Sunday, February 28, 2010

Failing Schools – Filthy Hospitals – Fewer Jobs

I thought I would start today's blog with a hard-hitting headline but for many people, it reflects the landscape of the country they now live in after a decade of Labour government.

There was a rumour flying around Westminster at the end of last week that Gordon Brown might go for a snap General Election, tomorrow, Monday, given his sudden increase in popularity in the polls. I'm up at Portcullis House for the AGM of the Conservative Technology Forum, so it will be interesting to see what the result of Labour's weekend in Wales and the Conservative's Spring Forum in Brighton. Will Gordon go to the country or will he wait a little longer?

I'm watching the BBC Politics Show as I type this and it's increasingly evident that whenever the real campaigning starts, the tone is going to be very personal and very nasty indeed; something which I believe will put voters off the political process even further.

I still have a sense that Members of Parliament of all parties still don't fully grasp the damage done to public confidence by the expenses scandal. Presently, I sense that people see themselves caught between 'The Devil and the deep blue sea', worrying over the on-going consequences of the recession on their own lives and jobs and from looking at the polls, increasingly nervous of change, even if the Devil incarnate was running the country. Meanwhile, there is a universal sense that the public are fed-up with government failure, as in my headline, 'Failing schools, filthy hospitals and fewer jobs.' This list is longer than that of course, with an economy in shambles, greater deprivation, broken Britain, a demonstrably failing criminal justice system, a taxation system which is patently unfair and incompetent and everywhere, constant evidence of unaccountable and faceless agencies and quangos that are unfit for purpose or downright inefficient.

The choice facing people in the forthcoming General Election, requires a leap of faith and arguably and act of courage too. Do you vote for change and a new perspective, with its concomitant risk to the public sector and the economy or stay with Gordon and Alasdair and let the likes of Harriet Harman practice unrestricted warfare on the middle classes; apparently now the focus of Trevor Philips efforts at the equalities commission.

My opinion and of course I'm biased, is that a further five years of Labour 'reform' would prove an even greater disaster for our country at one of the weakest moments in its post-war history. The party is increasingly socially divisive and there's a danger of the 'Marxist' element within Gordon Brown's small but happy band of supporters, running amok with another term of office to experiment with.

What worries me most, is the constant denial from within New Labour, that anything may be wrong in our society, in the familiar style of George Orwell's 'Animal Farm.' What I do know is that the political debate has to move away from the primitive 'Class Struggle' ideology which threatens to divide our country even further. Instead government should support the efforts of those hard-working individuals and families who still respect personal standards of behavior, the law and values and social responsibility that our parents would have recognized as being implicit within a modern and civilised society.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Time for Debate

The hazard lights on the Ford Fiesta were still blinking pathetically as we arrived at the car in the square opposite the council offices. I had been at meetings during the afternoon and so asked one of my fellow colleagues for a ride home after the full council meeting.

The nearside window had been smashed and the vehicle ransacked in the hope of finding something valuable; a hidden benefit of public service in the town centre after dark.

Last night, the Conservative group announced a council-tax increase of 2.46%, a reflection of sound financial management, which should make many residents breathe a sigh of relief, given the prevailing economic difficulties. Under Labour, increases of 10% and 11% weren't unusual and on the news this morning, I hear that Brighton and Hove city council has to find service cuts of £11 million in the next financial year and so the evidence suggests that a pragmatic Thanet has been rather better at managing its limited income than others. Reading a barrage of opposition press releases a little earlier, all I can say is that they dither between hyperbole and mendacity and I could think of no worse fate for the people of Thanet than having local Labour directing the public accounts again.

Aside from the important matter of the council's budget, another subject was under discussion in council and that was the future of Margate Central and Cliftonville West in the 'Cliftonville Development Plan Document.'

"A failure of public policy", was how the Chief Executive, Richard Samuel described the challenge facing our community and it harks back to a conversation I had with a former Cabinet Office colleague at a reunion at the Centre Point in October. He's now a senior officer at the Home Office and when I told him I was now a councillor in Thanet, he nodded wisely and admitted that he was partly responsible for some of the inward migration problems that we face, alongside other seaside towns like Hastings. "It's called 'dispersal'" he said, "Sharing the pain outside the cities" but in principle attempting to relieve the enormous pressure on inner London authorities.

The consequences of this policy can be seen in Margate and before I tell you what we are trying to do to reverse the decline, I'll share just a few statistics where we lead the league tables of deprivation and that we can thank our Labour government for?

  • Some of the worst crime rates in Kent (277.3/1000 population)
  • 39% of the population on benefit
  • 9.5% on disability living allowance
  • 18.5% on incapacity benefit (53.7% for mental and behavioural disorders)
  • 28.*% of all Thanet's housing benefit claimants
  • 98 units of accommodation for adult social care
  • 4 residential homes for mental health
  • Only 18% of the population of the two wards have always lived in Thanet
  • Hospital admissions the worst in Kent
  • Turnover of residents exceed 30% annually
  • An over-supply of 'substandard, private, rented accommodation'; high as 88% in some areas
I could continue for several pages but you can easily grasp the reasoning of government, agencies, such as the Probation Service and of course inner-London authorities, when you consider that a unit of temporary accommodation in these two Thanet wards, costs £105 per week compared to an average of £410 per week in London. Which explains why Thanet is such an attractive prospect for agencies, in the present financial climate, to place vulnerable people on the island.

When we think of regeneration of Margate in particular, we also need to consider the environment and disposable income. The Turner Centre may be one part of the overall picture, alongside the resurrection of Dreamland but a town can't be re-invigorated easily unless the population is generally employed and able to spend money. Owner occupation also makes a huge difference in improving the statistics that describe the health of a community.

The two wards that define the challenge ahead of us are now going to be the focus of the government's 'Total Place' initiative, of which thirteen are being rolled-out across the country to focus on particular pockets of deprivation. The idea behind this is to 'rip-up' the text-book and take a 'whole area' approach to public services, seeking to identify and avoid overlap and duplication between organisations – delivering a step change in both service improvement and efficiency at the local level, as well as across Whitehall.

Strangely enough, Cliftonville West and Margate Central have both become 'centres of excellence' for dealing with the problems of deprivation but with so many agencies involved, one might argue that nobody actually 'owned' the overall problem and that throwing money in its direction simply hasn't produced results. As Richard Samuel said it last night we need to see, 'The normal rules of engagement suspended and different rules apply.'

What we need in particular is for the council and the community that has to shoulder the burden to have a direct influence on the future of these two wards and with them, the future of Margate as a whole. That means intervening to fight the scourge of slum landlords directly change the empty housing stock into family homes, stimulating new business and employment opportunities and having the influence to prevent other agencies and authorities pointing their problems at Thanet, regardless of the unhappy consequences for our own community and against our wishes.

In my own opinion, if we are going to make Thanet a better place for all of us to live, then we have to be allowed to use any and all available tools and means to gradually reverse the disastrous impact of fifteen years of bad government policy on our community and reclaim Margate, as a popular seaside destination with a solid future.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A New Look for 2010

Readers will have noticed that I have finally updated my 'Blog' and thanks to Michael Child for his advice this morning.

As I explained in another post, I had been reluctant to change the template for fear of losing all the useful local links along the sidebar and the time involved in re-typing them again. Anyway, I'll be tidying-up the look and feel over the coming week and I hope you find it both easier to find and easier to use as a consequence.

Now I have the later Blogger format, the 'blogroll' engines might even find me and you never know, very soon, I'll be out there claiming to be the millionth most popular political blog in Britain. I can't wait!

A long day ahead I fear, with meetings at the council offices in Margate and a full council on the annual budget and Cliftonville, which is bound to go on until late. I wonder if we should consider a bulk arrangement with Domino's Pizza for those working councillors, a large number, I suspect, who have no chance to grab an evening meal before arriving at the chamber! After a while the personal supply of boiled sweets soon runs out!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Clean Sweep Targets Birchington and Westgate

Fire safety concerns and problems with cleanliness in restaurants are just some of the issues that have been uncovered in the latest Operation Clean Sweep in Birchington and Westgate.

The operation is led by Thanet District Council, with help from Kent Police, the UK Border Agency and Kent Fire and Rescue Service. The teams have spent the last two days (Wednesday 17 and Thursday 18 February) inspecting properties in the two areas and checking to see if people have any problems that the teams can help with.

A property in Station Road, that had been operating as an unregulated House in Multiple Occupation, was closed down by the Kent Fire and Rescue Service, because it had inadequate means of escape. The council’s Environmental Health team also spoke to the owners about a blocked drain at the property. If it re-opens at any point, then further action may also be taken by the council’s housing team.

A restaurant in Westgate has now been told to clean up its act and undergo a thorough cleaning, after dirty washing was found in the food preparation area. Officers from the council will be returning to the premises to ensure that this is done. Two food premises, one in Birchington and one in Westgate, were not regulated by the council’s food safety team. A store in Westgate voluntarily threw away nine items of food, as they had been stacked above the freezer line. Checks were also carried out to ensure that businesses had trade waste licences. Of 15 properties checked in Canterbury Road, Westbrook, only three had a licence.

After shopkeepers in Canterbury Road highlighted a problem with dumped rubbish behind their shops, Pipeline moved in the following day to clear up the rubbish. They also tackled dumped rubbish in Linksfield Road in Westgate. Council officers are also investigating a large amount of rubbish found at the Square in Birchington, which may lead to further action.

A number of concerns were once again raised about anti-social behaviour, with details given out of local PCSOs and wardens that residents can discuss their concerns with.

Planning concerns were raised about a room in the loft of a property in the Square, while the UK Border Agency arrested one person on suspicion of them being an illegal immigrant and collected intelligence for further investigations.

Cllr. Shirley Tomlinson, Cabinet Member for Environmental Services, said: “The latest Clean Sweep has had a great response from everyone that our officers have spoken to in both Birchington and Westgate. There have been so many positive comments from people and everyone’s been really pleased to see them. It’s clear that Clean Sweep is really well thought of by both local residents and shop keepers. The message that we’ve been getting out to people is that if you do have any issues, please talk to us about them, so that we can take action for you.”

Monday, February 22, 2010

Remember the Almo

If you subscribe to the fevered imaginings of the likes of Thanet Strife, then you'll no doubt believe that I and other councillors spend much of our time arriving at new and interesting ways of thwarting the democratic process and ignoring popular opinion.

Take 'Almos', not a nuclear test site in New Mexico or indeed a small fortification in Texas but 'Arms Length Management Organisations' as one example.

Without going into great detail, - the key facts can be found here - the idea behind these is to pool the management of council housing stock between local authorities and as a consequence, leverage economies of scale and deliver a uniform three star service to council house tenants and leaseholders at a lower cost. These have been demonstrably successful elsewhere in the country and so we are keen to explore the idea here in Thanet.

It's important however to note that any final decision between ourselves and other councils has to go before the Secretary of State and we have to follow a process of consultation with our tenants or as Cabinet Member Cllr Zita Wiltshire said last week:

"It's vital that we properly consult with tenants and leaseholders about these proposals and they have the opportunity to voice any views that they have about the plans. I think it's encouraging that we were all able to agree on the importance of a detailed consultation with the tenants, before any further consideration is given to a ballot. I think we can all agree that we need to ensure tenants' and leaseholders' voices are clearly heard and their views are taken into account before any decisions are made."

Before any of us in Cabinet make any decisions, we are properly briefed on both legal and cost issues as it's vitally important that what we do reflects the wider public interest. In this case, no other Almo in the country, I'm informed, has followed the very expensive route (circa £100k) of a ballot of the public. This is for a number of good reasons, which can include cost and the potential problem of a low response rate, as well as the difficulty in framing the question.

What we want to understand clearly is what people might expect from such a three-star service and what their concerns might be and this isn't as simple as a "Yes", "No" answer in a box. Fundamentally the council is saying "We believe that we can offer you a better quality of life through an Almo but what should we be focusing on to achieve this if we move the idea forward?"

Alternatively, we could spend £100,000 on an ambivalent question in a ballot and be heavily criticized for wasting council-tax-payers money without arriving at a clear picture of what people want and/or expect.

We shouldn't forget that this is a consultation which has to be approved by the Secretary of State before any steps are taken and so while in an ideal world, a ballot might make sense and indeed, was recommended by the council's Scrutiny Committee, once you sit down and explore the issue in more depth, the problems become manifestly clear, which is why a slew of different consultation measures were agreed-upon instead.

Finally, councillors do what they believe is best under the tight framework of local government regulations and responsibilities that binds them. Throwing abuse in our direction is hardly likely to inspire others to follow into local politics and try and make a small difference to the future of their communities.

Note: - Arms length management organisations (ALMOs) have led a revolution in the management of council housing since they were first established in 2002. There are now 69 ALMOs which manage more than one million council homes across sixty-five local authorities.

ALMOs have demonstrated that they offer a better service to tenants than any other form of council housing management – ALMOs achieved higher inspection ratings than local authority managed housing or housing associations.

Under an ALMO the local authority retains the housing stock and controls the allocation policy.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Nottingham Predicts Conservative Victory

Cllr Mark Nottingham's eloquent prediction of a Conservative government in last week's full council meeting came as much of a surprise to me, as I'm sure everyone else present. Following the stunned silence from both sides of the political divide, the evening's business continued as normal. Cllr Nottingham did fall short of lending his support for Labour's Harriet Harman as a less ill-tempered replacement for Gordon Brown but then you can't have everything I suppose! 

Sometimes, it's a shame that the public don't see more of what takes place in a council meeting. Admittedly, three hours of heated argument between the parties isn't everyone's idea of entertainment but Thursday night was interesting, to me at least, because it showed how far out of touch the Labour opposition was at times, with the continuing and rapid evolution of modern government.

Thursday was of course a special meeting to discuss the future of 'Shared Services' between local authorities in Kent; a pillar, I pointed out of Labour government strategy. This whole process started in 1998 with Tony Blair's drive towards delivering online services, in which I played a small part and is now experiencing a second wave of change, made more urgent by financial necessity, which I reminded councilors, will change the landscape of local government as they know it.

While I recognize the concerns of Labour members, hours of argument against a proposal, which is, as I argued, a discussion on identifying a suitable template rather than a final blueprint for change, such lengthy amendments and objections did strike me as representing a Luddite objection to the inevitability of unavoidable change, in the way in which local government, driven by harsh financial imperatives, will deliver services to the public in the next ten years.

If you are wondering why you haven't seen the regular Labour group press release after the meeting, it's possibly because they would rather not draw the public's attention to the meeting and an extraordinary outburst from Cllr Clive Hart against council officers, which provoked an angry retort by the council's Chief Executive, Richard Samuel. Cllr Hart's somewhat eccentric, open letter to the Margate Charter Trustees of last week has already been widely distributed and read and Thursday evening may have added to the embarrassment of his Labour colleagues.

I should add, that Labour's most popular blogger, Cllr Nottingham, did find an opportunity, to pop-up with a 'new' and revised prediction at the end of the evening, that after the General Election, Labour would be the largest party in government, having finally realized that his earlier prediction of a Conservative victory might not go down too well with the Party.

Mind you, it could have been worse, as with Yvette Cooper's reported gaffe in the Metro London newspaper:

"The continued growth in the number of long term unemployed shows that Labour is failing to support the people who need their help the most. Unless ministers wake up and stop treating these people like a statistic we risk losing a generation to a culture of worklessness."

I was sorry to read the implication in this week's 'Smudger', in the Thanet Gazunder, that my weblog is boring and somewhat down the local league table, having started the whole process several years ago. I should add, that as Michael Child has  spotted, I use an old 'Blogger' template, because I have so many local links that don't easily translate to the new format without considerable work. As a consequence, it's quite possible that because I use a domain, and the old style template, this weblog is actually invisible to some weblog aggregators. That said, I'm not in any competition for readers like some others and as you will have noticed, write when time allows and I  feel the urge!

Finally, a little Westgate news on the 'continuing Piggy-Bank Bench saga.' This will soon be replaced in situ at the request of Cllrs Goodwin and King. My personal view was that given lobbying by the traders, the Piggy Bank nursery and the police to have it sited elsewhere, the council officer's suggestion that it should go into Adrian Square, might have been a sensible compromise. Clearly we will have to monitor the situation to ensure that it does not once again become a focus for anti-social behavior that the police and the traders fear it will become.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Flying About

If you've wondered why I've been a little quiet over the last few days, I've had a weekend of flying Valentine's marriage proposals followed by the recovery of a 'marooned aircraft from Lydd this morning and a visit to the new community radio station, Academy FM, at the Marlowe Academy in the afternoon.

Over at the far end of the earth, at Lydd, it was -2c with lots of snow still about and an almost alpine scene towards Ashford and Challock. There's still the threat of a little more snow during the week ahead which I'm sure most of us could do without.

I'm delighted to see the news that Flybe will be operating a new scheduled service out of Kent International at Manston, which will start in May. I did know about this but it was strictly embargoed until today and all credit to Matt Clarke at Infratil for his work in convincing Flybe to use our airport at this most difficult time in the history of the aviation industry. Lydd is of course an excellent local airport as well, with huge investment having been poured into it but it's just so difficult to get to without a decent rail link; the trains stopping at Ashford. Manston has so many more benefits but its position is always going to be a challenge as it has a fifty degree view of the rest of Kent, with the sea and Ramsgate harbor at its back.

When EUjet was operating out of Manston, a great many people I know found the service as useful as I did and I recall one ninety minute period between leaving the runway at Dublin and making a cup of tea back at home again in Westgate. However, EUjet arguably had the wrong aircraft for the job, the Fokker 100 and tried too many routes too quickly and over-ambitiously. I'm sure that any new entrant will have learned from EUjet's mistakes and perhaps in the not too distant future, we'll see Flybe branching out further afield into Europe.

I've my own pipe dream, in that I believe there's an opportunity for a summer season shuttle between Manston and Le Touquet, copying the Le Touquet and Jersey service that already exists at Lydd. I once did a day on the service as co-pilot, writing it up for a magazine - see Jonathan Gordon of Lydd Air pictured -  and I'm convinced it has potential. The French would love the idea – I know the Managing Director of the airport there - and I think it would be a great draw for Thanet as well; particularly when the Turner Contemporary opens its doors. I haven't given-up on the concept yet and so maybe one day we might be able to convince someone to make the not inconsiderable investment in such a service for lunch or a weekend at 'Paris Plage' as our grandparents might have done before the Second World War.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Cheque’s in the Post

It was nice to have a cheque from those kind people at HMRC, finally returning the tax that they incorrectly grabbed from me last year, with the normal, 'demanding money with menaces' letter. This year, I hear it will be even worse with as many as a quarter of tax codes completely incorrect and yet HMRC have once again posted these out in full knowledge of the error.

A week or so ago, I listened to a spokesperson from HMRC being 'beaten-up' on the Radio 4 'Moneybox' programme. The incredulous interviewer asking: "So you knew a substantial number of tax codes were incorrect and yet you still sent these out?"

She replied something along the lines of: "Waffle Waffle, working in partnership with our 'customers', waffle waffle, new computer system, waffle, better next year, very sorry, waffle, call us and we will set it right."

"But", said the BBC man, "The Audit commission has just censured you for not answering 40% of telephone calls….."

I have some personal knowledge of this, having given up trying to respond to two threatening letters in the last four months and found the HMRC number to be either engaged or out of service. In the end, I wrote them a letter, pointing out that I was sick of receiving threats for the recovery of small amounts of money, £5.00, which I didn't owe them, when in fact they owed me considerably more, as the cheque I've just received conclusively proves.

Ironically, if you don't have an account to fight one's corner, you can't expect a refund either. As the nice but defensive HMRC lady on 'Moneybox' pointed out, "If people tell us why their tax code/assessment is wrong, we will correct it," but then of course you and I have to be capable accountants to prove the error and then, quite demonstrably, HMRC won't answer the phone.

Much like the debacle over family tax credits, which has hurt many of the poorest people in our society, the HMRC continues to prove, without a shadow of a doubt, that at best, its incompetent and at worst, unfit for purpose. Speaking at a conference I chaired a couple of years ago, Professor Ian Angell of the LSE, described the organisation as a 'real example of serious and organised crime' and perhaps he has a point, because no other organisation could get away with the activities of HMRC.

In the real world of organised crime, criminal gangs on the internet have seen the opportunity gap left by HMRC and have, as I predicted several years ago, started exploiting the opportunity and the naivety of the general public. If you receive an email like the one below, ignore it, as you would have to assume that HMRC were efficient enough to be able to calculate your tax accurately and have a working system of this kind in the first place.

HM Revenue & Customs

United Kingdom

Dear Applicant:

Please note now you can get your tax refund, after the last annual calculation of your fiscal activity we have determined that you are eligible to receive a tax refund of 314.79 GBP.

Please take few minutes to fill your form attached to this message.

The contents of this email and any attachments are confidential and as applicable; copyright in these is reserved to HM Revenue & Customs.


HM Revenue & Customs

Friday, February 05, 2010

A Few Good Men

Watching Andrew Marr's 'History of Modern Britain', I'm reminded of how I was once introduced to former Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, when he visited my university in the United States to give a lecture and I was propelled forward to meet him as a somewhat reluctant token British student who was only too well aware of the mess that he had left my home country in!

I met 'Maggie' once as well but can't recall whether that was before or after we were blown-up by the IRA at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition of 1975 when she visited the stand I was working on.

I've been a little short of blogging time this week and so have had to make do with reading everyone else's instead. How I wonder will Lord Nottingham of Northwood, react to three Labour MPs being prosecuted for false accounting and then promptly taking cover behind the 300 year-old, legal immunity excuse of Parliamentary privilege?  Even wearing the most rose-tinted of socialist spectacles, it's an indictment of an avaricious culture that should have no place in politics. Once again, in what may be the final hundred days of New Labour government, George Orwell's iconic novel, 'Animal Farm' springs to mind:

"Comrades!" he cried. "You do not imagine, I hope, that we pigs are doing this in a spirit of selfishness and privilege? Many of us actually dislike milk and apples. I dislike them myself. Our sole object in taking these things is to preserve our health."

On a far more positive and uplifting note and celebrating the heroism of American airman in the Second World War, plans to properly commemorate the events of 27th April 1944, when two 8th Airforce Liberator bombers crashed on our coastline, are now well underway through the Mayor and Margate Charter Trustees.

The FBI's 'Man in London', very kindly put me in touch with the US embassy's 'Air Attache', a colonel, who has enthusiastically agreed to come and represent the USAF and officially accept the dog tag belonging to Lt Hafner, which was originaly discovered on the beach at the crash site by Norman Turner and recently passed to the Mayor's office by Paul Wesley. This week, with the colonel's help, I've also put in a formal application for a flight of F15s from Lakenheath, for a 'Missing man' flypast along the seafront between Westgate and Cliftonville. He can't promise the aircraft but he's trying hard on our behalf and I will keep readers updated with any progress and so keep the afternoon of 27th April free in your diaries.

Kevin Crace, the owner of the Westgate pavillion has also kindly offered it for a reception after the remembrance ceremony and our eminent local historian, Dr John Lodge Pritchard, is also working closely with our small organising group on other related activities to mark the occasion.

Finally, I think I see some small green shoots of recovery out there, in that I have three marriage proposals to fly this month, the first of these over Leeds castle tomorrow afternoon, weather permitting. Personal messages of this kind slowed almost to a halt towards the end of last year and even with Valentine's Day approaching, its suggestive of a recovery in consumer confidence which gives grounnds for a little optimism.