One Year On From Opening A Large Can Of Worms

WHEN I BEGAN THIS BLOG, at this time last year, it was as a simple experiment. My only purpose was to discover if there was still an appetite for old style, community, news. And I also wanted to create a snapshot of my home town that internet users could examine in years to come. To create a record, as it were, of national news that impacted on residents’ lives – and local stories to provide a three dimensional view. 

I decided I could probably devote eight to ten hours to it each week, and then, if the initial reception was positive, perhaps doubling that commitment. I also wanted to see just how easy or difficult it might be to establish a commercial blog. If I could make money out of it: I could possibly publish a ‘How-to-do-it’ book for the benefit of others. 

Well, so much for that… 

To this day I have not had time to pursue human interest stories; nor cover the work of community leaders. I stumbled upon a serious case of expenses fraud conducted by our parliamentary representative, and, in a subsequent poll, readers requested that I cover local politics. 

I did not know what I was getting myself into. 

It had soon become evident that the local press were not conducting any investigative journalism – nor allowing reporters to publish public interest pieces regarding Castle Point’s MP. I was unresourced; unprepared – and unable to hand-off the story. 

As soon as editors knew that Spink was involved, it was a case of; ‘Sorry, Ted. Been there; done that; it cost us a fortune. You be careful and mind how you go.’ All Libel budgets were being reserved for taking-on far bigger fish than Spink in the wake of the expenses scandal. 

‘You have no local contacts,’ I told myself. ‘You have no local sources. The only asset you have is your Press Card – how far is that going to get you?’ 

Not far when you are dealing with the likes of Spink, or far-wing parties, because, as illustrated in these pages, they simply will not talk to the press. The only doors that a Press Card opens are those held by honest politicians; civil servants; the armed forces and the police. Basically, all those individuals and organisations that are committed to Democracy. Anti-Democratic bodies do not talk to journalists: they abuse us; threaten us; throw us out of their meetings – and try to muzzle our voice. 

Their friends are Britain’s Libel Laws, and the inexperienced or over-worked reporter who limply asks: ‘Have you got a quote for the press?’ 

How naive is that question? Of course they have a quote. They never leave home without one. But a journalist’s job is not to produce simple ‘he said, she said’ pieces. And an interview is not an interview if all the interviewer asks is: ‘What do you think?’ 

Journalists are not there to simply allow an interviewee to express their opinions: they are there to test what they have to say against known facts – and public opinion -, to discover further facts that the public needs to know. No interview is worthwhile unless it reveals previously unknown information – and it is a journalist’s job to discover what that information is. 

In the middle of my own investigations into our local MP, Gateway FM undertook an ‘interview’ with Spink – and I could not believe my ears. He had simply been given a platform to disseminate his particular brand of spin. This despite my briefing the station of the public’s interest and providing my press ID. 

The incident led to angry email exchanges between myself and the broadcaster after my posts on this blog – so, when the opportunity presented itself, I resorted to a direct public attack

It remains to be seen if Spink will accost our ears during the forthcoming election campaign. 

A journalist’s life consists mostly of research. Getting to know all the facts before setting out to discover more to add to the picture. The first stop these days, for most stories, is the Internet and any associated media. I did a lot of background research on Spink; his allegations of corruption in local politics – and the curious part played by local petitions in his parliamentary career. 

I also discovered a curious relationship between himself (a far-right politician) and the supposed Socialist politics of an ex Labour party member, Dave Blackwell. On paper, the two’s political views would appear to have nothing in common; but the local press, in particular, revealed that a close relationship existed. Especially when it came to local protests. 

I was interested to find that organised public protest on the island, since the Town Council was established in 2008, was always accompanied by local press coverage showing town councillors and Bob Spink at the fore. And I also noted that, since being dismissed from the Conservative party, in 2008, Bob Spink was to be seen organising protests throughout the borough. 

All this protesting, it seemed, began with the People Against Methane (PAM) campaign, and the actual timeline of events is an interesting one to consider. 

'Stop The Gas Plant' poster invoice

I wonder if the following series of actual events corresponds with what residents believe happened… 

  • Between 1995 and 2003 Castle Point Borough Council had a Labour majority, which, in its ED9 Policy, allowed for the expansion of hazardous installations in the borough.
  • The Conservatives were returned with a majority in 2003.
  • On 11th January, 2006, a public meeting was held by Calor Gas and Centrica regarding their intention to expand their operations on Canvey.
  • In July 2006, the People Against Methane (PAM) community protest group undertook its first march in the town centre.
  • In September 2006, the Calor Gas plans were put to the Tory council, and they were rejected – despite the group having inherited a commitment to the previous administration’s ED9 policy.
  • Calor Gas and Centrica pressed on.
  • On 7th November, 2006, George Whatley, chairman of the PAM group, called upon the then Conservative MP Bob Spink, and local Conservative councillor Ray Howard, to attend a count of the poll that the group had conducted from an estimated 90% of residents.
  • The count took place on 6th December 2006, and the result successfully made the case for the expansion plans to be considered by a public enquiry – to be held on 30 October 2007.
  • During August 2007, PAM campaigners were given leaflets to assist their cause.
  • In his expense claims for that year, then Conservative MP, Bob Spink, claimed for 50 A3 ‘Stop the gas plant’ posters, printed by Design 4 Print and invoiced for on 20 September 2007.
  • The next month, Calor Gas withdrew its application – and the public enquiry was never held.
  • John Anderson wrote this letter to the Echo on 10 October, 2007 – in an apparent attempt to keep the protest alive (they did, after all, invest a great deal of money in those posters):-‘Calor Gas is temporarily withdrawing the application to build liquified natural has[sic] tanks on Canvey because Centrica is withdrawing from the joint consortium.

    ’This does not mean the protesters have won. It only means there will be a delay of two to three months before Calor come back to apply to build the tanks, down on Canvey seafront.

    ’The protest groups on Canvey have worked hard to involve all the residents on the island. Small posters suitable for putting in windows have been delivered to many houses on the Island.

    ’It has been to my great disappointment very few of these have been prominently displayed in residents’ windows, as there has been a 9,000-signature petition gathered saying people are against this gas terminal development. Why is there not 9,000 posters in windows on display?

    ’I am sure some people still do not know about this proposed gas terminal development.

    ’If this happens, it would be a danger to all of Canvey and surrounding areas, residents house prices would plummet, house insurances would rise, and it would be an eyesore and a danger to the environment.

    ’So come on Canvey show us how you feel, get involved, stand up and be counted. Get those posters up in your windows. ’

    John Anderson
    ’Church Parade
    ’Canvey’
     

  • Residents drew a sigh of relief.
  • On the 12th March, the next year, Bob Spink stood up in parliament and announced his ‘resignation’ from the Conservative Party.

So what have I left-out of the Calor Gas versus PAM story? Well, the same thing that a then responsible Echo omitted from its coverage. The attempt by Spink and the CIIP to turn the PAM’s success into a political bandwagon. 

Those who have visited the Town Council’s Website will have been treated to a much different story. 

Here is their version of events; with the page heading: ‘The History Of Our Island.’ 

Calor Gas Campaign 

When the application for the building of a large depot for importing NLG Gas first came to Castle Point Council, it was obvious to us that Canvey Island was not the place for it. 

Despite the safety record of the industry, it only takes one accident to cause a major disaster in a highly populated area. Our Councillors attended presentations made by both Calor and P.A.M. (People Against Methane) and decided to act. 

We knew that we had to force the Council to reject the application and get the issue to a public enquiry. To achieve this, we began a public petition and made it front page news in the local newspapers. We did this in full knowledge that Canvey Island Independent Councillors would lose any right to vote on the application at Council. In this case we felt that the stakes were too high to sit quietly and we had to make the people of Canvey Island aware of the potential danger. 

With no timetable to work to, our members hit the streets and shops on Canvey Island and collected over 8000 separate signatures in a very short space of time. This was then presented to the council. 

It Worked! 

The planning committee held an extraordinary meeting at The Paddocks, where the people of the Island had their say. As well as all of our Councillors losing their right to vote at Council, we were not even allowed to speak to this meeting and were asked to leave. 

The leader of the Canvey Island Independent Party, Dave Blackwell explained to a packed audience the reasons why they had to leave. After this explanation, all the councillors left together to a massive standing ovation. 

We have been accused by both Conservative and Labour supporters of “playing politics” with this issue. 

The first item on our policy document has always been to protect Canvey Island and its people, and so if this is “playing politics” then it is a game we will continue to play, albeit a different game to everyone else. 

Here we have a situation where CIIP councillors have purposely denied their electors the democratic right to have their opinions aired by the people they have elected to represent them. 

And for what? To support what is, in contrast, a meagre public petition. Any petition is worthless without an effective voice to present its argument. 

No, the CIIP’s objective was to stage a public ‘protest’ against the borough’s majority Conservative councillors in the hope of achieving local headlines and launching their party as a ‘strong opposition’ force. But the fact was, there was nothing to protest against. The Tories had made their position regarding Calor Gas’ expansion plans perfectly clear – back in 2006 when they had rejected the company’s application. 

The local press were aware of this, and had no intention of wasting precious ink on such a potentially libellous story. 

But a year is a long time in both news and politics. The CIIP were counting on the fact that residents have a short memory for such issues and had forgotten the Tory objection. They had decided to try and spin the situation into one that implied that the majority were in favour of the expansion. 

That ED9 policy, permitting hazardous installation expansion, which the previous Labour administration had put in place, the CIIP knew, would eventually force the Conservative ruling party to approve the plans – and they could then be painted as villains. But, what they had not counted on, of course, was Centrica’s withdraw in the light of local opinion. 

On 10th October, 2007 – make no mistake – John Anderson’s letter to the Echo was the fuse designed to ignite an island riot. 

Furthermore, even before he was dismissed from the Conservative Party, Spink’s poster invoice shows that he was an active conspirator in the CIIP’s plans. And despite the fact that those plans did not materialise, both parties have gone on to claim the Calor Gas campaign as their own success. Spink in his Yellow Advertiser adverts, and the CIIP on their Website. 

So what happened to that ED9 policy? The time-bomb that the previous Labour administration had so cunningly planted to explode on an unsuspecting Tory administration. 

In typical, old fashioned, democratic style, the Conservative Leader, Pam Challis, said nothing. She and the other Conservatives continued to concentrate on the job in hand – despite, it seemed, every new week being greeted with Spink and CIIP attempts to distract them. The Tories fought-on, faced with obstinate opposition in the chamber, and more fuelled protests in the borough. 

Conservative conduct has been exemplary throughout this sordid affair. 

And so has Pam Challis’ political savvy… 

Do you remember that third recommendation, which Pam Challis suddenly sprung upon members at the Borough Council’s Core Strategy meeting

It was this:- 

The council will pursue vigorously every opportunity to ensure the removal of  hazardous  installations as set out in policy CP9 “South Canvey A Long Term Strategic Location” and to release part of that land on the South of Canvey Island to increase the Greenbelt. 

And do you remember how she introduced that particular recommendation to Council? 

She said (somewhat forcibly):- 

The third recommendation was added as the council’s current ED9 policy, put in place by the previous Labour administration, allows for expansion of hazardous installations — and this is certainly not the intention of this Conservative administration

I wish I had actually been at the meeting to see the look on those CIIP faces. It is no wonder, now looking back, that the CIIP ten-pins were scattered into an incomprehensible rabble as a result of Challis’ first bowl. 

It was to be the death of ED9. But the reason why I complemented Pam’s political prowess may not be so easy for readers to understand. 

Full Council was to vote on its core strategy, which, like it or not, was most certainly the only way to legally retain tight control over Greenbelt development. As explained at the meeting, the alternative was to have developers queuing up to develop on the Greenbelt and leave the Council with no means of stopping them. 

The CIIP opposition is not stupid. It knew that was the only viable option for Council; but to agree would be to abandon their political ambition of making the majority look incompetent and corrupt. 

Pam must have known that the majority’s proposals would meet implacable opposition – but she must also have known that she had a good opportunity of overcoming it with a slim majority. It was a situation, which she apparently could not resist. 

She tagged-on the CP9 replacement for Labour’s ED9 policy to her recommendations – and, in so doing, forced the CIIP to vote against it. 

She committed the opposition, on the record, as being in favour of the very type of expansion, epitomised by the Calor Gas plans, which they had so publicly denigrated in their mischievous campaign two years before. 

It was a political master stroke. 

But the CIIP is not to be deterred from its attack on this borough and its Democracy. Especially now as an election date is widely expected to be announced tomorrow. Now they have set themselves the task of trying to manipulate public opinion both here and on the Methane, Mud & Memories blog. 

Far-wing parties and their politicians are not concerned with Truth. They are only interested in manipulating and managing what the electorate read, preying on their fears, putting forward conspiracy theories, and making people believe that what they say is what everyone else is thinking. 

Theirs are the tactics of the old Eastern Bloc, Stalin, Fascist dictators and Juntas who manipulate the Press. 

We may have to put-up with them as neighbours; but we do not want their types representing us in our Democratic institutions. 

Please take a deep breath, open your eyes – and keep coming back to this blog…

… (06/04/2010) – Thank you, Gateway FM

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One Response

  1. There are well meaning people at the grass roots of politics also there are statesmen at the top level of politics
    Unfortunately in the middle is “Politics” which I beleve is said in the word “Poli-tics” – POLI is many, and TICS are parasites, therefore you can translate that into Politicians are “many parasites”

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