Sunday, March 02, 2008

John Baron MP urges residents to have their say on gypsy and traveller proposals

Government must listen over plans for 81 new traveller pitches in Basildon District

John Baron today called on local residents to submit their views to the Government Office in the East of England (GO-East) on recent proposals from the unelected East of England Regional Assembly (EERA) for a new gypsy and traveller strategy. The plans announced last month would see a further 81 authorised pitches imposed on Basildon District, in addition to the 116 pitches already provided. They would leave some neighbouring authorities with as few as 15. GO-East is now undertaking a 12-week consultation on behalf of the Secretary of State, from 25 February to 16 May.

John said:
I am urging local residents to take part in the latest consultation on the future of traveller site provision across Essex, as this issue is an important test case for local democracy.

Plans to force new traveller sites on Basildon District are unfair and need to be stopped. They implicitly reward travellers for developing land without planning permission because the target of 81 new authorised sites is calculated to reflect the number of existing unauthorised sites. This is quite wrong.

Basildon has already done its fair share of providing traveller pitches – over 100, while some neighbouring authorities have none at all. That is why it is so important that local residents take this opportunity to have their say. It is time for other local authorities to step up to the plate and help address traveller needs.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

John Baron MP tells Prime Minister Iraq dossier should be published

MP raises Information Tribunal ruling at PMQs

In Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, John Baron MP challenged Gordon Brown over the Government’s failure to publish an early draft of the 2002 Iraq dossier written by FCO spin doctor John Williams, despite rulings from the Information Commissioner and an Information Tribunal (22nd January 2008) instructing this to happen.

John said:
Now that the Information Commissioner and an Information Tribunal have instructed the Government to release the John Williams draft of the 2002 Iraq dossier, saying that it could add to what we know about the role of spin doctors in presenting the case for war, and highlighting discrepancies in the evidence provided by the Foreign Office, will the Prime Minister now immediately release the document, and if not, why not?
The Prime Minister said that a decision will be announced very soon.

Commenting afterwards, John said:
The Government has for too long withheld the truth about the role played by spin doctors in producing the Iraq Dossier. Now the Information Tribunal agrees that the Williams draft could have played a greater part in influencing the drafting of the dossier than the Government has so far admitted – even to the Hutton inquiry. The public deserves to decide for ourselves the importance of this document in the run up to war.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Gardiner's Lane South plan B

In 2003 Basildon District Council published a Supplementary Planning Guidance for Gardiner’s Lane South. This built on the 1992 Local Plan and designated the 90-acre open space for a large commercial and a limited housing development. So, far, so good, but despite a planning application for the site being passed in 2005, it hasn’t proved possible to design a project to actually get anything built. The sticking point has been the identified need for a bridge and junction over the adjacent A127 to take the traffic from the commercial development, which has a price tag of the order of £45m. No government cash has been forthcoming for that, and that upfront cost made a project unattractive to the private sector, despite the boom in commercial property that has only just come to a stuttering halt. What does a Council do when faced with such a situation? Well there is the option of working with the landowner, English Partnerships, an arm of the government, to somehow, some way get a development started on the original plans. That is certainly what the local Labour Party said we should do. Or, we could recognise that if we couldn’t get the development going in the most benign of markets then it certainly won’t happen during the current slowdown, and then think of something else. Because we are sensible people, we have gone with option 2, and we will be working with English Partnerships on a predominately residential alternative, which doesn’t have anything like the same heavy transport impact. That also means that there is a green field somewhere that we won’t have to concrete over to meet the government’s housing targets for Basildon District, which is also a good thing. The only real concern would be if the loss of potential employment land could damage the local economy, but we are confident that our other regeneration projects and developments like the huge London Gateway port just 7 miles down the road will provide the commercial space, and employment, that we need.

The Labour Party was still upset though, because the original proposal was largely their idea. Frankly, they shouldn’t be so defensive. No-one has torn into them about the viability of the original scheme, and anyway that is not the point. What matters is what works for our community not the egos that have been invested in glossy site maps. Housing on Gardiners Land at least has some prospect of actually being built.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Egg sacks 7% of its customers

Credit card provider Egg, now part of Citigroup, has stopped the credit cards of 161,000 of its customers, about 7% of its entire base. Apparently this is because they are 'high risk' and it the straightened economic climes represented an exposure that the financial institution was no longer willing to accept. However, many of their understandably miffed ex-customers do not seem very high risk. In fact they seem to be the sort of people who manage their money well, and who pay down their credit card debt entirely every month. This gives us a clue as to what is really going on. No doubt some of those dispensed with are generating too-high credit risks, but some are probably the opposite, generating no actual credit at all, and hence generating no profit for Egg. Instead of coming clean that people who pay in full every month actually cost it money because of the expense in servicing their accounts, Egg is instead trying to pretend that it is acting solely as the soul of prudence. That this means putting all of the blame on its customers and worrying people all over the country. Egg's new management must know that brand damage can stick, and Egg cards might be a tough sell after this. The only conclusion is that a mix of poor cost control and poor risk management has put Egg into a very bad place indeed.

Let us hope that this is the only card issuer that finds itself in this sort of bind. Otherwise it would be an indicator of a much wider economic malaise.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Derek Conway Out

What a Contrast. Peter Hain is found to have undeclared donations of over £100,000 via a sham think tank and he hangs on for weeks until the police are about to call before resigning his post while Gordon Brown dithers. Derek Conway, a Conservative MP, is found to have put his sons on staff and paid them thousands for doing nothing and David Cameron sacks him the parliamentary party the day after the story breaks. Indecision on the part of the Prime Minister versus decisiveness and leadership from the Leader of the Opposition. Cameron has clearly done the right thing, and his firmness about a misuse of the public purse contrasts with Labour's unwillingness to deal with borderline corruption.

Conway, on the other hand, is beneath contempt. We had him on the shortlist for the Billericay selection some years ago, but he fell by the wayside when the selection committee checked his references. Though personally plausible, no-one who had worked with him had anything positive to say about his personality or his abilities. Pity Bexley weren't so thorough.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Peter Hain resigns at last

Peter Hain has resigned. This is not shock news, what is a shock is that up until today he was still in office. The man failed to declare over £100,000 in donations to his campaign for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party which were routed via a fake think tank that seems to have served no other purpose, and which therefore suggests a degree of premeditation at least. His defence was pressure of work, or as Gordon Brown put it ‘incompetence’, neither of which would be allowed by any judge in the land as a reason for breaking the law. Sill, he clung on to office, despite little or no support from within the Labour Party, never mind from anyone else. Brown, typically, couldn’t decide to sack him, so he limped on until today when the Electoral Commission’s decision to refer the matter to the police finally convinced him that the game was up.

The declaration of donations and the associated administration has become something of a stick used by politicians to beat each other, but the law has a serious purpose. Without transparency on where a politician, and an officeholder in particular, obtains the funds for political purposes then there is always the danger that a decision can be taken to favour a party for reasons other than the public good. More than £100k from anonymous donors hidden behind a front organisation would have meant that there were people to whom Hain was beholden unbeknownst to anyone but Hain and his funders. This is not a technical breach and he should never have made such an arrangement and should have been turfed from office as soon as the scheme was uncovered.

A criminal investigation could be bloody, especially as the police are so keen on Labour at the moment.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Public Finances gutted to support Northern Rock

So, for all of the tough talk the government have caved in and have now offered an absurd level of public financial support for a private sector bailout of Northern Rock. Let us not forget that an offer by Lloyds TSB when the crisis first broke was rejected out of hand, even though it entailed a much lower level of public risk than what it is now on offer. Now they are going to guarantee all of the Rock's exposure to the Bank of England as some sort of long-term bond issue, which drops it neatly on top of Britain's existing public debt. This was already running perilously close to the limits set by the government and this breaks it completely. So what? Well, it will affect Britain's sovereign debt position, because the cost to our country of borrowing money is very much dependent on the UK's existing level of indebtedness. That means a bottom-line cost to our taxpayers, and for years. More public debt also reduces the government's room for manoeuvre in the short-term, and let us not forget that we have a real danger of either reduced growth or outright recession in 2008. Basically, the government position means that of all of the other potential commitments for public money, it has decided that Northern Rock is the most important. That is patently absurd. What is really going on is that Gordon Brown has bottled it again. This time he is too scared to take on Northern Rock and shut it down, which is the only way the public's financial position can be safeguarded. What they are proposing makes no sense in business or public policy terms, unless you want to avoid short-term political pain. Once again the country's interests are sacrificed to manage tomorrow's headlines. And Brown was meant to be different.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Radicals on the Internet

The internet is a wonderful thing. It allows social networks to form that bring small numbers of interested people together in ways that were impossible before. So, new mothers with twins, or cancer patients, or coin collectors can virtually meet and converse in a community, representing a real change to the way that people with the same issue or outlook or hobby organise themselves. Unfortunately, this also applies to suicidal people, anorexics, or those deluded by the half-truths of bogus science. It also applies to terrorists. Now, this social shift happened years ago and it has taken years for the government to belatedly wake up to the new dangers of an interconnected world. Some wannabee terrorist can put up a load of inflammatory material on a website, moderate a forum for violent nihilists from across the country and recruit and indoctrinate the vulnerable by remote control. At last something is being done about it, with an announcement by the government that what action can be taken will be taken. Regulating the Internet is very difficult because it crosses frontiers and material that is illegal or offensive in one jurisdiction can be sited in another, and so evade legal action. However, difficulty is no excuse for doing nothing. Let's hope the government doesn't get so far behind the next technology and social trend.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Northern Rock Nationalisation Endgame

Some time I blog posted that Northern Rock has been effectively nationalised by the extension of huge government loans to prop it up. Now, it looks like the de facto nationalisation will be formalised in a week or two. The chances of a private-sector rescue for Northern Rock were always pretty low because of the fundamental state of the business. With a damaged credit rating and a low-margin loan book, Northern Rock would always struggle to be profitable without the cheap finance that was available before the credit crunch. Then there is the business logic of buying into a business with a mortgage book secured on UK houses just as house prices start to slip. It is no surprise that institutional investors are reluctant and so the final consequence of the the government's blundering is likely to be a giant liability in the form of the wreck of a middle-sized financial institution. One thing is not clear, however. What will the government do with the Rock if they get it? There are two options: one is run the business down, fire most of the staff and sell of the assets to refund the public loans. The other is to try and run it as a bank, hoping that it can turn a corner and pay back the taxpayer when the now successful company is sold. Option one, break up and asset realisation, is probably the most sensible. It is also immensely politically painful and that is why the government will probably go for trying to keep the business going. This would be a mistake. Northern Rock is finished in its current form, the market is saying so by refusing to fund a bailout and, for once, the government should listen.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sporting Village Pre-Qualification Ends Successfully

We have just finished the pre-qualification stage in the procurement of the Sporting Village for Basildon District. This will provide our community with absolutely top-notch sporting facilities for sports from casual use all the way to elite sports of the highest standard. The Council is currently engaging in the process to select a development partner to build and operate the Sporting Village, a process which is dictated by EU regulations and which is rather long and tortuous. This is first stage where companies who want to be a part of the project have to more than just express an interest, they have to provide reams of information for evaluation. So, that cuts it down the field to those with a serious interest. While there will be an official Council communication later, I can say at this point that we are pleased with how things have gone. The project stays firmly on track, with a timescale that, if everything works out, will see Basildon with the facilities to support the London Olympics in 2012.

The Sporting Village will make Basildon the hub for sport in South Essex, and one of the key locations for sport in the East of England, if not England itself. This is good for our young people and good for our community, and a credit to our partners, including Essex County Council and the Department for Communities and Local Government as well as the officers of Basildon District Council, who have worked so hard get us to this stage.