Thursday, February 17, 2011

Forests PMQs - Less Questions and Answers and more a mugging

Wednesday saw Prime Minister's questions in the House of Commons. As a Tory I found it thoroughly entertaining, but I shudder to think what a Labour Party member would have thought. Now Ed Miliband is clearly a bright bloke but his performance on Wednesday was, frankly, appalling. He started by selectively quoting the former Cabinet Office Chief Economist, who was critical of the government on youth unemployment. Oddly enough, he left out the bit when the same man criticised the previous Labour government. The problem with quote mining is that if the other chap has the rest of the quotes then you can be made to look a fool. David Cameron did and so Ed was.

All I can conclude is that his question entirely came from a recent article in The Guardian, which, oddly enough, took a bit of an anti-government line. There was clearly no cross check with other media sources. Someone on Ed's staff needs a motivational talk at the very least.

Things actually got worse when Ed asked if the Prime Minister was happy with the proposed privatisation of England's forests. The answer was 'no'. Now it was obvious that Ed was not expecting this and so his follow up material was useless, but he tried to use it anyway, which was a very bad move. What he should have done is changed tack, thanked the Prime Minister for listening, asked for the timescales for a formal announcement, in fact just about anything other than use his prepared questions. He didn't, and was efficiently kebabbed by David Cameron as a result.

The same person on Ed's staff needs to consider that a question to the Prime Minister might not always yield the expected answer, or not. I am quite enjoying things as they are.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Votes on Council Officer salaries over £100k

Eric Pickles is clearly the energiser bunny of the government. It seems that barely a day goes by without another policy announcement on Local Government, and today is no different. The latest idea is that if a Council is to award a salary of over £100K then there must be a vote at Full Council to authorise it.

It is easy to see the downsides of this, and interview subjects have been mentioning this morning on radio and television. Firstly, it will be pretty intrusive and embarrassing for the new hire or promotion to have their salary debated at a public meeting where dozens of people will be present. Secondly, it is easy to imagine people who don't really understand executive pay getting over-excited by the whole process, and thirdly it will absolutely make senior officer pay the stuff of politics. All true, but the current system of closed-door meetings has led to astonishing salary inflation in the public sector, and debating and voting on senior salaries in public will no doubt have a dampening effect on salary levels in the future. There is also the basic principle that as much Council business should be transacted in public and attached to a democratic process.

Transparency and accountability are good antidotes to bad decisions.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Council 'Fat Cat' Salaries

Let us get something very clear: some of the top people in Local Government are grossly overpaid. It is impossible to justify salaries of over £200k for the senior staff of any Council, on the basis of the market alone, never mind against the fact that the Prime Minister only earns £142k.

Now, the argument has always been that you need the best people in important jobs, and you do. Further, the number to people who are genuinely talented enough to build and run a complex organisation is quite limited, but it is not that limited. Saving a few tens of thousands of pounds on a salary in order to employ second-best will certainly end up costing you more, maybe much more. However, it is a bit of leap from this to the vast remuneration some Council Chief Executives earn. Then you get people like Richard Kemp, the vice-chairman of the Local Government Association. He was reported as saying:
Running councils is significantly more complicated than running a private company. They may find themselves dealing with cases like Baby P one minute and a £1 billion private investment the next. Most council executives are worth what they are paid.
This is world-class drivel. The idea that a Council is inherently more complex than a private company is rubbish, and the examples given of activities are easily replicated in the Private Sector. Baby P was a particularly unfortunate example. Did he forget that the highly-paid Local Authority staff actually failed completely and the poor child died? An example of Council excellence? Only if you are in a parallel universe.

What we are dealing with is the hangover from huge explosion of public sector costs courtesy of the former Labour government. This needs to be unwound, and good job for the government for facing the issue.

I will say though, the attention paid to this matter seems to me to be at least because it is easily understood. The sums involved are high, but not compared to a typical Council budget. The real financial problems in Local Authority finance are much deeper than high-end salaries.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Council Finance trouble

Big article in The Sunday Times today on local government finance, which I can't link to because of their paywall. It deals primarily with the reduction in government support for Councils and their reaction to it. It also analyses the explosion of highly paid posts in local government that occurred under the last government.

What is going on is that the government is, quite rightly, reducing spending and local government is having to share in this. Good Councils that control costs and run balanced budgets can take this, not easily perhaps, but it is not a disaster. Basildon Borough Council is in this category. Bad Councils that have stumbled along for years with a high cost base and poor financial controls are in trouble. So, we see the appalling example of Manchester City Council, who are almost gleefully cutting services while blaming the government, and others who are nearly as bad.

My expectation is that this year will be sound and fury, but next year will be the crunch when the second round of reductions in government funding hit. At that point it is actually possible that some of the worst Councils will implode. A lot of people don't seem to get this, local authority finance is a complex, dry subject after all. So, instead there is a lot of chat about excessive salaries and Council newspapers, because they are easy to understand.

The reality is much, much worse.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Basildon Borough Heading for a zero Council Tax

Times are tough is local government finance. Thanks to our previous Labour government the country is strapped for cash, and so the coalition is having to cut support to Councils. For Basildon this means reducing our costs, and very sadly having to reduce our staff numbers by up to 100. This last is very regrettable. We have excellent officers and redundancy is a horrible thing to inflict on anyone. In general though, the prudent financial management of Basildon Council down the years means that we are able to get through this without hitting front-line services.

We also don't want to take the easy option of hitting the Council-taxpayer either. The government is helping out with that, with a deal that if we keep the notional increase to 2.5%, they will fund it down to zero. So, for 2011, we won't be raising the Council Tax in Basildon. This is great news for local people, many of whom are still hit hard from the recession and the squeeze from Labour's disastrous handling of the economy. As is heard fairly often in TV adverts - every little helps.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Basildon Town Centre Redevelopment

We have just been through the worst recession in British history, and one which hit the commercial property sector particularly hard. It was so bad that it wiped out most of the large-scale regeneration plans in the country, with project after project collapsing under the weight of the new economic realities. So, against this background it is quite something that Basildon Council will be signing a joint-venture contract for the redevelopment of Basildon Town Centre, a project that could bring in over £1bn of private investment over the next 20 years.

It has taken us three years to get to contract signature and the ambition is to build nearly two thousand homes as well as new retail and office spaces as well as public buildings in the Town Centre. Public buildings includes an expanded theatre by the way. Our selected development partner is Barrett Wilson Bowden, a blue-chip British company. We will be working with them on a first phase on the old swimming pool site as well as a detailed master plan exercise for the rest of the Town Centre. This will involve extensive consultation with public, businesses and other bodies in order to ensure that we get the best set of plans on which to build the future Basildon Town Centre.

At a Cabinet meeting a few months ago Cllr. Lynda Gordon plaintively asked 'why we need to change anything' in the Town Centre. The answer is pretty simple: without continued investment then Town Centres tend to decline, with lower quality retail and eventually empty shop units. Big, integrated Town Centres like Basildon don't support small incremental investment like a traditional High Street. Basically, if you want to change anything then you have to spend big. Without the sort of investment framework represented by the Council's joint venture agreement then decline is the only future for Basildon Town Centre. The trouble is that we can't wait for the Town Centre to reach a state when even Cllr. Gordon decides something must be done before we act. It would be far too late by then. Predictably though the local Labour party have decided to oppose the project. They don't have much in way of argument against it, so it is the usual overblown trivia and a calculation that this will allow them to oppose any planning application that turns out to be unpopular. This is the attitude of a pressure group, not a political party with aspirations to control Basildon Council. It is also a political mistake, but I don't think I will explain why.

Do carry on Lynda.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Coalition agreement published

The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition agreement has been published here.

Progressive Alliance, though not as Blair planned it

British politics will never be the same again. Instead of the some 'progressive' anti-Tory alliance of losers we have a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition with a joint cabinet, planning for a five-year fixed term. This is a major realignment, but not from the left to the centre, it is from the right to the centre, pushing old, tired tribal Labour out to the margins. Of course, it didn't have to be this way, but Tony Blair lost all enthusiasm for cosying up to the Liberal Democrats as soon as he obtained a large parliamentary majority and Gordon Brown simply hated them. Apparently, he never forgave those who left Labour for the SDP, and then went on to the Liberal Democrats. In another demonstration of his tribalism, Brown always referred the Liberal Democrats as the 'Liberals' as a calculated insult to any former Labour members in that party. This, amongst other things, scuppered any chance of a deathbed Lib/Lab pact to keep him in power. It is too late to start being nice to people when you want something from them after years of showering them with petty abuse.

There is another point about the failed attempt at a Liberal/Labour coalition. This was the last charge of Blair's apparatchiks. Peter Mandleson and Alastair Campbell are both proven serial liars. Neither are elected and both would have personally benefited from the walking zombie of a Labour-led, cobbled-together coalition, damaging as that would have been for the country. So, they talked Brown into a cynical promise to resign and tried to bounce their party into a nasty little deal. Fortunately, for both the country and the Labour party wiser heads prevailed, with MPs and Cabinet Members telling Mandleson and Campbell where to get off. Otherwise we would have had a weak, cynical government presided over by a loser and hostage to minor party interests. That it would have laid the ground for a Conservative landslide at the next election would not have compensated for the damage it would have done to Britain as we struggled to tackle Labour's debt mountain.

Hopefully that is the last we shall see of those two clowns.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

On Coalitions

If you put yourself up for election then you are promising the voters that if elected you will do the job. That means do the job when it is hard as well as when it is difficult. The idea that we can stand back as if we weren't the largest party in the Commons is absurd, and would be hugely damaging to the party, and to the country. So, we have to make an honest effort at government, and that means talking to the Liberal Democrats. Our country is in crisis and indulging in party political naval-gazing would be a betrayal of the national interest. Of course, we cannot yield ground in key policy areas, but David Cameron has made that quite clear. However, on the economy both ourselves and the Liberal Democrats agree on the need for action. If we can work together on the most urgent issue of the day then that is what we should do, because it is, frankly, our duty.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Billericay and Basildon Election redux

I didn't post much during the election campaign, quite deliberately. People do read this blog and I was acutely aware of the possibility that I might drop a clanger. Now the elections are over though, I have a few thoughts:

Stephen Metcalfe showed great character and his campaign manager Mark Coxshall great organisation in the three-year slog that took them to the fantastic victory in Basildon and East Thurrock yesterday. Stephen is a very hard worker and very intelligent. He will be a credit to parliament. One of the best things about yesterday for me was walking into his campaign office to find it full of young people beavering away. The future of the party looks good to me.

I have always liked Angela Smith, the defeated ex-MP, on a personal level and she has achieved so much from her modest start in Pitsea. I do think that her campaign was not well run though. Some of the Labour literature that I saw was very poor and their was a lack of consistent themes. Given that she had the overt backing of the local paper, the Echo, and her local links then she was in with a chance at least. However, bad organisation and Stephen's qualities and campaign was too much for local Labour.

John Baron is back with a thumping increase in his majority, despite new boundaries that theoretically made his prospects worse. He is an excellent MP and my colleague Richard Moore ran a first-class campaign for him. The A team triumphed against a dismal Labour effort that had all of the hallmarks of just going through the motions.

We had Council elections as well as the general election, with the results announced today. The Conservative council administration held every seat that we were defending, and missed a couple of other seats by heartbreakingly small margins. Commiserations to our candidates there, especially the talented young women in Fryerns and Lee Chapel North.

So, the Essex voters have delivered their verdict on Labour, and it isn't pretty. Locally we carry on with our successful Conservative administration. Nationally, well, just keep watching the news...