Saturday, August 11, 2007

More of our best fall in Iraq

In a bloody week for our armed forces, another soldier has been killed in southern Iraq. There is something terribly poignant about those young faces framed with their uniforms that head yet another newspaper announcement of unbearable grief for their families, and sorrow for the rest of us.

War is terrible, but there are worse things than war and sometimes it can be justified as the lesser evil. I still believe that we were right to go to war in Iraq, but that the coalition made serious mistakes in the conduct of the war and then blundered the aftermath in ways that stretch credulity. I also believe that this Labour government is guilty of failing to support our armed forces at every level, from inadequate equipment, to not enough equipment even when it works, to not even caring properly for our soldiers when they return wounded. Most importantly though there is now a sense of mission drift in Iraq. The British presence there seems to be confined to base in an effort to return as much of government and security to Iraqis. This has made them sitting ducks for mortar and rocket attacks, and gives insurgents plenty of time to mine roads an prepare ambushes for when our army does venture forth. It seems to me that a decision is required: either we allow the army to fight, or we bring them home. In dithering over this Labour is further betraying the trust of our soldiers, and making for more confident young faces staring out over the newspaper announcement of their death.

Friday, August 10, 2007

We must have a Referendum on the EU Treaty

It is very simple: every major party promised a referendum on the EU Constitution at the last General Election. This EU Treaty is the Constitution by another name, as has been admitted by a range of genuine enthusiasts for it, therefore we must have a referendum. Brown and Labour are weaselling on the issue, the Conservatives are holding them to account.

Most of the press want a referendum, and the Telegraph is running a petition to that effect. Sign up here.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Fears of closure for the St. Andrew's Centre in Billericay

The Health Centre at St. Andrews on the Stock Road is subject to concern that it might close. This is a valuable community resource that houses two separate facilities, one has GPs' surgeries and dentists, while the other has physiotherapy run by the Primary Care Trust and x-rays and blood tests run by Basildon University Hospital. It is this last service that appears to be under review, though if it were to close there could be some effect on the rest of the site. This is a crucial facility for the community of Billericay so any fears about St. Andrews are a very serious matter.

I have it on excellent authority that there are no plans, or even discussions, on the subject of closing St. Andrews. I also have it on excellent authority that closure isn't ruled out as part of the Hospital's regular review of facilities. If anything does happen, however, there will be a very public discussion and consultation process, so watch this space.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Basildon Town Centre Regeneration

The first phase of the Basildon Town Centre procurement has gone pretty well. Commercial confidentiality concerns pervade the process, so I'll leave it to the Council press release:

06 August 2007

The estimated £1 billion regeneration of Basildon town centre has attracted Europe wide interest since it was first announced last year.

The council is pleased with the number of companies which have formally expressed an interest in this project. This reflects the high level of interest being shown in Basildon by developers and investors.

The period for formally submitting expressions of interest in the regeneration closed at 1pm today (Monday 6 August ).

Last June a contract notice was published in Official Journal of the European Union as Basildon Council started the formal stage of finding a development partner to develop the project.

The details of developers and investors who have submitted an expression of interest will remain confidential until the council considers who to shortlist for the next stage. The shortlist is due to be announced at the end of September.

Companies shortlisted will be invited to talks with the council’s team before being asked to submit formal tenders. The name of the successful development partner is expected to be announced next spring.

The regeneration of Basildon town centre will see the development of 3,650 new homes, 49,000 sq m of retail and leisure, and 53,000 sq m of offices. As part of the project the council will develop a new civic centre and a library and arts complex.
A development framework for the town centre was approved in 2006. It will form the basis for a master plan that the selected development partner will be asked to prepare.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Everything is Brown's fault

First the floods and now foot and mouth, Gordon Brown hasn’t been too lucky so far. Even if you allow that he hasn’t made a hash of the management of the various crises, no premier wants events like these, either in absolute terms or because they crowd out the government’s own agenda from the political airtime. If people are talking about towns being underwater or farmers losing their livelihoods then they aren’t talking about the things government thinks are important, which means you aren’t exercising the great advantages of government in the setting of he political agenda.

There is also another characteristic of the recent biblical plagues than have been visited on England; in both cases there has been a connection to some government funding decision or another. In the case of the floods there was actually a cut to the Environment Agency’s budget last year, while the run-down and underfunded state of the government research lab that is suspected as the source for the foot and mouth outbreak was highlighted in a report some years ago. As the purse strings for the last ten years have been controlled by one G. Brown, it hasn’t taken long for commentators to ask if the new PM bears a measure of responsibility for some of the recent suffering. This illustrates a strategic problem for Labour. While many people were heartily sick of Tony Blair, it is difficult to advance Gordon Brown as a break with the past when he has been so pivotal to government decision-making for a decade. Not a sparrow falls that cannot be linked to treasury policy at some point in the past. This doesn’t just apply to disasters, but to more mundane policy on schools, education and the NHS. The last couple of weeks may have accelerated the process, but Gordon may end up being blamed for everything.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Conservative Housing Policy

With regard to the current concerns in Wickford, and in an effort to clarify where the Conservative Party stands on housing, this is from a speech by Peter Ainsworth, Shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary to the Country Landowners Association Conference on the 11th of May 2007:
Let me take just one example: housing.

Everyone accepts that we urgently need more affordable rural housing.

The average rural property price is now 6.7 times the average rural salary.

Young men and women are being priced out of their own communities. They don't like it; their families don't like it; and it's bad for social cohesion and a sense of community.

The 'solution' offered by the Government's Barker Review is a Stalinist style independent quango, unelected and unaccountable.

I cannot think of a better way to make existing tensions more acute.

The tension is between the need for more housing and the desire to protect and preserve the countryside from over-development.

I remember Chris Patten saying many years ago, when he was Environment secretary, that we shouldn't regard other people's homes as some kind of pollution. We don't see our own homes that way.

He was right.

But equally, we should not look at housing - as the Treasury appears to do now - as some kind of utilitarian instrument whose prime purpose is to achieve a set of macro-economic goals

We need new, affordable homes, not "units".

We need house builders who understand the meaning of "vernacular architecture"; who respect landscape and settings; who use local materials; who believe in the difference that aesthetics and ecology can make to the quality of life.

And we need a Government that understands that simply slapping the word "sustainable" in front of the word "communities" doesn't fool anyone.

In fact, without proper infrastructure investment in roads, schools, hospitals, post offices, water resources - without thinking of the basics that communities need in order to flourish - present Government policy is in danger of creating deracinated, broken places with no sense of community at all.

My worry is that the slums of the future are going up in a field near you.

I believe that Local Authorities are in the right place to wrestle with these dilemmas.

A top down, authoritarian approach to planning is resulting in exactly what you'd expect. Resentment and obstruction.

Local authorities, accountable to their electorates, are best placed to balance the need to meet local housing pressures with the need to protect local landscapes. The democratic process would ensure that this happened.

We don't need new planning quangos. We don't need unelected Regional Government either. We need a lot more common sense when it comes to planning; and yes, this applies just as much to the conversion of agricultural buildings for the purpose of creating new business opportunities as it does to building new homes.
The Conservative Party thinks that all of the issues to do with communities and homes are best balanced within communities and managed through the democratic process. The Labour government has plans to take what democratic accountability we have and water it down even further. Meanwhile, the local Labour Party is just using the current planning pressures in Wickford as a stick to beat the Conservative administration on Basildon District Council with. Labour has no representation and little stake in Wickford, so if their machinations make matters worse for the town then that is a risk they are prepared to take. They are happy to go along with anyone on this sort of issue and, as ever, an accurate representation of the real situation regarding development in Wickford takes second place.