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
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.