Saturday, December 15, 2007

Basildon's Towngate Theatre open for Panto again

I went to see the Pantomime at the Towngate Theatre last night. It was very good; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with a beautiful princess and dashing prince and a scheming evil queen all portrayed by a fine cast, with some particularly talented younger members in supporting roles. The audience loved it, especially the children who booed, hissed and cheered with enthusiasm. It was pantomime at its best, and it marked the latest stage of a renaissance for the Towngate theatre, which has had a troubled history. The problem is that the theatre has all the facilities of top class theatre, except that its auditorium was designed to be far too small. So, it has all of the costs of a big venue while it can only generate the income of a small venue. This has meant that it has opened and closed many times as successive organisations have tried and failed to make it work as a theatre. At some points in its history it has also had a huge subsidy from the Council and so has been a political football, at that still lingers around in Basildon's politics. Now it is open again, and running better than for years thanks to an excellent team from the Council and a well-crafted policy from the Conservative Administration. The timing is also good as we are currently procuring a development partner for Basildon Town Centre, and one of the things under consideration in the future provision of a theatre for central Basildon. Ideally we will get a newer, better, and bigger theatre, but the deal has to add up and evidence of a functioning theatre already operating cannot help but make the case.

Oh, and if you live anywhere near Basildon, go and see the panto!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Reform treaty signed by Brown, by himself

In politics you often have to do unpopular things. It really cannot be helped, even when you are doing the right thing there is often some interest group that takes against you, and sometimes everyone is unhappy, like when you put taxes up. Good politicians are very aware of public reaction and do their best to minimise the number of people annoyed by any given course of action. So, Brown's actions in signing the Reform Treaty are inexplicable, though they try here. Of course, signing the treaty was always going to go down badly with anyone of even a vaguely Euroskeptic bent, but by citing a routine appointment in parliament as an excuse for missing the main signing ceremony, Brown also managed to irritate people who actually thought he was doing the right thing. This is schoolboy politics. How can it be that no one in the Prime Minister's circle told him that he would deflect not one iota of press and public approbation by this cack-handedness, and in fact would only add to it? Does Gordon Brown not employ press officers? Or is his man-management so dire that none of them dared to tell him how foolish he would look? I agreed with almost nothing that Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell actually did, but at least they did it competently. If Brown and his cohorts were organising an evening reception at a local brewery they would probably get the day wrong.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Brown takes on the Police

The government has got itself into an extraordinary dispute with the Police Federation. By not backdating a pay rise as recommended by the independent Police Arbitration Tribunal they have triggered a vote of no confidence in the Home Secretary and a ballot on the police demanding the right to strike. The facts are pretty simple: P0lice pay has risen above inflation since 1994 and they have done as well or better than the rest of the public sector. Now government finances are being squeezed and public sector pay is being restrained across the aboard. So far, so good, but what makes the Police different is that governments have historically always followed the Tribunal's recommendation, and that they do not have the right to strike. In terms of savings on the wage bill it is of the order of £30m, but in terms of loss of goodwill with a very important interest group the price is much higher than that. Some Members of Parliament understand that at least and a motion urging the government to think again has over 70 signatures, including many Labour backbenchers. Gordon Brown is standing firm, however, saying:
No policeman and no person across the country would thank us if their pay rise was wiped out by inflation...
Except it's not inflation, it's government finances that are the problem and everyone knows this. Gordon wanted an end to Boom and Bust. Let's hope he has a Plan B.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Judith Armitt Resigns

Juith Armitt, the Chief Executive the Thames Gateway project has abruptly resigned. This comes barely a week after the Thames Gateway forum event at Docklands Excel centre, where the project plans for the next three years were launched. No official reason has been given for the abrupt departure, though the Times, is running an article suggesting it was after a spat with Minister for Housing Yvette Cooper. I have no inside gossip on that, but Judith's departure is not good news for Basildon, where the Basildon Renaissance Partnership is a successful Thames Gateway delivery vehicle. We have real projects and a development portfolio of around £1.5bn that rely on support from the Thames Gateway initiative, and any impression of drift or disorganisation does not help the cause of improving Basildon District. In particular the lack of cross-party political support for the Thames Gateway is worrying, though not necessarily surprising given this sort of development. We must hope that Judith's successor can pull things together, and quickly, if the project is not to lose momentum. It is far too important to Basildon for that.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

John Baron MP: Government admits plans for ISTC in Basildon have been shelved

Letter confirms that independent hospital will not be imposed on local NHS

Commenting on a letter he received from Health Minister Ivan Lewis MP today in response to his correspondence of 2nd November, John Baron MP welcomed news that the local campaign against an Independent Sector Treatment Centre (ISTC) in Basildon has paid off. Ivan Lewis confirmed that “Basildon is not currently one of the sites being considered”. Despite rumours about the local project being cancelled, this is the first time the Department of Health has admitted that plans for an ISTC locally have been shelved.

John said:

This is great news for local NHS patients – our campaign has really paid off. An ISTC would have disrupted existing services, taken resources away from Basildon Hospital, and had a knock-on effect on training budgets and cross-subsidy of emergency services. It is no wonder that the hospital and SW Essex Primary Care Trust were both opposed.

Having raised this matter in Parliament and in writing many times, I am relieved the Government has finally listened to the views of local people. It would have been completely wrong to impose an ISTC against the wishes of the local NHS. Ministers admitted as much to me months ago, but now we have a concrete assurance.

Trust in government and local government

There is a problem with trust in government. The Labour government has a history of spinning and dishonesty and their poor reputation has been compounded by the latest party funding scandal. Of course Conservatives have had their own troubles and the popular media finds it difficult to portray any politician in a positive light. In fact, if you wanted to make a subversive, mould-breaking film today you could portray a government and its officials being absolutely straight in the face of a crisis or a complex issue. This lack of trust leaks into local government, where Councillors routinely find their integrity being questioned when they make contentious decisions. I've been taken to the Standards Board for England on four occasions; in each case it was found that there was no case to answer but the fact that we have a process where anyone can start an official process against a Councillor speaks to an institutional lack of trust. The last one, by the way, was because some individual thought my handwriting indicated membership of a secret Masonic cult. Instead of being told to seek help, this person's delusions were entertained and the process grimly gone through, though all concerned thought it absurd.

Lack of trust can have very serious effects. Some Councils, for example, will not talk to potential developers in advance of a planning application because their Councillors are terrified of an appearance of impropriety. This is a disastrous policy if you want to attract investment for the good of your community, but at least you don't get investigated by faceless bureaucrats. In Basildon we have had a series of press articles probing our regeneration efforts, stirred up by the so-called Wickford Action Group, who feel empowered to spray accusations and innuendo around at anyone they happen to disagree with. To be fair, most community groups aren't like that even when they are arguing against Council policy. I have a lot of respect for those concerned about the Sporting Village project for example, who have put their case very forcefully and effectively without resorting to accusation and abuse. They are the sort of people you listen to. Others get filed with the Masonic cult chap.