Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Tackling the Challenge of Immigration

Today, Gordon Brown, revealed the immigration policy of any Labour government going forward from the General Election but on Monday, the BBC's Newsnight programme, visited Margate and it seems that however hard government might try articulate its plans and policies, ordinary people still appear to hold strong views of their own on the subject.

Total Politics reports: "Most politicians approach the issue of immigration reluctantly. They would rather not discuss it at all. Has there been a more influential interruption into political debate than Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood tirade in 1968? It still lingers over any discussion of how many people we should allow to settle in the UK from beyond our borders."

It was raised today but it was a cautious way to start any debate. The Conservatives have attacked Gordon Brown for failing to come up with anything new. The fact is, I can't think about any aspect of the immigration discussion that is new. It just continues, occasionally addressed, sometimes prominent, and often not. There was no definitive shift today.

You can watch the programme on the BBCiPlayer, here. The second episode is here.

Did anyone spot the aircraft banner I wonder?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Future Free For All

Having watched Tony Blair's characteristically, 'slick' performance on the news performance, I'm quite interested to hear the opinions of others.

I was particularly fascinated by his reference to the success of a Labour government in tackling crime and banning handguns, on the same day that I read that a peer of the realm had his car stolen by a gang at gunpoint in Battersea. Let's be clear for one moment about handguns. Since Dunblane, the legal ownership of handguns has been banned but illegal ownership has exploded, particularly given the availability of cheap weapons smuggled-in from Eastern Europe. Has he forgotten the murder of Liverpool schoolboy, Rhys Jones already?

Anyhow, I digress and Mr. Blair's speech for all its entertainment value in bolstering the faded and rather shabby image of our present Labour government – Remember vote for Blair and Get Brown? - remains in firmly denial over the manifest social problems that a decade of Labour government has delivered in tandem with its successes. As an example, today, I also read: "A 22-year-old woman was stunned to find that a Romanian immigrant had been living in her shed for more than a month."

I'm certain that a little later today, you will be able to read the deconstruction of Tony Blair or at least his speech today; nice suit and tan but have the British public really forgiven and forgotten a series of expensive and disastrous foreign wars, uncontrolled immigration, the Kelly inquiry, the politicization of the police and the civil service and the appearance of a paranoid surveillance society and which I warned, in a speech in 2000, was steadily dismantling all the freedoms and privileges given to the British people since the time of Magna Carta?

For Tony Blair and the Government this speech could go one of two ways. Either it's viewed as a success and we'll see more of him blessing his succession and a new, New Labour vision under the 'elected' premiership of Gordon Brown or if not, he'll announce he has more pressing business elsewhere, in the Middle East or his new banking or faith foundation interests or his house in Miami.

Either way, the Sun's out and following-on from Tony's fit, trim and tanned political look, clearly copied from the US Senate, I'm off for a run with the dog and promise not to touch any deep-fried Mars bars in the run-up to the General Election on 6th May.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

It’s All Greek to Me

I see that the Guido Fawkes weblog has picked-up on Gordon Brown's claims that "because UK debt levels are lower than other European countries he can run Greek-style deficits." This ignores all the debts that the taxpayer is on the hook for even if they are off the books. Local government pensions are just one example: Bloomberg is reporting that English local councils' pension plans are underfunded by £65 billion – all off the books making it look as if the UK has lower debts than it really has.

It adds: "The national debt figures have been fiddled to also ignore the billions in PFI deals that are off the books but for which the taxpayer is on the hook."

There's also the pressing matter of 'Brown's Bottom', as shown in the graph. Whenever the Prime Minister is asked, he retorts that he should be asked: 'Was it the right judgement to sell gold at the bottom?" In the past he has replied that he bought euros that have had very little return over above what the Bank of England could have got from leasing gold out to short sellers and nothing like the 300% return from holding gold over the same period. As a consequence, it's easy to understand that selling gold was Brown's £7 billion misjudgement. I guess we can all make mistakes!

Beyond all this, it's very hard to find any publication that has anything positive to say about last week's budget and Channel 4 News were absolutely scathing once their team had an opportunity to look through the finer details. The best analogy I can think of is 'Smoke and Mirrors', appearing to give something away with one hand and promptly taking it away and more with the other. However, the most dramatic changes are timed to go off after the General Election, such as the increases in National Insurance, petrol prices and of course the real impact of the end of transitional relief for business rates.

"The Chancellor giveth and the Chancellor taketh away. God bless the Chancellor!"

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Thanet Conservatives Elect a New Leader

At a meeting of the councillors of the Thanet Conservative Group on Wednesday evening, Councillor Bob Bayford of the Kingsgate ward was elected as the new leader of the Group.

Councillor Bayford, who is also a Kent County Councillor, will take the place of Councillor Sandy Ezekiel and will serve as 'Leader-elect' until the Annual General Meeting of the council in May.

Councillor Bayford commented:

"I would like to thank Councillor Ezekiel for eleven years of devoted and single-minded service to the people of Thanet. These are difficult times for local government and while I plan to continue the good work of my predecessor, I recognize that with the economic events of the last twelve months behind us and a General Election ahead of us, a new perspective is needed.

Thanet faces unique challenges but it also offers equally unique opportunities, through its coastline, tourism, green energy, its airport, harbours and much more. I have a number of new ideas which I hope will contribute to making Thanet a better place for us all."

The Pyramid Builders

All the excitement of the 'Budget' today but I very much doubt we'll see the mailed fist behind the velvet glove until after the General Election, regardless of who wins. Certainly, Labour isn't going to give us the bad news now and further damage its position in the polls.

Here in Thanet, unemployment is now running at 6%, the worst figure in many years and the problem is concentrated in familiar pockets of deprivation across the island. Once the figure of 5% in any population is crossed, quick solutions become very hard to find as the statistics reflect a more worrying national economic picture.

The most fundamental challenge facing all the political parties lies in the changing nature of work and indeed the workforce. I've a full thirty-minute lecture devoted to this and haven't the space to bore readers with it here. It's best to imagine a pyramid, with the highly skilled professionals at the apex and the skilled trades, such as electricians and plumbers at the base. Most of the population, particularly in a service economy exist between the two but over the last decade and increasingly over the next, automation and outsourcing is doing away with huge swathes of middle-pyramid jobs, such as bank staff, very soon, civil servants, call centre staff and more. This is also eating its way up the pyramid towards the apex, where the likes of computer specialists and programmers are also being outsourced and automated away from the UK.

The result of all this is an uncompetitive vacuum in a broadly-based service economy that has lost the greater part of its manufacturing capability, unlike Germany. All Government can offer is talk of skilled jobs and a new economy but realistically, we are now so far behind the global curve, as is Europe in general, that nothing short of a new industrial revolution and a complete review of working practises is going to pull us back to competitiveness.

Meanwhile, I see that the Trade Union, Unite, has its own plans for a revolution and the reform or taking-over of the Labour Party, as emails show in the illustration.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Time for Grown-Up Politics Please

I see that one of our Labour councillors, has taken Thanet Council to task over a shelter report which criticizes us for not building enough affordable housing on the island.

Shelter claims that the council is delivering just 4% of the affordable homes needed in Thanet and ranks the council 309 out of 323 local authorities.

It's reasonable to take a view on the report but it's equally reasonable to judge the facts and the circumstances that shape the problem in Thanet. You may have noticed that other councils across England, have, over the term of this government, been tempted to give many of their problem residents a one-way ticket to the seaside, leaving us with an unusual and unwelcome form of inflation which adds to the stresses on our housing situation, month-in and month-out.

Shelter points out that there are 4,697 households on the waiting list for affordable housing and independent experts say we need to build 1,544 new homes per year.

The charity's figures, showing that Thanet only delivered 63 affordable homes in 2008/09 are incorrect, with 90 homes built in the area during that year. This would move the authority up the league table to around the same position as neighbouring authorities in Canterbury and Dover. This figure also exceeds the Kent wide target that was set for Thanet in 2008/09, when it was expected to get just 70 affordable homes built in that year.

Since then, the council's performance in this area has seen a huge improvement, with the figures almost doubling in just one year. In 2009/10, 176 affordable homes have been delivered in Thanet, well above the target set for the council of just 70 homes. (Please see the LGA response here)

Cllr. Zita Wiltshire who is Cabinet Member for Community Services, has tried to paint a clearer picture when she comments: "We're aware that we've not delivered as many affordable homes as we'd like to, but sadly this survey isn't giving the true picture of the work we're doing. Understandably, they've based their research on experts' assessment of how many affordable homes are needed in an area. That automatically favours areas with less housing need and that's exactly what these league tables have shown. In somewhere like Thanet, which has a huge housing need, it's almost impossible to deliver all the houses needed, especially in just one year. For those authorities at the top of the table, the experts estimate that only a few hundred, or in some cases, as few as 24 new affordable homes were needed in those areas. Here in Thanet we'd love to be in that enviable position. To meet all the need here, we'd need to come up with around 1,500 new homes. That's a huge challenge for anyone and something we're never going to achieve in one year alone."

So quite what this Shelter Report has to do with Cllr Nottingham's next set of remarks which then move on towards the subject of anti-social behavior when he writes:

"On housing Cllr. Zita Wiltshire has held the Cabinet portfolio for three years and her performance leaves a lot to be desired.

One aspect of the housing portfolio is tackling issues of anti-social behaviour. On this like her fellow Thanet Cabinet members Martin Wise and Simon Moores she has a very poor record, readily tolerating and defending anti-social behaviour when carried out by Conservative colleagues"

The answer appears to be a cynical game of politicising and poisoning the Google search engine with statements which simply aren't true. In this case, it's one more poor excuse to bring me into the picture; suggesting that I'm somehow tolerant of anti-social behavior in any form.

This is almost as risible as Lord Matt's earlier blog allegation that I'm  involved in shady internet activities, sex sites and gambling! Readers, we are never going to have a future for 'grown-up' politics here in Thanet, while unpleasant character smears in the best traditions of 'Labour List' and No10's  Damian McBride, keep dripping out of Cllr Nottingham's 'stately home' on Ramsgate seafront.

And to manipulate the Shelter report to do so, is rather ironic; it's rather like Tony Blair chairing Poverty in Action!

Gordon Loses the Plot with New Internet Strategy

It's Gordon's new 'Big Idea', "Tens of thousands of public sector jobs could be scrapped in Jobcentres, passport centres and town halls as a result of the plans, which the government says will save £4 billion over four years.

The government wants everybody in the country to have a personalised website within a year and this clearly shows how out of touch they are with some simple realities of our internet society.

Having been around at the very beginning of UK Online, delivering on Tony Blair's 1998 vision through the Office of the e-Envoy, what Government is forgetting are two essential facts of life in our newly joined-up society.

The first is that 'Broadband Britain' only exists for those people who are lucky enough to live close to an exchange and even here in Thanet, out in the villages, it remains a challenge which has still to be resolved. The second and perhaps more important point that we've always known about, is that the poorer and more deprived you are, the less likely you are to be digitally enfranchised. This is particularly true of those who need benefits most, such as single mothers, the very elderly and so on. I think I wrote about this in The Observer newspaper some years ago – look it up if you like – but at the time, we agreed in Government that some 30% of the population were pretty much unreachable and we didn't know how to solve the problem of universal access.

I could go on but I really don't understand what Labour is on about here, by creating a whole new Cabinet Office unit to be run by Martha Lane Fox of 'Last ' fame. From my point of view, it's 'pie in the sky' and worse still, simply rolling out the capability will cost £billions because of the squabble over who pays to join-up the UK population with fibre; the last mile argument!

Almost as bright today is the announcement that Labour will give the vote to 16-year olds if they win the election. Now why would they do such a thing in this 'Little Britain' they've created for us over the last decade? Very simply I suspect, because of demographic profile, which shows that the younger generation is more likely to vote Labour by virtue of population changes and a benefits dependant culture, in large parts of the country. Perhaps I'm being over cynical but the motive sounds about right to me.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Little Dogma

"It's a fair cop", I said, standing in front of some 600 delegates and assembled police officers from as far away as New Zealand, Vietnam, Panama and Pakistan. "The blogger, Lord Matt of the 'Thanet Star' revealed last year that I'm involved in 'shady internet activities', gambling and casual sex websites and so I'm turning myself in to anyone who cares to arrest me."

Other than a few laughs from the audience, nobody stepped forward to put the cuffs on me but they know where I live and I expect the knock on my front door any moment now!

Back to business then and I wanted to share the attached screenshot for readers' attention.

It's the home page of a real website although you need a special invitation from a reputable serious and organised crime contact to be able to access it. Think of it as eBay with a powerful underground economy slant.

This is one of many such operations running-out of the old Soviet Union and with global links to a criminal harvesting exercise across the internet economies. The scale of such operations is now so large, and so sophisticated that I struggle to picture it. What I can say is that it's now reportedly larger than the cocaine industry.

To cut a long story short, these guys will, among other scams, pay a commission - see screen-shot of their business terms & conditions - on any information stealing package that is planted on your own computer, normally a percentage of what they can steal in terms of financial information or identity. The tools are now so advanced that even an online transaction can be intercepted as it happens and in Germany, worryingly, even the account statements on the bank's website have been altered, so as not to reveal what's happening. Normally, this involves business accounts though with larger credit limits. Just imagine something that looks like a bank's trading floor but instead of screens showing stock exchange transactions, instead it's screens alerting he operators to a whole range of different criminal opportunities on millions of PC's, such as personal bank transactions in progress.

As an example of such crimes, yesterday I received an email from one of my own suppliers:

"In late February 2010 we discovered that hackers had accessed our system containing our customer's credit card numbers and that as a result of this unlawful intrusion, certain customers received a nominal fake charge to their credit card by a company not associated with us. Immediately upon learning of this incident, we took steps to diligently investigate this matter and insure that the integrity of our system was restored. We have recently completed our investigation, and as a result of this investigation we believe only a small number of customers were impacted by this breach. However, out of an abundance of caution we are notifying everyone so that you can keep an eye on your credit card statements. You can be assured that we are taking this problem very seriously. A number of necessary steps have been taken to not only fix the source of this problem but also to prevent it from occurring again. We are committed to continue providing you the level of service you have known and trusted."

So my advice to anyone reading this is to make certain your antivirus software is right up-to-date. Preferably, run an update every day because I'm prepared to bet that a high percentage of readers, will have compromised systems and while their own information may not have been stolen they could find that they are in fact one part of a huge army of 'botnet' PC's that can be invisibly deployed against targets anywhere in the world, at a single keystroke

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Return of the Passenger

A nice thank you note from Ian Hislop, along with the return of my great-uncle's book, which he has been reading 'Unwilling Passenger' Arthur Osburn's account of the First World War from the opening shots to the end.

Many readers will be familiar with Hislop's documentaries on the Great War and so I'm delighted he enjoyed this particular story: It's been out of print for years now and you may recall me writing that I managed to track down a copy in the United States on the internet via Abe's Book's. My thanks to Michael Child for pointing me in the right direction!

Here's a small excerpt:

"Quite a young girl. Without any stupid false shame, she coolly kept her thumb pressed on bleeding arteries whilst I got wads of gauze and tourniquets ready. Several times she went through the village to bring me warm water from a cottage and I thought that each time she would be killed. Later that day, she was killed. I found her body that afternoon when we recaptured the far end of the village. It was outside a cottage in a narrow street eastward of the chateau, with the garden that stood in the centre of the village. Poor girl, she had been simply riddled with shrapnel bullets, perhaps our own! Two or three other women and some children were lying there dead but whether killed by our fire or the Germans it was impossible to say. It was nearly always the women and children we found, the young men having already been called-up and the older, generally fleeing to avoid being made prisoners."

I included this excerpt, rather than some of the vivid recollections of events such as the fighting retreat from Mons because in many ways it best illustrated the dreadful futility and waste of war. The teenage girl was a heroine of the first order and yet nobody will ever know of her personal sacrifice in helping to save our wounded men, outside the pages of an English officer's book, now almost 100 years ago.

It's a curious coincidence that my Great Grandfather who originally volunteered, much like the great novelist, Ernest Hemingway, for the Belgian ambulance service, was also a war photographer for the Illustrated London News. He lived here in Westgate and the two men never knew each other. I still have his Kodak camera, marked 'Illustrated London News' on the shelf opposite my desk and in perfect condition too.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Double Deficit

Writing as one with an Achilles tendon injury, I would be very surprised to see David Beckham making a professional full recovery at his age, however talented his orthopedic surgeon. I wish him well of course but as one gets older, it's an injury that steadily degrades one's ability to run and if one does, then painful inflammation follows. Once upon a time, running marathons was a big part of my own life but with a damaged Achilles, jogging a mile without pain is a good result I find. Normally one ends up munching Neurofen if one tries it more than once in twenty-four hours!.

I had a curious and mildly unsettling experience on the train to London this morning, passing Whitstable. On what seems like the first day of spring and in the first carriage of the train, I saw a young and brilliantly coloured Pheasant flying on a course perpendicular to my own. At the last second, the bird noticed that the train was going to intersect its own flight path and tried to pull-up and skid sideways but Newtonian physics wasn't having any of it and the last thing I saw was its startled expression, followed by a loud thump on the carriage wall behind me. Poor bird!

Back in London, I was attending a District Councils' Network meeting at the Local Government Association, standing in for our own leader, Cllr Ezekiel, where the Conservative group of English council leaders, had a private briefing from Philip Hammond MP, Shadow Chief Secretary to the Trasury. I thought he made a very good argument for a change in government and for our own Conservative policies.

Now we know that nothing significant is going to come from the Budget we have to ask why? After all, we have spent £178 billion more than our tax revenues and Gordon Brown appears to believe that simple economic growth is enough to pick up the tab. After all, Labour policy to date has always been that someone else can pay the bills and rather than operating a deficit in the bad times and a surplus in the good years, we are now faced by the consequences of a double deficit, which is hardly a sign of fiscal prudence.

With an election only weeks away, Labour is going to leave its real cuts until later, so as not to frighten off the voters. The rises in National Insurance are a good example, because they won't appear until 2011, rather than April of this year.

The best analogy I can think of for all of this is a huge credit card bill. If you have £50,000 on your credit card and no easy way to pay it off, do you wait a year in denial and let the interest continue to build on that £50,000 or do you start making sensible economies now to try and bring the debt down as soon as possible? The Conservative view is that we start now and that we are clear by what is meant by 'front-line' services because starting earlier and offering a credible strategy will be less painful in the long term; particularly as the next government has to plan for the lifetime of the Parliament and calm the concerns of the markets in concert.

If you listen to Labour and the LibDems, you might imagine that the Conservatives plan savage cuts from day one of a new government and that simply isn't true. I recall from the time I did my paramedic training, a lecturer in a class on resuscitation, saying that 'Death is the worst possible form of ill-health' and the same can be said of our very sick economy. You do what you can to resuscitate it without making it worse and with a fiscal deficit of £178 billion, the patient is very sick indeed. Sitting on one's hands however and waiting for 2011 in the hope that business as - almost – usual – is the answer, doesn't appear credible or indeed honest to me.

Listening however, to the meeting of council leaders from across the country, Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat, something has to be done to address a huge range of problems which include public sector pensions to anti-social behavior and even concessionary fares. I've written here before that people still don't grasp the severity of the position this country now finds itself in because government, with a General Election to fight, is keeping the lid on the truth. Reading Newsweek magazine today, it reports: "The IMF says the UK needs the bigegst belt-tightening of EU economies, even ahead of Greece and Ireland."

In twelve months time, regardless of who wins on May 6th, people will start to understand what a £178 billion really means to their lives, their jobs, their services and ultimately their retirement prospects.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Come on Down

It's all a bit odd to me. Not just that the House of Lords, swiftly passed new rules a month ago, much to the dismay of the Director of Public Prosecutions, that peers only have to spend one evening a month in a property, to be able to designate it as their primary home - A sigh of relief then from Baroness Udin!- but that Government is apparently doing nothing to prevent a strike that could further cripple British Airways, the nation's 'Flag Carrier'.

Of course there's more to this than meets the eye, as Ken Clarke, the shadow Business Secretary, drew the obvious link yesterday between Gordon Brown and the union involved in the BA strike.

"There is no point in being naive," he said. "The fact is that Unite has given £11m to Labour over the past four years. They own the Labour Party, which is why there is no condemnation of any kind coming for a particularly irresponsible strike. They are totally silent because their silence has been bought."

The Independent newspaper this morning appears equally interested in this connection and asks:

"Given the close personal ties between the union and the Labour Party, an obvious question is why Unite should call a strike that could embarrass the Prime Minister at such a politically sensitive time. Why could Harriet Harman's husband, Jack Dromey, deputy general secretary of Unite and prospective Labour MP for Birmingham Erdington, or Brown's former spin doctor, Charlie Whelan, political director of the union, not simply have arranged to delay the dispute until the general election is over?"

Clearly, there's rather more going on behind the scenes, in terms of a political power-struggle than the public are aware of but it's tough luck for BA's customer's over the Easter holidays and worse still in terms of reputational damage and loss of earnings for the airline.

It also occurs to me that the Unions are now flexing their muscles in a way that we haven't seen since 1979. Labour is broke. Arguably the Party is hovering on the edge of bankruptcy, if all those famous and indefinite 'loans' were called in. The Government is fighting for its life and it needs a substantial war chest over the next two months. That money will be coming from the Trades Unions, to support that rather worn-out slogan I flew at the last General Election: "For Schools Hospitals and Jobs - Vote Labour.

Once can then understand the deafening silence coming from Downing Street.

Almost Famous

Possibly one of the more famous quotes from the 19th century American Novelist, Mark Twain:

""There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."

I had an email last night, telling me that Thanet Life has just entered at number 251 in the Wikio 'Politics' rankings. Just in case you didn't know, I didn't, Wikio is apparently the number one news aggregator in Europe, indexing over 200,000 English-language sources, which is nice!

But I'm not alone. Eastcliff Richard reports that his is now the: "521st most influential blog in Britain", Thanet Strife hovers at 599 and Mark Nottingham tells us Wikio rates his blog, "as the 680th most influential blog in the country." He also adds with characteristic generosity "They also do not rate Thanet Conservative councillor Simon Moores blog Thanet Life, preferring Cllr. Ken Gregory's Village Voice for a right wing view. That seems very accurate, although it is unfortunate for Simon that Wikio does not rate fiction and fantasy."

However, all that glitters is not gold and from what I can see, Wikio indexes only a fraction of the millions of Blogs that exist and I'm not really convinced that a high ranking on Wikio actually means anything faintly authoritative in the real world, on a par, say, with being Labour's 99th most popular blogger with a passing interest in Spinach.

If you think about it, unless someone has nothing better to do than trawl the political weblogs for stories, it's only the Top 20 or so that really count and will attract the most traffic, these being the likes of Ian Dale's Diary, Left Foot Forward and Total Politics. The latter reports that "2010 is set to be the year of the 'web election'. Facebook and Twitter are now reportedly vital weapons in an MP's election campaign arsenal. It also adds that the major parties are failing to make the most of their online presence through confusing website layouts and policy messages unsuitable for a Google search.

I reckon that by the time most readers have waded past the through 'Top 20' they would be in danger of falling asleep and reading these blogs, one-by-one, might replace 'Waterboarding' as a cruel and unusual form of torture.' By the time they arrive down at 251, where my own blog now sits, all signs of useful  neural activity may well have ceased for good.

In reality, people find our blogs, almost by accident, when a Google search throws-up something unexpected or interesting like "Labour + Spinach" or "Margate + Turner."  As Michael Child pointed out in his Thanet Online blog last month, Thanet Life was probably invisible to these aggregators as a weblog until I changed the template a couple of weeks ago and then, 'Hey Presto', it's almost famous!

I won't open the bottle of bubbly to celebrate just yet though!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Cargo Cult

It's interesting to observe how, in the run-up to the General Election, Labour is making valiant efforts to distract attention away from national issues and working hard on a 'localism' programme of their own.

It goes rather like this for anyone who hasn't spotted it already. "We, the local Labour Party, may operate under the same flag as the gang in government but really we're different and can offer friendly local solutions that government can't.' Of course, any occasional scraps of comfort or finance that fall locally will, rather like some strange and primitive 'Cargo Cult', will be the divine gift of 'a Labour Government' and just to remind you what this is:

'A cargo cult is a type of religious practice that may appear in traditional tribal societies in the wake of interaction with technologically advanced cultures. The cults are focused on obtaining the material wealth (the "cargo") of the advanced culture through magic and religious rituals and practices, believing that the wealth was intended for them by their deities and ancestors. Cargo cults developed primarily in remote societies in the southwest Pacific Ocean, beginning with the first significant arrivals of Westerners in the 19th century. Similar behaviours have, however, also appeared elsewhere in the world.'

No doubt, some reader have observed such politically-inspired cargo cult behaviour taking place around Thanet, with mysterious markings appearing on the beaches and an endless stream of press releases warning of the apocalyptic consequences of any change in government.

Back in the real world however, there's bad news for Ed Balls in today's paper's, revealing an Ofsted report showing that the proportion of secondary schools failing to provide a good education has soared to nearly 60 per cent. The percentage of 'inadequate' or merely satisfactory schools has jumped from 37 per cent last academic year to 58 per cent in 2009/10.

Ofsted introduced new inspection criteria in September and the sudden rise in failing schools sparked fears it has been exaggerating their effectiveness for years. Apparently, the new test looks more closely at teaching standards and exam results, doubling the time inspectors spend in classrooms.

The Chief Inspector of Constabulary has also criticized police for failing to visit 23% of families whose lives are made a misery by anti-social behaviour and we heard last week, that violent crime has now jumped by 40% through the simple expedient of the police now having to record it, rather than ignore it or call it something else, such as 'nasty accident with carving knife while arguing with neighbour'.

If I'm rambling this morning, it's because it's hard to find a good place to start. The whole country appears to be in such a mess and so completely broke, that I rather wonder if believing, like the Pacific islanders and members of the Labour Party, in some fantasy cargo-cult picture of the economy might not be such a bad idea after all, if at least to shut out the reality of what takes place when a 'boom' economy drops from a great height and bounces around quite helplessly 'bust'.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Pit Bull on a String

Here's another idea from government that at first glance would appear sensible but on reflection and from a local perspective may be unworkable:

'Dog owners face a new pet "tax" in a government initiative to tackle the menace of dangerous dogs.

Compulsory microchipping of every dog — which would cost owners an average £30 — is included in a consultation report published today.

It also suggests that the six million dog owners in Britain should be covered by third-party insurance to cover injuries to victims of dog attacks.

In an attempt to give greater protection from "weapon" or status dogs, owners of unruly dogs would be subject to new antisocial behaviour orders, already dubbed "Dogbos". These dog control orders would make it unlawful for a dog to be out of control in any place, public or private.'

You may recall that I measure my walks from Westgate to Margate in 'Pit Bulls' these days. It's a form of personal amusement to count the number of fierce dogs roaming about. Strangely enough, yesterday morning I spotted a Ford Focus, 'walking' two animals along the promenade between the Westbrook car park and Nayland Rock Hotel, but this didn't count because a large Mastiff was involved.

Anyway, can we seriously imagine that the unemployed and feckless owner of a Pit Bull terrier on a string is really going to bother about insurance or chipping? Indeed, who is going to enforce such legislation in the first place? While here in Thanet, for example, wardens hand out more fixed penalties for dog-fouling and littering than anywhere else in Kent, recovering the fines is another matter because more frequently these involve a part of the population who have no stake in society and know that they are immune from the weak and ineffective sanctions from the judicial system.

While I should add that there are a great many responsible dog owners who own 'fierce dogs' there is also a sizeable minority of the familiar anti-social type, which you can see around Thanet on any day of the week. So do we believe that the latter are going to run-out, chip and pin their dogs and buy personal liability insurance against the eventuality of Fido savaging a Labrador or a small child? I think not somehow.

I had thought that certain breeds of dog were banned under the law anyway but the RSPCA now reports that their kennels are brimming with unwanted, sick or injured 'Staffies' of exactly the kind that are supposedly illegal. Finally, pity the poor dog warden who has to confront some of these so-called dog owners when an offense has been committed; it requires remarkable courage on their part.

Meanwhile,  a report from Your Thanet today better illustrates the problem:

"A violent thug who used a claw hammer to batter a dog to death mocked his sentence and vowed he would do the same again to another animal.
Showing no remorse for his crime, unemployed Christopher Dance unleashed a string of obscenities outside Sittingbourne Magistrates Court on March 4 shouting: “I’m happy with what I got, I beat the s**t out of that dog and I’d do it again as well. This tag is nothing, I’ll p**s it and I p*iss on them [magistrates].”

Monday, March 08, 2010

A Modern Legend

An interesting story on seaside towns in The Independent newspaper today which places Margate in perspective, as it examines towns such as Hastings and Blackpool with similar challenges. I'll quote from it as it looks at both Conservative and Labour views of a familiar problem :

''However a government study in 2008 showed that 26 of England's 37 big seaside towns now suffer levels of deprivation that are worse than the national average.

These 26 seaside towns have more elderly populations, because of the large numbers who retire to the seaside. Many have higher than average levels of benefit claimants and do badly in health statistics. They have poor transport links and low levels of employment, in economies still reliant on tourism and which have struggled for years due to the decline of the traditional seaside holiday."

Where failing schools can find themselves under 'Special Measures' my own view is that a similar government policy should apply to towns that have moved beyond a tipping-point in social decline. Now in Britain today, that would represent a great many communities and is particularly over-represented north of the Watford Gap. There is a view among civil servants and local politicians, supported by the Treasury statistics that central government money moves north to deal with the so-called 'Labour heartland' and rarely delivers enough financial and policy punch to deal with endemic problems being experienced by the seaside towns. The Total Place scheme, which aims to achieve synergy between different agencies is a good start at tackling the most serious problems in a joined-up manner but with a public-sector deficit of over £170 billion, there's only so much that any government of any colour can deliver when so many communities are now feeling the pain of a boom and bust economy.

What's required, I believe, is a radical new approach to the bundle of connected problems facing our society but the tangled layers of bureaucracy, legislation, welfare and even Human Rights have created a 'Gordian knot' of such proportions that it would even defy the blade of Alexander the Great.

"Turn him to any cause of policy,
The Gordian Knot of it he will unloose,
Familiar as his garter"
(Shakespeare, Henry V)

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Getting on with the Job

'The State of Emergency introduced in May 2010 is to be extended for another five years, Prime Minister-for-Life Gordon Brown announced in London yesterday.

Such was the scale of the crisis facing the country that a General Election could only lead to instability.

Labour would continue in power indefinitely, Brown pledged. He was getting on with the job, taking the difficult decisions, which is what people wanted him to do.'

I wouldn't normally reproduce Richard Littlejohn and his Daily Mail column here but it was drawn to my attention this morning and thinking it was all rather too close to the truth in parts, I thought I would share it with you.

Out for a walk with my dogs this morning and I was surprised to see a car draw-up, almost next to me and a man dump his black bags of household waste at the entrance of the St Mildred's Bay car park. Normally these days, it's best to stay quiet but I'm afraid I couldn't resist passing comment and very politely too I might add.

He was, as he pointed out, a law abiding person but felt that the council was being unreasonable in insisting that rubbish had to fit into a wheelie bin with its lids closed. Not so long ago, he told me, the binmen would take anything but now he complained they were lazy and it makes him angry.

I've frequently noticed the remains of black bags at the same spot, that's after the seagulls, have ripped them apart and scattered the contents around. I did tell him that while I sympathized with him to a certain extent, as in an ideal world we would like all our rubbish collected, leaving his black bags there was simply going to create even more work for the road sweepers and a disgusting mess along the street within minutes of the seagulls spotting the bags. I suggested that if he was going to dump his bags anywhere, then please use the large skip at the end of the car park, which he did.

On this occasion, it was a polite conversation between two adults and it could have been much worse I'm sure. Wheelie bins have made a big difference in parts of Westgate but black bag dumping is still an occasional problem as is dog fouling, (350 fines have been handed out across Thanet in the last year to people littering or allowing their dogs to foul) as one irate resident told me last week and short of having constant warden patrols to spot the offenders, I don't know what the answer is.

People want clean streets and a huge effort goes into keeping Thanet as tidy as possible within the resources available but the fact remains that a very small minority has a completely disproportionate impact on our street scene and our voracious seagull population simply adds to the problem.

Finally, on the subject of minorities, I have just heard that the toilets in West Bay have been vandalized with all the windows broken. This adds to the attack on the new computer shop and St Mildred's Bay beach cafes last weekend. I had a long chat with Inspector Pearson yesterday and there's very little doubt now that we have an individual or several, hell-bent on causing as much damage as possible around Westgate before they are finally caught.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010


Strangely enough the beach this morning reminded me of Saudi Arabia, almost thirty years ago, with the bright sunlight and the waves breaking gently on the rocks. In those days, we would wade out and drop over the coral reef into the deep water beyond and explore incredible diversity of marine life that waited for us offshore.

There was a time even when I used to dive on my own from time to time between St Mildreds Bay and West Bay on those unusually clear days that happen a few times each year but being hooked by an enthusiastic promenade angler one fine day, soon put me off the idea and I'm sure the seals keep their distance too.

Better late than never, I see that my feature in P1 Magazine has appeared, taking a Gulfstream jet into Milan's Linate airport in September. It was held over from the November issue but I'm quite pleased with the result and it's one-up from 'Top Gear' as the engines involved are a little larger and the top speed even greater too. Watching another jet from my window, descending into the Manston circuit, I reflect how pleasant it must be to be able to afford such an incredible runaround, which shrinks the world to a comfortable few hours nap in any direction comfortably settled in a mahogany and leather-lined cabin and without the inconvenience of having to pass through and suffer the necessarily tedious extremes of airport security like everyone else. What a great way to visit South Africa for the World Cup, so keep buying those Euro Millions lottery tickets I suppose!

Monday, March 01, 2010

It’s on Television

Just back from a Conservative Technology Forum meeting Westminster. An absolute security nightmare this evening as there was a meeting of 'The Labour Friends of Turkey', a fund-raiser, I assume, being held at the same time at Portcullis House. Now if you think security at Heathrow can be bad, you haven't tried the one at a time slow progress through the revolving doors of Portcullis House. Some of our own members taking over an hour to negotiate the queue, which stretched around the block to Westminster underground station.

The journey home was uneventful, except of course for the group of  teenage 'yobs' that joined the train at Herne Bay, encouraging me and others to leave them to their own anti-social delights, strong lager and rap music in carriage one. British Transport Police have of course been running regular patrols between Margate and Herne Bay of late but short of having a constant presence on the trains, which is impossible, the public are left with the ever-present risk of unwelcome fellow passengers and equally ghastly third-world toilets.

I noticed today that one of our St Mildred's Bay café's had its windows smashed over the weekend as did the new computer shop in Station Road. I'm meeting with our Police inspector later this week and I believe I have a reasonable idea of who the suspects might be. Catching them may be another matter though!

You may also have noticed that the road is pretty badly beaten up with potholes at the junction of St Mildred's Rd and Westgate Bay Ave. I have asked Kent County Council to make repairs as a mater of urgency.

Some good news for council watchers today though. You can watch the pilot webcast of last week's council meeting on the Web. We have some hitches with the microphones and the cameras to try and resolve but I'm pleased to see we managed to produce the video, thanks to the hard work of the officers involved in dealing with some difficult technical issues, without spending money which I would prefer to remain focused on front-line services in my portfolio.

Beyond the more obvious benefits of local democratic transparency, one further good thing about being able to watch council meetings online is that rather than read opposition press releases which tell the public what they say we said, you can actually see for yourself. For example, last Thursday, we had the council's budget, a very important meeting in the year and at time 47:30 you can listen to Cllr David Green's remarks on our medium term financial plan. His allegation that the Conservatives are 'running the councils financial reserves dangerously low', can now be placed in its correct context, with the proper explanation from Cllr Wise to match. From the video, it's abundantly clear that Thanet's Labour group had no substantive plans of their own for an 'alternative' budget but opted instead for a 'spoiling action' which required rather less imagination.

Leading-on to the important matter of the  'Disabled Facilities Budget', there was a great deal of political 'show-boating' from the Labour opposition to set aside an exact amount, while the Conservative Group voted against their amendment, committing instead to protect the same amount as far as possible but that it would be irresponsible in the present economic circumstances to ring fence it.

The discussion surrounding Cliftonville West and Margate Central is certainly worth watching as it illustrates the challenges we face as a council in Thanet, in regenerating those areas, as I wrote about at the end of last week.