different then, please, go do it somewhere else.