Sunday, February 21, 2010

Basildon District Council Budget

Last Thursday was the annual budget meeting at Basildon Council, where we set the financial direction for the future and the level of the Council Tax. Of course, the backdrop for this is the worst recession ever, which has hit many people very hard. With people losing their jobs or suffering from wage cuts or freezes we did not think we could push through an extortionate tax rise, and so we only put the tax up by 0.9%. This was the second lowest level in Essex, the lowest in Basildon for over a decade and one of the lowest in the country. Astonishingly, the Labour party disagreed, suggesting that we should have asked local people for more money, though they didn't actually suggest how much. Their argument was that putting alternative proposals was a waste of time because we would only vote them down. Well, when we were in opposition we certainly put forward alternative proposals, so that local people had a real alternative spelled out to them and so that we understood how the Council finances actually worked. If Labour were to regain control of the Council after having got into the habit of doing no work at all then I do wonder how they would cope.

As well as criticising us for setting a low level of Council Tax, Labour also didn't like the size of the Council reserves. These really aren't enormous given the size of the projects we undertake and the risks that come with them, but it appears that money cannot appear on a balance sheet without the Labour party wanting to spend it. For example, we took a risk of about £850, 000 in order to fix the lifts and stairs in Basildon Town Centre after the private company involved went bust. As it turned out, we eventually did obtain the funding from another source, but there was no guarantee of that. If we hadn't had reserves then we couldn't have considered it, and so with Labour Basildon would have had a permanent building site in one of its main shopping locations.

Maybe their parents didn't teach them that saving for a rainy day was a good thing.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Gordon Brown is on my side!

Apparently Gordon Brown has been on the side of the middle class all along. I am kicking myself for having missed it, but I must confess that I was fooled by Labour's tax hikes, their clumsy social engineering and the scorn that they attach to middle class values of responsibility and achievement. Brown's thesis appears to be that because some of the benefits that he has created apply for people on relatively high incomes then he must be their friend. I hope he believes this, because no-one else will.

Labour has vastly increased the tax burden on the the middle class and giving some people a pittance back is not any kind of compensation. They have changed the criminal justice system so that the police are incentivised to chase generally law-abiding people for fixed penalties over catching actual criminals and they have rigged the education system to try and stop the children of middle class parents getting to university, regardless of their academic achievements. The last really sums up their world-view, and how far it departs from middle class values of aspiration and achievement through hard work and talent. Instead of raising educational standards and creating a system where the most able from any background can succeed, Labour's method links progression to university with parental background, with the middle class losing out of course. No wonder social mobility, for all classes, has collapsed under Labour.

All I can say to Gordon Brown is that I know you don't like the middle class and you know that you don't like the middle class. Let us leave it at that shall we? Until the election at least.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Greenhouse Redux

With reference to the demolition order on a community greenhouse for 'Health & Safety' reasons; the good news is that Basildon Council has a perfectly sensible policy to take public liability risks for such buildings. Well, the policy said 'sheds' not 'sheds & greenhouses' but the intention is clear and the wording is going to be clarified for the avoidance of any future doubt.

This doesn't mean that tenants can put up and structure they like on communal Council-owned land and permission will still be required. It does mean that one over-used reason to curtail people's freedom will not apply.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Panto at the Towngte Theatre

We went to the panto at the Towngate last night and I am happy to report that the family thoroughly enjoyed it. It had exactly the right mix of adult and children's content, with excellent production values and performances by the cast.

It was particularly pleasant to be in the Towngate, which was re-opened by the Conservatives after being closed under the previous Labour administration. The theatre runs a fairly full programme, and while it doesn't make money, it isn't a huge burden on the taxpayers either. It is actually a good example of the balance that needs to be struck in running a local authority. Clearly you don't want to charge an excessive Council Tax in order to support unnecessary Council activities. On the other hand just delivering basic services would mean doing away with things like sports and leisure, as well as many other things. Basildon has not benefited from a one-dimensional approach to this in the past, for example where Labour decided that any spare money had to go into Council housing and other community facilities could just rot. As if Council tenants didn't use the other facilities anyway.

Our view is that a Council has to represent the whole community not just parts of it.

War on Evil

On Friday Islamist terrorists suicide-bombed a volleyball match in Pakistan. They killed 93 people, including at least 8 children. This is yet another addition to the grim toll of the innocent murdered by that vicious ideology. You become inured to these horrors on the news, but it is important to take a moment to think about things like this. It was a volleyball match. There was no possible military or other objective beyond the slaughter of as many human beings as possible and it brings home to you the nature of the enemy that is faced by just about every civilised nation on the planet. Historically, most conflicts have a degree of right an wrong on both sides. The recently-ended civil war in Sri Lanka is a case in point with both the Tamil Tigers and the government committing some truly awful acts in order to further their cause and the roots of the conflict lying in the racism and discrimination that followed independence. That there are usually arguments on both sides in a war has led to some cynicism by some in the West that usually ignores the fact that for some conflicts right and wrong is very clear. There are very few who would argue about the morality of fighting World War two for example.

So, let us return to Islamist terrorism. This has its roots in a poisonous ideology shaped by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which basically states that the only true Muslims are those that follow a very narrow and literal interpretation of the Koran. Everyone else can be killed, and in many cases should be killed. If you have ever wondered why the vast majority of the victims of Islamist terror are ordinary Muslims, well there is your answer. According to the Islamist terrorists they aren't real Muslims. That is the nature of our enemy and that is why it is right to fight them. There is no ambiguity between people who commit mass-murder in order to impose a system that would have been considered unusually harsh and bigoted in medieval times and a modern liberal democracy. In fact, there is no ambiguity between such people and practically any form of human government. Those who would kill children in order to enslave women, kill homosexuals and banish learning and freedom must be opposed. We are at war with a vile enemy. What we need is for our political leaders to start acting like it.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Greenhouses and Health and Safety

Basildon made the papers this morning, and not in a good way:
Gardeners have been ordered to tear down a communal greenhouse on a housing estate because of health and safety fears that they might fall off the roof. Tenants received a letter from St George's Community Housing [Basildon District Council's housing arm] which manages the council housing estate in Basildon, Essex, saying the greenhouse must go.

Andre Le Brise, 57, who lives in flats on the estate and tends to the plants, said: "When we moved here it was worse than a jungle.

"I can't believe we've been told to take it down. It's health and safety gone mad.

"That greenhouse is all some of us have got."

Residents clubbed together six years ago to buy the greenhouse, as well as planting trees and flower beds and buying a lawnmower to keep the communal grassy areas neat.

However, in a letter from Julie Grant, Pitsea area housing officer for the community housing, they have been told to get rid of it or it will be taken down.

Let us deal with the issues: firstly that Council tenants have got together to improve their area is not a bad thing, in fact it is a very, very good thing and should be encouraged. Secondly, this application of Health and Safety seems only to consider what might happen and ignores how likely it is to happen. Risk professionals know that both the threat and probability of it occurring are vital in determining if something is a real risk. If you just consider the worst case scenario without the likelihood of it happening then you can quickly reach a position where any action by anyone doing anything is just too dangerous. This leads to many absurd actions by, typically, local councils up and down the country and unless there is something I don't know about appears to be the case here.

The greenhouse is on public land, and so it should only be there by permission anyway. A fair application on that policy should stop people just building structures without the support of their neighbours. In this case there is no dispute among local people, just with tenants and the Council. Health and safety appears to have little relevance, so why does someone want the greenhouse demolished? Who made that decision? Was it a Council officer or a Councillor? Well, we are going to find out about that. In the interim I have asked that nothing happens until we get to the bottom of this. To their credit, the senior management at St. George's appear to be having second thoughts as well, at least according to the the Telegraph article:

Mandy Skeat, St George's area housing services manager, said: "We contacted residents because of concerns over two items in this communal area which could potentially present a risk to residents.

"We asked for both to be removed.

"Following discussions with the residents concerned we are reviewing the situation and may consider other options."

Yes, we will.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Ipsos MORI’s monthly poll gives Conservatives 17 point lead

As widely reported elsewhere, the latest Ipsos MORI’s monthly poll came out at CON 43%(+6), LAB 26%(-5), LDEM 20%(+2). This is interesting because last month's iteration gave a Conservative lead of only 6, and because rumours were circulating that this latest poll cut the lead to 3. These proved to be nonsense, and appear to be the result of wishful thinking from those of the Labour persuasion. Rembering the run up to the 1997 election I have some sympathy with that. It is not nice to watch your party spiral down to a seemingly inevitable defeat and people in that situation will grasp at any straw.

Wishful thinking only goes so far though before it becomes delusion. For example, a phrase that is often put about is that David Cameron has yet to 'seal the deal' with voters. God knows what this is meant to mean, but my experience is that when people start talking in cliché they are trying to obscure meaning rather than anything else. Then there is the comparison with Labour under Tony Blair prior to 1997; the idea that the Conservatives should be running much higher poll leads for example. This is supposed to illustrate the supposed weakness of the Conservative position. However, that comparison in quite invalid for a very simple reason: the 1997 election was about continuity the next election is all about change. In 1997 the economy was doing well, and Labour's basic strategy was to not to screw things up by promising to adhere to Conservative budget projections for at least 2 years. This time everyone knows that whatever party is in post the 2010 election then radical change will follow. The vote will largely be on who can transform Britain for the better and in that regard it more resembles 1979, which was the last time Labour more or less bankrupted the country. So, you are not going to get a vote based on happy optimism. No one is going to be playing 'things can only get better' as a campaign theme. Instead there is a grim determination among the Conservative-inclined that Gordon Brown has got to go and fear from the Labour establishment that their gravy train is coming into its last stop. They are doing their best to translate that fear onto their core vote with things like Alan Johnson's naked appeal to bigotry. That is driving the polls.

On the last matter I predict that Mr. Johnson's words will come back to haunt him in the future. Having told anyone with money and a decent education that they are his enemy, he will find that he has shortened his list of potential friends in a way that is very unwise for a front-line politician. He also sounds like a fool.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Copenhagen Questions

Like everyone else I have been watching the climate conference in Copenhagen. Now, let us remember that this was the place where the nations of the world were to get together to agree the deal to reduce Carbon Emissions and so save the world. As has become traditional for international conferences, the event was surrounded by thousands of protesters who sought to break into the venue or otherwise disrupt proceedings. They delayed many official delegates from getting into the conference centre and generally made things much more difficult. But wait, these same protesters actually wanted a deal, they were climate activists, so the first questions is what the hell did they think they were doing? If you want to save the planet then it seems common sense not to try and stop the people actually engaged in, er, saving the planet. Instead we saw people in polar bear suits doing their very best to wreck the whole event. What is the matter with them? Did they think that this was a meeting to promote fossil fuels or something? The world wonders.

It didn't seem to be much better inside the hall. In a move of sheer genius the Danish organisers had issued 45000 passes for a venue that only holds 16000 people. Cue chaos and delay as people who actually make a difference to the future of humanity had to queue with the guy in a polar bear suit. It was all very egalitarian I suppose, but this wasn't supposed to be a rock festival, rather it was meant to be the turning point for our species. Who were these thousands of 'delegates' anyway? Apparently, they included quite a lot of people from non-governmental organisations with an interest in the climate, you know Greenpeace and their ilk. What did they do when they were allowed to play with the grown-ups? Well, according to accounts it was placards and chanting and walkouts. Now this is all very well for a student meeting, but not where humanity's existence is supposed to be at stake. So, the next question is whose bright idea was it to let these clowns in?

Eventually, even the Danes had enough and chucked the NGOs out. Of course by that time any hope of a comprehensive deal had been lost to the polar-bear suited fraternity. Then President Obama arrived. He was clearly briefed on the shambles that he was entering and so he did the best he could, getting the key developing nations together, thrashing out a deal and then bouncing the EU and the rest of the developed world to accept it. Credit goes to him, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and the US State Department for salvaging something from the situation, but in the end the outcome could have been achieved in an afternoon at a motel rather than at a conference that briefly became one of the major sources of carbon emissions on the planet. What was also notable was the non-existent contribution by Gordon Brown and the British delegation. Having billed himself as being the man to save the day, he wasn't even in the room when Obama cut the deal.

So the last question is whether Britain would have done better if we had sent a man in a polar bear suit?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Echo apologises - war over

I have just heard that the Basildon Echo has apologised to John Baron over their story in which they accused him of misusing parliamentary expenses to fund a food parcel for troops in Afghanistan. The story was incorrect, and the mistake could easily have been prevented by either confirming it from the fees office or just giving John time to double-check his accounts in case a genuine error had been made. Instead they published, and then spent the last week printing retractions. Anyway, their apology has persuaded John not to take them to the PCC. This is probably for the best, as no-one would have really won from a formal complaint or court action.

We are lucky here in Basildon District to have such a vibrant print media, including a daily like the Echo. It does give our area a more community feel, and it does mean that politicians are subject to more scrutiny, which is a very good thing. Problems can occur in news reporting though, especially at the moment where depressed advertising revenue must be putting more pressure on journalists to get the stories that shift papers off the newstands. There must be temptation to go with some stories, even where a more sober evaluation would have suggested otherwise.

Anyway, John just wants to move on now, an attitude that does him credit.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

John Baron MP refers Echo to Press Complaints Commission

Ex soldier says Echo should now send food parcel to troops in Afghanistan

On the front page of Friday’s Echo, it stated that John Baron’s “claims also included £18.21 on expenses for a food parcel for soldiers in Afghanistan”. It was also inferred that John had deliberately claimed for a gardener’s Christmas gratuity of £10. The paper had approached John late the previous afternoon about the story, whereupon John requested the story be held as he was sure there was an error somewhere but needed time to check the facts. This was refused by the paper. On checking the facts on Friday, he found the errors were on the part of the Echo. He has since requested that the Echo print a full front-page retraction with the same prominence as Friday’s article, but this has been refused. John is therefore referring the matter to the Press Complaints Commission.

John said:
The facts are straightforward: the Echo reported that I had claimed for a troops’ food parcel when in reality the cost came out of my own pocket and I never submitted such a claim. Another fact is that the £10 gardener’s tip was not deliberately claimed for. Given the Echo’s refusal to print a front-page retraction, I am now referring the matter to the PCC.

This is the first time I have taken any paper to the PCC in eight years as the MP, but sloppy and sensationalist reporting of this kind should and will not be left unchallenged. A basic checking of the facts would have revealed the truth, which leads me to believe there is an agenda here.

As an ex soldier I believe the Echo, having falsely accused others, should now make partial amends by putting together a food parcel for our troops in Afghanistan. They should also make clear that they are not claiming it on their expenses.
So, will the Echo staff put their hands in their pockets for our brave men and women in harm's way? If I find out, I'll let you know.