Monday, April 12, 2010

Ministry of Justice take the people of Wickford for fools over new prison

There is a proposal to build a new prison in Runwell, which is in Chelmsford but on the border of Wickford in Basildon District. The local people are, not surprisingly, rather less than pleased, having voted two to one against the proposal in a recent survey. Now, we all agree that we need more prisons, and Chelmsford Borough has no particular problem with having another prison. The site is also entirely already in public ownership, which when you think about it is a bit of a coincidence. What are the odds that the perfect place for a prison from an economic, social and transportation perspective is also already owned by the government? Just how stupid do they think that the people of Wickford are? For what it's worth my contacts at Chelmsford reckon there are much better locations in the Borough, but these would require the tedious business of land assembly from a variety of public and private owners. Someone has clearly decided that it is better to go for the site that the government already owns and flannel the locals.

The other claim from the MoJ is that the prison will be some huge economic benefit to Wickford. Let's explore this for a moment shall we? Based on MoJ figures the prison will employ 900 people, but based on their own figures only half of them are expected to live in Basildon District. Also, based on correspondence from the MoJ the expectation is that most of these jobs will be relatively low-paid. So, there you have it: 450 mainly low-paid jobs. We can get that from one medium-sized factory on a tenth of the land area, probably with better jobs too. This is not the stuff of which booms are made.

Anyway, Basildon's Cabinet has voted to make representations to Chelmsford to turn the proposal down. Let's hope they do that, and that they aren't overruled by some Planning Inspector in Whitehall. Everyone is talking about localism.

Let's see some.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Angela Smith doesn't like Zoos

Basildon and East Thurrock MP, Angela Smith has decided that she doesn't like zoos. She doesn't like them so much in fact that she wants them all closed. As you might expect, this has gone down very badly with most people, including the Labour government. Animal welfare minister Jim Fitzpatrick was especially unimpressed when he said, 'Angela doesn’t have responsibility for this area. We’re not going anywhere near zoos'.

So, why is Mrs. Smith pursuing this on the eve of a general election where she is fighting a marginal seat that is a must-win for Gordon Brown to stay as Prime Minister? Well, there is the first clue. It is likely that the General Election campaign starts tomorrow and so any such statements from Angela will get lost among dozens of election stories. The Easter weekend was the last chance she had to get any attention with something like this. This begs the question as to why she wants the attention, and the answer to this is that Mrs. Smith is already thinking about life after Westminster. Before she came into parliament Angela Smith was a leading light in the League Against Cruel Sports. If she thinks that she is going to lose, and many people have told me that she is not confident, then she has to be considering what she does next. It seems that her thinking is turning to the charitable animal-rights sector, hence the staking out of a policy platform.

One thing though, Mrs. Smith is a very good at influencing public policy. Look at the way the League Against Cruel Sports pushed Labour into the hunting ban despite its inherent idiocy, the vast amount of parliamentary time and focus it consumed and the long-term damage it has done to Labour in rural areas. If she does exit parliament then this zoo business is probably not going to go away.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Basildon Sign

It must be fairly rare for an English Council putting up a sign gets worldwide publicity, but we seem to have managed it. This, of course, is the 'Basildon' sign that Basildon District Council has erected on the A127 in order to promote the Basildon Enterprise Corridor, which stretches down that highway. There is more to it than that of course; the sign is part of £400,000 project to replace and improve dozens of signs and to tidy up the Fortune of War intersection, which is a key entry point to the District. The point, which has been lost on some critics, is to improve the infrastructure that supports over 40,000 of local jobs, and hopefully to increase that number.

Anyway, it has garnered a great deal of interest in the media as far away as Australia. Better yet the coverage has generally been positive. I think that the sign looks good and that it does its primary job. There's no way you can speed down the A127 now and not notice when you get to Basildon District.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Basildon District to become Basildon Borough

At a recent Council meeting a motion was passed to petition the Privy Council in order to change Basildon from a District to a Borough. Now, this is purely a ceremonial change, so the Council's name changes, we get a Mayor instead of a Chairman, and that's about it. The estimated cost of the change is about £1500, and things like stationary and vehicle logos will only be updated as they fall due for replacement anyway. So, what's the point?

Well, there is a point and it is this: Basildon District has historically suffered from a lack of cohesion. We have the old communities of Billericay and Wickford that contrast with the much more recently developed Basildon New Town. The differences were exacerbated by previous Labour Council administrations, who treated Billericay and Wickford as cash cows, while ignoring and even ridiculing their concerns. Matters reached a head in the 1990s when many people in both Billericay and Wickford just wanted their areas transferred to another local authority, rather than put up with the hostility of the Labour Council. Today, things are better because of a Conservative administration that treats the whole District fairly, and which has Councillors in the New Town area as well as north of the A127. However, cohesion across the wider community remains an issue. There is also the fact that Basildon New Town is 60 years old. It has grown up, and the more traditional Borough status is a mark of that.

The aim is to try and bring our various communities together and to show that Basildon District as Basildon Borough is firmly grounded local authority that looks after all of its people. Given that, it is not at all surprising that our narrow-minded, tribal local Labour party hated the idea. Even more shamefully, they boycotted the Council meeting where the decision was taken. This is nothing short of childish, and a betrayal of the people who voted Labour, presumably so that their views could be represented. They receive a Councillor's allowance to do a job, and instead they chose to stay at home and watch the telly. Democratic politics is too important to just take your ball home if you don't like the way the match is going. You can at least win the argument, even if you lose the vote.

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.