At Last, Some Co-Operative Local Politics

YESTERDAY EVENING’S Cabinet meeting had two surprises in store: an admission by a Canvey Island Independent Party member that the borough has a housing problem, and the reported support of Canvey Island Town Council (CITC) for a cabinet proposal to introduce a borough-wide dog fouling scheme. (The Town Council has, of course, been endlessly debating its own costly proposals regarding dog fouling on the island, which have been heavily criticised).

Unlike the Town Council’s proposals, however, Castle Point will enforce its scheme using current personnel and introducing maximum fines.

Cllr Peter Burch

The plan was put to cabinet by Cllr Peter Burch, the cabinet member for Leisure and Environment, who recommended that:-

  1. The Cabinet endorses the proposal to make a borough- wide Dog Control Order which would make failure to remove dog faeces on all open land to which the public have access, an offence;
  2. The Cabinet endorses the proposal to set the fixed penalty fine at the maximum allowable, i.e. £80 and to prosecute persistent offenders (maximum fine £1000); and
  3. Officers undertake the necessary consultation and report back their findings prior to Cabinet determining whether to recommend to Council to proceed with the making of the Dog Control Order.

Castle Point Borough Council (CPBC) is obliged to consult with CITC on its plans.

Cabinet member and Town Councillor, Ray Howard, spoke of the Town Council’s strong support for the measures proposed, which were carried unanimously.

Cllr Jeffrey Stanley

Cllr Jeffrey Stanley, cabinet member for Corporate Policy Resources and Performance, provided a detailed assessment of the important Housing Revenue Account reforms, enacted by the previous Labour government and now under consultation.

Unlike the present situation, where the difference between rent income and maintenance costs disappears from the Borough to assist other local authorities with poor housing stock – and 75 percent of any revenue from tenant home-purchase is paid to central government – CPBC would be able to retain all those funds to build affordable housing of its own.

However, in order to ensure poor local authorities are not disadvantaged, the Borough would need to take-on a central government debt of £33.9 million – to be repaid over 30 years.

The proposals would not provide CPBC with the ability to meet its own housing needs; but would go a short way towards it – perhaps providing enough funds to build some six units per year. The vast majority of the borough’s affordable housing would still need to be met by local housing associations and private developers.

Cllr Lee Barrett

Surprisingly, Lee Barrett, of the CIIP, took time-out to attend the cabinet meeting and speak in favour of the proposal. He read a prepared statement in which he accepted the need for more affordable housing and, in his personal capacity as serving on the Audit Committee, provided his support.

It is the first time, to this author’s knowledge, that a CIIP member has ever formally accepted the need for additional housing in the borough – or address the financial issues involved.

It was agreed to note the report’s contents and approve the draft responses to the consultation.

Steve Rogers

Steve Rogers, Head of Regeneration and Homes, addressed the Coalition Government’s changes to PPS3 (its Planning Policy Statement regarding housing).

‘The government reissued its policy statement on 9 June,’ he said, ‘to give local authorities the opportunity to prevent overdevelopment and garden grabbing.’

Under the new PPS3, private residential gardens have been excluded from the definition of ‘previously developed land,’ and the national indicative minimum density of building 30 dwellings per hectare has been deleted.

However, he continued, local authorities are still expected to demonstrate the extent to which their existing plans identify and maintain a rolling five-year supply of deliverable land for housing. So it continues to be the case that CPBC needs to ensure that plans demonstrating a five year supply remain in place.

His explanation made clear the reasons why Cabinet was still obliged to present its Core Strategy for approval by the government inspector.

Cllr Pam Challis, OBE

In proposing: ‘That the Cabinet notes the commencement of the Examination of the Castle Point Core Strategy Development Plan Document on Tuesday 22nd June 2010, and agrees that the Chief Executive or the Head of Regeneration and Homes in consultation with the Leader of the Council may agree to minor amendments to the Core Strategy which the Inspector may suggest or recommend to the Council,’ the Leader of the Council, Pam Challis, highlighted:-

  • On 27 May 2010, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government wrote to Council leaders highlighting the new Government’s commitment to rapidly abolish Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS) and return decision-making powers on housing and planning (including housing supply and the provision of travellers sites) to local councils without the framework of regional numbers and plans.
  • Formal revocation of the RSS has not yet occurred and, in legal terms, the current RSS (East of England Plan) is still part of the development plan. National policy (including PPS12 & PPS3) also remains in force. Nevertheless, because the Government intends to abolish RSSs this becomes a material consideration in examining development plans. For this reason, it is necessary to defer, at the very least, the hearing session on housing (Matter 7) into the Castle Point Core Strategy until clarity is provided in a formal Ministerial statement.
  • It may also be necessary to revisit matters where the consequences of abolishing the RSS could have some effect although there is no intention to do so at the moment.
  • Should national or regional policy change, or the scope and nature of the examination alter as a result of new government statements, the agenda, nature and content of the matters and issues for examination may need to be further amended.
  • In light of these changes hearing statements on housing matters should not be submitted until indicated by the Inspector.

In addition, she noted that: ‘An additional question has been added to the opening session of the Examination (Matter 1) in order to provide all parties with the opportunity to comment on the changes now being proposed to the planning system.’

It remains to be seen how quickly the Coalition Government can act to prevent the previous government’s Regional Spatial Strategies from being adopted.

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Rebecca Calls For Review Of Pool’s Health & Safety Laws

Rebecca Harris, MP

CASTLE POINT MP Rebecca Harris has called for a review of Health and Safety laws relating to Canvey’s paddling pool.

Writing to Lord Young of Graffham, yesterday, Mrs Harris said ‘It cannot be right for a local authority to be put in a situation where it feels forced to close cherished public facilities with a good safety record because of the fear of the health and safety compensation culture.’

Lord Young was yesterday appointed by the Prime Minister to review the operation of all health and safety legislation.

Mrs Harris continued: ‘A balance needs to be struck between the safety of the public and the legal risk to public authorities. A common sense approach is needed, not a stifling health and safety bureaucracy.’

Rebecca has also been busy this week, teaming-up with ITV’s This Morning celebrity GP, Dr Chris Steele MBE, to support this year’s Carers Week and celebrating the contribution made by people in Castle Point, and throughout the UK, who provide unpaid care for someone who is ill, frail or disabled.

Rebecca said: ‘A trip to the cinema, or even a full night’s sleep are luxuries for many of the thousands of carers in Castle Point. I am supporting Carers Week and all those helping to raise awareness of carers, and their priceless contribution they make to our local community. There are some great charities and organisations like Castle Point Crossroads, who support local carers and I hope that as a result of Carers Week, many more carers will find out about services and support that exist to help them.’

Last week, Rebecca was one of the twenty MPs who won the right, by ballot, to present a Private Member’s Bill to the house.

Spink’s Gambit For An Elected Mayor In Question

BOB SPINK and Dave Blackwell will be wondering what on earth they have done, this bank holiday week-end, to upset their tame poodle Colin Letchford.

On Friday, the Echo reported that Letchford would prefer a return to the old committee system of local government – rather than having an elected mayor.

He is reported as saying: ‘A system which involves the whole council making decisions has got to be more democratic.’

That Letchford should publicly come to this conclusion, now that he is so close to achieving the 3,364 signatures he requires to force a referendum on the issue, may well derail our two conspirators’ ambitions to create a lucrative position from which to engineer their separatist plans.

The discredited committee structure

In the same article, Blackwell is quoted as saying: ‘In Castle Point, we are desperate to put democracy back into the council. The leader and the cabinet should sit up and take note and bring back the very democratic committee system as soon as possible.’

‘The leader and cabinet should… bring back the… committee system’?

Blackwell cannot resist the temptation to allude that the cabinet holds all the power; but, as has been shown previously on this Blog, the most powerful body in the cabinet system is the Overview and Scrutiny Committee (OSC) – of which Blackwell just happens to be chairman.

That the OSC can be abused by an opposition to undermine the elected majority is, however, not a good reason to return to the simpler, older system, in which all decisions are made by full council and in which all opposition members vote.

Whilst it is true that, under the old system, Blackwell would not be able to sit back and watch as cabinet are forced to make unpalatable choices – like closing the Concord pool – and could not then ‘call-in’ the decision to make political capital from a situation he had allowed to take place, the fact is that Blackwell’s particular form of politics was born of the old committee system (so it should not come as a surprise to find that the Canvey Island Independent Party (CIIP) would still benefit from a return to the old, discredited, routine).

So, how do the two systems differ?

CPBC's Cabinet System

Well, the cabinet system was imposed by the last Labour Government in an effort to streamline decision making. Rather than requiring all members to vote on every single matter that came before council, day to day matters were removed to a separate cabinet body consisting of a selection of between eight and ten majority members.

Cabinet meetings were still held in public – and non cabinet members could ask questions regarding matters in hand; but they could not vote. However, their questions could always ask the cabinet to refer a certain matter to full council if they thought there were reasons for doing so – and any member could bring any matter debated in cabinet to the attention of another body, the Overview and Scrutiny Committee, which was given extensive powers to ‘call-in’ any cabinet decision; investigate the matter in detail and, if necessary, refer it to full council.

Day-to-day decision making was made much quicker – because it removed the ability of an obstructive opposition to tie members up debating matters of little local concern – thereby frustrating the ability of the majority to move-on to policy matters. It was argued, by the then Labour Government, that too little was being done by local councils because necessary decisions were being purposely held-up in committees whose make-up did not represent the majority’s views.

Under the old system, many majority election pledges found their way into political committee dungeons to never again see the light of day. The cabinet system broke the back of such obstruction by ensuring that a majority’s pledges could at least be rubber stamped by cabinet before being exhaustively scrutinised. Moreover, it laid the basis for any subsequent full council vote that would either approve or reject an intact proposal. (Committees were no longer able to tinker with original majority proposals in order to ensure their subsequent rejection).

In short, the cabinet system breathed new life into councils where the majority was unable, through opposition obstruction, to implement the policies they had been elected to implement.

It could be argued that the cabinet system is actually more democratic than the old committee system; because the majority is not clandestinely denied the means of implementing its manifesto. However, there is no doubt that many long serving members feel slighted by not being able to vote on every single matter – just as government back-benchers feel slighted that they have not been picked for a lucrative cabinet post.

Of course, Blackwell and his cronies promote the idea that the cabinet holds all the power. But the fact is that the cabinet is just a means for the majority to filter matters into those that can be quickly dealt with and those that might need fuller debate. It is rather like a production line, overlooked by the opposition leader who has the power to remove any product from reaching the stores. But, of course, Blackwell will never admit to that.

You see, Blackwell is not a willing production-line employee. He is not looking to remove faulty products from the conveyor belt before they reach the packing department. He is much more concerned with allowing faulty goods to pass unnoticed so he can complain about the firm’s management when they hit the stores.

That is why you will rarely see opposition councillors attending cabinet meetings. If they did, the attending public might well ask why no CIIP member asked questions when a controversial decision was made. Just as Blackwell ensured he was not around to chair the scrutiny of the Concord pool decision, he and his CIIP councillors like to make themselves scarce when any decisions have to be made. After all, it is easier to join a protest than it is to launch one of your own (and take the risk of wrongly judging the public mood). And the CIIP’s absence has also helped to affirm the lie that cabinet takes all its decisions in ‘secret.’

Tuesday evening’s cabinet meeting was interesting, because it seems, at last, that the ruling group is finally aware of CIIP strategy. At that meeting, Pam Challis introduced an item for the council’s constitution to be modified to allow members of the general public to ask questions directly of cabinet. (At the moment they can only do so through an elected representative).

The motion, calling upon officers to investigate the legal position and asking them to draw-up a revised constitution, was passed unanimously.

The move will be warmly welcomed by residents – although CIIP members made no supportive noises when the decision was taken. Perhaps they took cabinets’ vote as a direct reflection of their own abilities to represent their constituents at cabinet – since the proposal would effectively make them redundant…

So Much For Barrett’s ‘Proposals’

Peter Burch

AN OPPORTUNITY to address the needs of the borough’s homeless suddenly melted away on Wednesday evening when Barrett’s Kiln Road development proposals faced the forensic scrutiny of Peter Burch, Conservative member for Cedar Hall, who immediately took the applicant to task on five main areas that sounded the plan’s death knell.

  • Instances of plot frontages, required to be no less than 12.2 metres, fell to just 9.1 metres; and 51 (one-third of the dwellings) fell below 9.1 metres to just 5 metres.
  • Five blocks of flats were within the development (contrary to the borough’s requirements of being located on main roads) and three out of the five failed to meet the requisite isolation space to prevent overlooking.
  • Sixteen plots’ amenity space did not fulfil requirements.
  • Twenty-one plots did not meet parking space requirements and there were problems with turning and movement.
  • Natural England had objected to the proposals.

The decision was unanimous. The plans were rejected.

Council Criticised Over Lack Of Affordable Housing

Wendy Goodwin, Cabinet Member for Homes

CASTLE POINT BOROUGH COUNCIL (CPBC) was heavily criticised this week by the charity Shelter. Its Local Housing Watch revealed that there are 1,374 households on the waiting list for affordable housing in the constituency and that, at current letting rates, this will take over 14 years to clear.

One would, the charity says, have to earn £47,727 per year to afford to buy an average-priced house in the area – almost twice the average annual income of residents, which is just £24,778.

The average selling price of a home in the borough is £175,000 (down from some £200,000 in 2006)..

Shelter’s independent experts say Castle Point needs to build 209 homes per year; but criticise the council for not saying how many homes it intends to build. Just 10 new affordable homes were in fact delivered, on average, in each of the last three years.

Just 95 lettings were made to new social tenants last year.

46 households are considered as homeless, and 66 are housed in temporary accommodation.

With just five percent of the number of affordable homes delivered, Castle Point was rated at the bottom end of the charity’s housing league table. It was number 303 out of 323 councils rated, and performed particularly badly when compared to its Basildon and Southend neighbours – who were positioned 13th and 102nd respectively. Basildon delivered 91 percent of its 208 target, and Southend managed 26 percent of its 344.

Cllr Wendy Goodwin, Cabinet Member for Homes, was contacted regarding Shelter’s criticism; but no reply was received by the time this article was published.

Last year, the local Labour Party were suggesting that 1,014 empty homes in the borough could be utilised in solving the local housing problem; but that figure, from 2008, does not paint an accurate picture. Included in that headline total are natural and seasonal movements in the area’s housing as properties become empty waiting for new owners or tenants to move in – or remain temporarily unsold in a weak housing market.

Of that headline figure, 649 private properties (693 in 2009) were identified as having been empty for more than six months; but, once again, the figure also includes properties that await being sold or renovated by their owners. Furthermore, while it is probably true that some of these properties, if money were available, could be purchased by council to add to its housing stock, the truth of the matter is that, in most cases, renovating a run-down property is often likely to be more expensive than knocking it down and rebuilding from scratch.

In short, the option of buying-up aged empty properties is not the viable solution that many would like us to believe.

With projected Council income from Government likely to be cut by some 25 percent in response to Britain’s financial crisis, the outlook for overcoming the borough’s housing crisis in the short term is bleak. If there is to be a silver lining, it is only likely to come from the private sector in reaction to the 2012 Olympics and local town centre regeneration.

On Wednesday, the Development and Control Committee will meet to examine proposals by Barrett to develop the mainland’s Kiln Road site, which includes plans for 53 affordable new homes.

Locally, the plan is opposed by the Thundersley and Daws Heath Hands Off Our Greenbelt Action Group; but the plot is actually designated as possible building space and Barrett have sought to address the outstanding nature conservation issues on the site – as well as providing for contributions towards highway and public transport improvements, early years and childcare education.

Given the current financial crisis, and the borough’s poor housing record, it is difficult to see how the plans could be refused. It is probably the only option the borough has to provide suitable accomodation for its homeless.

On the island, the Town Council has made no attempt to identify private property availability; suitable building locations or, indeed, the housing needs of its residents. Instead, in line with Canvey Island Independent Party strategy, its position is simply to oppose any new homes on Canvey.

In this, the first real test for the CIIP since the local elections, and Blackwell’s comments here to ‘work with the ruling group,’ it will be interesting to see if that promise holds any truth. As the borough’s only opposition party, will they put the needs of the constituency’s homeless first? Or will they simply adopt their Canvey Island stance and oppose the only opportunity our most deprived residents (mostly islanders) have to better their conditions?

Wednesday evening’s vote will serve to make things clear…

… (CPBC, 26/05/2010) – Barrett proposals refused

… (28/05/2010) – So Much For Barrett’s ‘Proposals’

New Political Year – New Mayor for CPBC

Mayor David Cross

TO MARK THE START of the new political year, Castle Point Borough Council elected a new mayor. He is David Cross, the Conservative councillor for St Mary’s Ward, who replaces last year’s mayor, Cliff Brunt.

His deputy will be Jackie Govier, the Conservative member for St George’s Ward.

Pam Challis, Conservative, St Peter’s, was officially re-elected as Council Leader, along with her deputy, the Conservative member for Boyce Ward, Jeffrey Stanley.

Godfrey Isaacs, Conservative, St James, was appointed as the Member for Safer Communities – replacing Tony Belford, who retired ahead of this month’s local elections.

‘The People Have Spoken – We Are Just Not Sure What They Said’

For the first time since the Second World War, Britain is to be governed by a coalition. On Tuesday, Gordon Brown decided to break the hiatus by tendering his resignation to the Queen whilst David Cameron and Nick Clegg were still in the midst of final negotiations.

As Cameron addressed the press in front of Number 10 Downing Street, it was still unclear as to whether the Lib-Con agreement would be finalised; but, on Wednesday morning, the markets were finally buoyed as Cameron and Clegg shook hands on the steps of the prime ministerial residence.

A new government had taken shape against the background of UK unemployment passing 2.5 million – the highest since 1994 – and a staggering financial crisis.

One of biggest tasks facing the new government lays in paying-down the country’s debt – and the Liberal Democrats have shifted their position by supporting 6 billion pounds of cuts to take place this year. The Conservatives have modified their aims too, to incorporate Lib Dem policy.

Cameron and Clegg outside no 10

From next April, the first stage in increasing the personal tax allowance to £10,000 per year will come into force – providing a welcome respite for the lower paid in times of economic frugality.

Constitutional and voting reform will take place under the eyes of the new Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, and we can anticipate a referendum on the latter. In return, the Lib Dem pro European stance has been set aside for this, five-year, parliament.

The National Identity Card scheme will be scrapped; but the employee portion of Labour’s NHI increase will take place next year, countering some of the benefits of reduced taxation from the personal allowance rise.

Constitutionally, it is likely that the first Act of Parliament in the new session will be to ensure fixed term parliaments from 2015.

The next general election will take place on the first Thursday in May, 2015.

During Wednesday afternoon, it became clear that this was to be a full coalition government. Despite its limited seats, the Liberal Democrats were to be fully embedded within government departments and their subsequent roles were by no means minor. Vince Cable was given the post of Business Secretary; David Laws was appointed as Chief Secretary to the Treasury; Chris Huhne as Energy and Climate Change Secretary; and Danny Alexander became the Secretary for Scotland.

The full list of cabinet posts is as follows:-

  • Prime minister: David Cameron, 43, Conservative
  • Deputy prime minister: Nick Clegg, 43, Liberal Democrat
  • Chancellor: George Osborne, 38, Conservative
  • Home secretary: Theresa May, 53, Conservative
  • Foreign secretary: William Hague, 49, Conservative
  • Defence secretary: Liam Fox, 48, Conservative
  • Justice secretary: Kenneth Clarke, 69, Conservative
  • Health secretary: Andrew Lansley, 53, Conservative
  • Education secretary: Michael Gove, 42, Conservative
  • Business secretary: Vincent Cable, 67, Liberal Democrat
  • Chief secretary to the Treasury: David Laws, 67, Liberal Democrat
  • Work and pensions secretary: Iain Duncan Smith, 56, Conservative
  • Energy and climate change secretary: Chris Huhne, 55, Liberal Democrat
  • Local government secretary: Eric Pickles, 58, Conservative
  • Transport secretary: Philip Hammond, 55, Conservative
  • Environment secretary: Caroline Spelman, 52, Conservative
  • International development secretary: Andrew Mitchell, 54, Conservative
  • Northern Ireland secretary: Owen Paterson, 53, Conservative
  • Scotland secretary: Danny Alexander, 37, Liberal Democrat
  • Welsh secretary: Cheryl Gillan, 58, Conservative
  • Culture, media and sport secretary: Jeremy Hunt, 43, Conservative
  • Leader of the Lords: Lord Strathclyde, 50, Conservative
  • Minister without portfolio: Lady Warsi, 39, Conservative

Also attending cabinet will be the Minster for the Cabinet Office: Francis Maude, paymaster general (Conservative); the Minister of state, Cabinet Office, Oliver Letwin (Conservative); Minister of state (universities and science), David Willetts(Conservative); Leader of the Commons, Sir George Young (Conservative); and Parliamentary chief secretary to the Treasury and chief whip, Patrick McLoughlin (Conservative).

Attorney general, Dominic Grieve (Conservative) will be invited when required.

As soon as the posts had been formally declared, ministers were hurrying to their new offices, determined to get to work.

There was no such drama in Castle Point, where the Conservatives retained a comfortable majority in last Thursday’s local elections. But it did not take long for the Canvey Island Independence Party (CIIP), in the shape of Nick Harvey (leader of Canvey Island’s Town Council and Canvey Island North Ward Councillor) and Canvey Island South resident Colin Letchford to begin berating, what both see as, the lack of democracy in the borough.

Colin Letchford had apparently put pen to paper the day after this Blog published its Dave Blackwell: A Changed Man? piece. In a letter written to the Echo, and copied to this Blog, Letchford alleges that he was banned from the local elections count  – in which he had been asked to act as a teller by Harvey. He further alleges that the reason given was that he had had the gall to begin a petition for an elected mayor – and that the Swann sisters had been similarly banned for beginning the ‘Save Our Pool’ petition.

Like Liz Swann and her remarks regarding ‘it was actually told to Lea Swann by a Conservative Cabinet Councillor in front of one of Conservatives own who is above reproach,’ in the readers’ forum on this blog, Letchford provides no evidence for his allegations.

His letter is a confused patchwork of unfounded statistics and innuendo aimed at manufacturing a case for the CIIP to be represented in the borough’s cabinet. Along with CIIP members, he seems incapable of realising that the Conservatives hold a comfortable 33% majority and that they are therefore entitled to none. He argues that 94% of islanders are unrepresented in cabinet; but that figure is totally discredited. The fact is that 48.6% of island residents, whom took part in the last local election, are not represented by their newly elected councillors – and that the CIIP has no firm mandate because, on a proportional basis, they only have the slimmest of majorities (just 469 votes across the whole of the island – representing only 2.7%).

Letchford is keen to take the opportunity for promoting his petition for an elected mayor; but it transpired in our discussion that the true purpose behind it is not to provide residents with the opportunity of electing a charismatic council leader. Letchford states that the purpose behind his petition to have an elected mayor is because: ‘The mayor chooses the cabinet members.’

As already pointed-out on this Blog, Letchford’s petition is simply another means by which the CIIP hopes to infiltrate the policy making body of Castle Point Borough Council – and provide a lucrative post for its main sponsor.

And Letchford, it seems, is also unable to understand that, even if Spink were elected as mayor, and he were to fill the eight cabinet positions with CIIP colleagues, that there would still be no change in the balance of power. If mainlanders voted in the same way as now, they would still retain their majority. Consequently they would hold a majority on the Overview and Scrutiny Committee, as they do now, and be in a position to call-in every cabinet decision and refer it to full council – where it could be easily defeated.

Spink: "I've been here before. Maybe I'll be here again..."

But Spink is not that disorganised. He knows that, with his media savvy and increased profile, a position as elected mayor would provide him with a platform that could be used to his advantage. And again it is the far-left protest strategy that will be employed. Despite it being the majority whom would defeat his ambitions in the chamber, Spink would continue to call ‘foul’ and point to the Conservatives as continually blocking him.

Same old, same old. And the borough and this island would continue to stagnate while Spink and his colleagues played their political games (while lining their pockets with taxpayer funds and enjoying civil benefits).

Is this all about island independence from Castle Point? Well, if it is, Blackwell and his colleagues are not saying anything. Just as they have never made clear their position on any other matter. If it is, then residents have a right to know just how much separation will cost them. A rough estimate, at the present time, is that islanders’ Council Tax would soar three-fold.

But if it were about island independence, why do the CIIP not stand on the mainland and provide all residents with the opportunity of voting for separation? That way they could democratically achieve a majority with which to pass such a resolution.

The answer is that it would not create a power-base for Spink’s own Independent Save Our Green Belt Party – and his and Blackwell’s ambitions to be Lords of their purposely divided manors would not be fulfilled…