Monday, July 21, 2008

Basildon to keep emptying the bins

Public health has improved enormously since the days of the Victorians, and that improvement is largely down to the Victorians. However, it isn’t advances in medicine, even widespread immunisation, which has increased life expectancy since the days that we sent children up chimneys. That has largely come from seemingly simple measures such as clean water, sewerage and the efficient collection of waste. So, Local Authorities have a duty to collect the rubbish that is a legacy of Victorian times. Now, incredibly, this government wants to do away with that responsibility, seemingly as part of its push to give Councils’ any excuse not to pick up people’s bins.

Basildon Council has the same pressures as everyone else: legislative incentives to recycle that mean considerable investment, and so there has been the temptation to play fast and loose with our rubbish collection responsibilities. Well, we haven’t, because we think that this basic service is so essential that even tentative suggestions to even think about biweekly collections and the like have been pretty firmly rejected. That also goes for pay-as-you-throw or any other wheeze that makes people pay for rubbish collection when they are already getting stung for so much Council Tax. We will be continuing with a high-quality weekly collection, paid for out of existing Council Tax unless the Labour government uses legislation to put a gun to our heads. The trouble is that I wouldn’t put is past them.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Simon Heffer on Whelk Stalls

Simon Heffer has never run for elected office. Simon Heffer has never run a business of any size. However, Simon Heffer feels qualified to comment both politics and economics at great length and with great assurance. Now, a total lack of experience does not always disqualify a commentator from, well, commentating. After all, many of those who guide us through the maze of professional sports are not ex-professional sportsmen but journalists who have become knowledgeable through study and experience. Simon does not write like one of those though. He writes as if he is an ex-Prime Minister who also happens to be a self-made billionaire and guess what, he ain't. This brings us on to Simon's latest missive where he roundly condemns Labour's failure in Glasgow East and by extension their failure for the rest of the country. He then somehow mutates this into a pretty nasty attack on David Cameron using such phrases as 'economically ignorant' and 'old claptrap' to describe the Conservative leader's approach to rebalancing the economy after a decade of Labour misrule. This is not a measured critique; this is bar-room ranting from a man who a year ago was singing the praises of Gordon Brown and who has happily sat on a Labour government committee. Meanwhile in another part of the Telegraph there was an article by David Cameron laying out what Labour should do right now to help the British people as the economy slides of a cliff and pretty clearly laying out aspirations for a smaller and more efficient state that promotes individual responsibility and economic growth instead of strangling it. The contrast was stark: a man slurring his words after four pints on the one hand, insightful analysis tied to practical policy on the other. David Cameron is under no obligation to help the government out of the economic mess that they have made, in fact it is politically dangerous, but he did it anyway. That is because he is a leader, not a windbag.

This brings us on to basic politics. Simon's approach is ideological, with the axe falling and the pieces dropping where they may. Government spending is to be cut quickly and nothing else matters. Except that other things do matter, like maintaining good quality public services, and the secondary effects on the economy of firing people in large numbers, because that what slimming government means, also have to be managed. Anyone who has ever been is business will tell you that transforming an organisation, any organisation, to reduce costs while still keeping things moving forward is very difficult and it is almost impossible to do it very quickly. Of course, Simon has never been in business. There is also the small matter of the politics. Each of the general elections since 1997 has been fought by the Labour party on the theme of their investment versus Tory cuts. Oddly enough, David Cameron doesn't want to give his opponents any ammunition that would allow such a campaign against him next time, even allowing that public opinion has shifted from where it was in 1997. Of course, Simon has never been in politics. This brings us to the interesting question of why the Telegraph actually employs him? Actually, it is a matter of marketing. Somewhere in the back room of the Telegraph HQ there is a marketing department and one of the tools that they employ is customer segmentation. This is the art of taking a customer population and slicing it up into geodemographic chunks with witty names like 'shotguns and pickups' and 'struggling families' to better analyse their needs and wants and to provide for them, at least insofar as it promotes sales. So, the Telegraph will have noticed that they have a paper-buying segment called 'experienceless ideologues' and the word will have gone out to devote a certain amount of newsprint in cater for them. Step forward Simon Heffer, kept around in order to keep a minority of people like him ponying up 80p a day. The question is does he realise that this is his function? If so, maybe it is time to re-evaluate his writing as satire.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Basildon Labour isn't Diverse

Last Thursday there was Member training on Inclusion and Diversity at Basildon Council. This was for Councillors of all parties, both District and Parish, to hear about the Council's diversity agenda from the officers with that responsibility. Now, Councils have often got themselves into all sorts of trouble with diversity and inclusion, ending up with crazy, politically-correct, policies that seek to promote inclusion by excluding mainstream British culture. The acme of such an approach was probably the old Labour administration on Birmingham City Council cancelling Christmas one year in case in offended Turkeys or something. Obviously, we are not going to do anything bonkers like that. Diversity policy should be all about delivering better service to everyone, not bigging up one community at the expense of another. The FTSE 100 company I work for knows all about that, running an independently commended diversity policy because it is the right thing to do but, crucially, because delivering better service to everyone makes good business sense. So it also goes in the public sector.

Anyway, there we all were, hearing from our recently appointed Inclusion and Diversity Manager on the way we will be taking that agenda forward. It took us a while to make this particular appointment because we were very keen to make sure that we had the right person for the job. A couple of tries at the market had yielded a very poor field and we did not appoint as a result, and the Labour party criticised us for that. However, we have a policy at Basildon in that we will give people jobs just to tick a box. People have to be up to our high standards or we do not hire them. Given their previous interest you would have thought that this meeting would have been well-attended by Labour members, but you would have been wrong. Only one party on Basildon District Council was present, and that was the Conservative Party.

Perhaps, this will be the end of pious lectures on the subject from Labour. Maybe pigs will fly.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Brown tells us not waste food, and to wash hands after going to the toilet

Gordon Brown has decided to lecture me not to waste food. This is good advice if he was my mum, but actually he isn't and while there is nothing wrong with what he said, there is plenty wrong with the fact that with everything else going on he felt the need to say it. It is not the job of the Prime Minister to attempt to micromanage the habits of the nation and to even attempt to do so shows an astonishing level of detachment from reality and a disturbing level of control-freakery. Hang on though; what if there is some serious policy reason why this should suddenly leap to the top of the political priority tree? We have heard the portentous phrase 'Food Security' for example. Maybe we shouldn't be wasting food because one day there might be a shortage? Or is it that wasting all of this food means a vast environmental footprint? Unfortunately for Brown it's a big no to both. Most of our food is either home-grown or comes from the EU. So excepting a general European war we are probably all right. As for the wasted energy, all of those uneaten chips don't add up to much when compared with UK energy consumption. What is important is not Food Security; it is Energy Security, because food production is essentially the process of turning energy into foodstuffs. So, rising energy prices mean that food costs more in the UK, and it means that people in the poorest countries starve. Gordon Brown is, if you remember, the man who raised taxes on North Sea oil exploration and the man whose government prevaricated on Nuclear power for a decade. So, if we have a problem with energy security then he has contributed to it, and if that means a problem with food security then he should have joined the dots some time ago.

So, don't try to make out it is my fault if I don't clean my plate.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Labour Can't find a candidate for Glasgow

In two and half weeks there will be a by-election in Glasgow East, one of the safest Labour seats in the county. If Labour loses, and the SNP are hotly tipped, then it will be a calamity for the government, a clear message that no Labour MPs seat is safe. So, you would have thought that they would have put their best brains and organisation into the campaign? Well, the scary thought is they may have, but whoever is in charge they haven't yet managed to organise a candidate selection, which most people think is a pretty important starting point for an election campaign.

Apparently Glasgow East is in dire straights, with around 50% unemployment, chronic drug use and third world levels of life expectancy. It is a testament to Labour's complete failure to look after their core support and the sapping effect of welfare dependency locking people in to poverty. The left-wing press has already started talking about how much cash it would take to improve the lives of the people there, with the implication that taxes should rise as a consequence. This is nonsense; giving people cash is actually the problem because it removes the incentives for able people to work and to better themselves. If you want to know why so many people in Glasgow East don't work then the answer is simple, because they don't have to. In the US a combination of social action coupled with withdrawing welfare if people don't try to help themselves has done wonders. In Glasgow Labour pays to keep people poor and deprived.

Maybe when the poor stop voting for them Labour will finally get it. Never mind that Gordon Brown may go down in flames if Labour lose. Maybe a system that promotes welfare deprivation will burn too.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Basildon cash is a loan

In April 2007, after a long and tortuous process, Basildon Council established an Arms Length Management Organisation to run the Council's housing stock, St. Georges Community Housing Ltd. The key reason for this was that by establishing an ALMO and obtaining a '2 star' report from the audit commission we were in line for £142 million of government funding in order to raise our Council houses to what is called 'Decent Homes' standard. Basildon's housing operation had already been rated as 2 star so this seemed a reasonable course of action. Now, the Audit Commission have just reported back on St. Georges and they marked them at 1 star, though the report gave inadequate reason for a supposedly precipitous drop in standards and the tenants themselves report a high degree of satisfaction with St. Georges. In any case, the ALMO can be re-inspected within six months, so that is not an insurmountable obstacle. What has now happened is that we have been told that the cash from the government would not be a grant, rather a loan where the government would make some or all of the interest payments. This is news to us, that is the elected Councillors of all parties, and I am sure that the tenants did not know when they voted for the ALMO. Apparently, it was not entirely unknown within the Council organisation, but I have failed to find any report that was ever presented to me that states this rather important fact. However, I have spent some time off with illness and it is possible that this happened while I was unwell, except that none of my colleagues can find any such report either.

Now, a loan of this type to a Council is not the same as personal or corporate debt, but it would add to the already large debt that Basildon has associated with its housing stock and it might leave the Council vulnerable to changes in government funding arrangements for, well, ever.

This is not a good state of affairs to say the least. I sense some late evenings poring over financial projections in my immediate future.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Labour - are they actually trying to lose?

The result of the Henley bye-election had Labour in fifth place behind both the Greens and the BNP. They lost their deposit. This is a very bad result for them, and for the Liberal Democrats. One reason that it may have been so bad is that Harriet Harman chose polling day to announce legislation that would allow companies to discriminate against white men when hiring. I think that all discrimination is odious, and dangerous because if you allow it as a principle then the argument moves on to who is discrimminated against, which may end up in a very bad place indeed. In political terms it is also deeply stupid. If you analyse the demographics of Labour support then at its core is working-class white men. This measure is aimed against them like a missile, but the barrage doesn't end there. Ed Balls has threatened to close what he calls 'failing' schools, but that amounts to about a third of the schools in the country, 3 in Basildon, and it went down like a lead balloon. Then there are the polyclinics that threated GP surgeries to the point that over a million signed a petition against them. Meanwhile the chancellor wants to retrospectively rise car tax to hit just about every motorist in the country and there are still millions of people who have not been baled out by the government's package to help the poorest hit by the 10p tax fiasco.

Who is running the political strategy for the Labour party? Are they actually trying to drive away support? At this rate they will end up not only with less than 200 MPs but hardly any councillors, no money, and a legacy of bitterness that will keep them out of power for a generation, or finish them off entirely. I am genuinely perplexed as to what may be going on. These are not stupid people after all, but they are acting like political morons.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A balanced review of Gordon's first year

The Conservative Party has issued an objective analysis of Gordon Brown's year as Prime Minister. Chapters include: Brown the failure, Brown the incompetent, Brown the ditherer, Brown the opportunist, and Brown the hypocrite. You get the drift. On one level you should try to play the ball not the man in politics, but when it comes to leadership much is bound up in the character of the leader, and much of the failure of Labour is bound up in the character of Brown. It is also pretty funny.

My favourites are some of the photographs, like this one of Brown asleep:


Or this one of him on fire:

Or having had a make-up malfunction:


Apparently there is someone now employed at No.10 whose entire job revolves around preventing such images. Given Brown's legendary temper they must be a master of tact.

Basildon Cabinet - Everyone Agrees!

Just got back from a Cabinet meeting at Basildon Council and I think that we may have achieved a first. Every item was passed by unanimous vote; this with a multi-party Cabinet, in Basildon. For those that don't know, Basildon politics is traditionally highly adversarial, with disagreement often occurring seemingly just for the sake of it. However Lynda Gordon, the new Labour leader, and Ben Williams who is also new to the Cabinet, clearly have a different way of working. This is a good thing, with a better discussion of the various items instead of party-political ping-pong. I don't doubt that we will continue to have disagreements, but if they are on matters of real substance then we will serve the people better by spending our time arguing about things that matter.

It is Full Council tomorrow. Let us see if the trend continues.

Friday, June 20, 2008

David Davis and Freedom

When I first heard about David Davis resigning to fight a by-election my first reaction was that he had gone mad. As Shadow Home Secretary he was clearly doing a good job, and he had helped position the Conservatives as the next likely government, in which he would have one of the great offices of state. I think that my view was shared by many of those involved in politics and political commentators, and it was certainly the line peddled by openly gleeful government ministers doing rounds of the TV and radio studios. The thing is though, while us political anoraks might have been shaking our heads it has gone down rather well with the wider public. David Davis has clearly struck a chord with his campaign on privacy and against the encroachment of The State. He has garnered approval from all across the political spectrum, judging from comments in the left-leaning media, and quite a few Labour activists reckon he is dead right on this issue. He has also made Brown look like a coward, again, for not daring to take him on and it may be that DD's judgement was spot on. Instead of detracting from the Conservatives, he has positioned the Party perfectly on an issue where the government is hopelessly vulnerable with its own supporters, never mind those who already dislike it. That he will win his election is pretty much a done deal. That he will hurt the government quite badly in the process seems increasingly likely.