Frugality And Responsibility Cue The Biggest Public Spending Cuts In 100 Years This Autumn

George Osborne outside No. 11

NO SMILING FACES accompanied the Chancellor’s battered despatch case on its last outing to the commons, yesterday. Its contents were nothing to smile about.

Thirteen years of the last Labour government’s spending binge had left the UK with a structural deficit in which its debt would still be rising in 2014/15 to 74.4 per cent of GDP – and with annual debt interest payments set to reach £67 billion in that year.

The situation, George Osborne explained, was unsustainable.

Faced with the need to raise enough additional revenue to pay-down Britain’s record debt, the coalition government had no alternative but to raise VAT from its current level of 17.5 per cent to 20 percent from 4th January 2011; but the tax would not be extended to include currently exempt items like fresh food and children’s clothes. But the Chancellor acknowledged that the regressive tax hits the poorest in society most, and that he had modified other parts of the taxation system to mitigate this effect.

There is to be a £1,000 increase in the personal allowance – and there will be no increase in alcohol, tobacco, or petrol duty. Moreover, by reducing the level of the basic rate limit and the National Insurance Upper Earnings/Profit Limit to keep it aligned with the income tax higher rate threshold, the Chancellor ensured that higher rate tax payers would not benefit from the measure.

From 23 June 2010, capital gains tax will rise from 18 to 28 per cent for those with total income and taxable gains above the higher rate threshold; and the 10 per cent capital gains tax rate for entrepreneurial business activities will be extended from the first £2 million to the first £5 million of qualifying gains made over a lifetime. It was also confirmed that the annual exempt amount for capital gains tax will continue to rise in line with inflation and will remain at £10,100 for 2010-11.

To reign-in the country’s deficit, Osborne proposed to raise around 20 per cent of the additional funds needed through taxation – and 80 per cent through cuts in public expenditure; but the vast majority of the latter’s detail will not be announced until Autumn’s budget, which will see the majority of departments trying to cope with 25 per cent cuts.

As predicted, changes to the benefits system were announced to ensure that those whom are able to are encouraged to find work. Housing benefit would, at long last, be capped (at £280 per week for a single bedroom flat to £400 per week for a four-bedroom or larger property) and time-limited for claimants who can be expected to look for work. Housing Benefit for working age claimants in the social rented sector, who are occupying a larger property than their household size warrants, is also to be restricted.

Support for Mortgage Interest will be paid at the level of the Bank of England’s
published Average Mortgage Rate from October 2010.

Disability Living Allowance will be subject to objective medical assessments from 2013/14 and Child Allowance will be frozen for the next three years. In addition, tax credit eligibility for families with a household income above £40,000 will be reduced from April 2011 and further changes will be made to the threshold in 2012/13 to focus tax credits on lower income families. The Government also announced that it will increase the rate at which tax credits are withdrawn once household incomes rise.

Those lone parents with their youngest child over five will be moved onto Jobseekers Allowance rather than Income Support from 2011-12; and from April 2011 the government will restrict eligibility to the Sure Start Maternity Grant to the first child only and abolish the Health in Pregnancy Grant from January 2011.

The Chancellor announced that the government will use the CPI for the price indexation of benefits and tax credits from April 2011. The change will also apply to
public service pensions through the statutory link to the indexation of the Second State Pension.

The basic State Pension will be uprated by a triple guarantee of earnings, prices or 2.5 per cent, whichever is highest, from April 2011; and it will increase in April 2011 by at least the equivalent of RPI.

From April 2011, the government will end the existing rules that create an effective obligation upon private pension holders to purchase an annuity.

With 25 per cent cuts in departmental spending on their way in the Autumn, George Osborne laid out changes aimed at encouraging the private sector to expand and take-on more staff.

The main rate of corporation tax will be reduced from 28 per cent to 24 per cent over the course of four financial years from April 2011; the small profits rate to 20 per cent, instead of the planned increase to 22 per cent, from April 2011.

There is, however, to be a reduction in the capital allowances main rate from 20 per cent to 18 per cent, and the special rate is to be reduced from 10 per cent to 8 per cent from April 2012. Similarly, there is to be a reduction in the Annual Investment Allowance from £100,000 to £25,000 from April 2012.

The Emergency Budget was broadly welcomed as being both necessarily firm and fair; but the real pain, for Castle Point residents, will not be apparent until the Autumn when those 25 per cent cuts are announced…

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Do I Detect The Seeds Of Another Canvey Petition Protest?

IT SEEMS THAT  Canvey Island Town Council, under the new chairmanship of CIIP member John Anderson, are now about to spend more residents’ money in obtaining the views of islanders regarding a pedestrianised shopping precinct in Canvey’s town centre.

Not content with wasting £180,000 on Canvey Lake, which is in any case earmarked for improvements under the Town Centre’s regeneration plans, the Town Council has apparently decided that the 3,687 participants in the public consultation process do not reflect islander opinion. They are certain that, given the opportunity, islanders would choose a pedestrianised High Street as opposed to wider pathways; cycle tracks; and a two-way traffic system to overcome the present congestion problems.

Indeed, it seems that congestion – whether it be island traffic or just petulant opposition to any modern progress – is the Town Council’s stock-in-trade. They have had the opportunity, since September last year, to promote their own ideas regarding the town centre’s regeneration; but instead they have, as usual, waited until the last moment to criticise the consultation process and infer that the developers have it all wrong.

True to form, the local Echo has taken to providing its column inches to the Town Council’s view – with no coverage of the alternatives that the visitors to Canvey Island’s Regeneration Shop have had the opportunity of choosing between. Furthermore, the Town Council is not urging residents to visit the Regeneration Shop to make their views known, they would rather just pose a simple question to residents – rather than give them the opportunity of making an informed decision.

The Town Council’s proposed opinion survey is heavily weighted against the developers. Most people, asked if they would like to see the Town Centre pedestrianised – and given no alternatives – are likely to say, ‘Yes.’ A fact that is not lost upon the Canvey Island Independent Party (CIIP), which has a reputation for taking arguments out of context and then organising petitions around them.

The protests over the Concord pool and Kismet Park’s Adizone have since flowered and gone to seed; but the CIIP is determined, in this the Town Council’s election year, to create another local issue that it can use to retain its political foothold.

TC Mismanagement Gives Way To More Adizone Stories This Week

Cllr Peter Burch exercising at Canvey's Adizone

AS IF IN AN EFFORT to quickly change the subject, the Echo, this week, decided not to follow-up this Blog’s revelations regarding Canvey Island Town Council’s financial mismanagement. 

Max Orbach, presumably stung into action by a Canvey Island Independent Party source, was, I am told, querying my interpretation of the Town Council’s latest budget; but dispensed with trying to contact me after looking at the actual figures

Interestingly though, the Echo did not run a similar article. Instead it reverted to rehashing an old piece on Kismet Park’s Adizone – with a twist. 

Instead of padding its allegations of yobbish behaviour with comments drawn from CIIP councillors, it introduced the island’s latest local celebrity, Colin Letchford, as the unhappy residents’ spokesman. And Colin, true to form, gave his own inconsistent take on why the public gym should be removed. 

Whenever I go past there are children as young as eight playing on it, even though a sign clearly states it is only meant for 12 years and over. 

It is dangerous for them, but they use it because the neighbouring playground for younger children is so run down. 

Shouldn’t the council have some form of security to ensure younger children are not injured using it? 

This is the same Colin Letchford who, when speaking to Rebecca Harris, in my presence, completely sided with her view (regarding Canvey’s Concord pool) that the Labour Government’s onerous Health and Safety Legislation needed to be rolled-back and a more sensible approach adopted to public facilities. And the same Colin Letchford (whose own report on the Concord pool highlighted its dangers to youngsters) who took the view that those dangers were acceptable and the council need only erect a sign saying that the facility is used at the public’s own risk to avoid any possible prosecution. 

So, having a youngster injure a limb through jamming it in dangerous rock crevices, or falling 1.8 metres from a slippery foothold is acceptable to Colin; but having the same child use the Adizone’s equipment as a climbing frame is not. 

The Echo does not make clear which council Colin is referring to in his statement. Logically, it is the Town Council (TC) to whom residents should first make their complaints; but it seems that the TC, rather than taking responsibility for the island’s yobbery alluded to in the article, would rather remain silent and pass the buck onto the local Borough Council, via Colin, in an effort to gain political points. (The Echo willingly conspired with this strategy later in the week by again raising the Concord pool topic – and quoting more Letchford comments). 

Refreshingly though, Matthew Stanton at the Yellow Advertiser, decided to adopt an objective approach to the Kismet park story. Moreover, he actually chased down Lee Barrett for a comment and succeeded in getting behind the real reason for CIIP-led residents’ protests. Despite the numerous press articles on the Adizone facility’s proposed location; coverage of its installation; announcements of its opening and, some time beforehand, having been informed by CPBC letter of the decision to erect it in Kismet Park, it seems that some 40 residents do not check their letter-box or read the local papers. 

Lee Barrett was reported as saying:- 

… The residents who want the equipment moved feel they were not consulted properly and only knew about the work when it was happening. 

I had a few calls from confused residents asking what was going on but it was too late to do anything about it. 

Meanwhile, on the subject of the Town Council and my Freedom Of Information (FOI) Act requests, the TC has not even acknowledged my last FOI’s receipt. Nor has it deemed to provide any further information regarding my first. It seems that, like denying residents their right to an Annual Town Meeting this year, the Town Council is determined not to release details of the companies and individuals whom have benefitted from their enormous expenditure over the past three years.

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.

Canvey Island’s Parish Council – An Opportunity Lost

WHEN ISLANDERS elected their first Parish Councillors, back in 2007, it was hoped that the new body – like those in neighbouring Leigh-on-Sea and Rayleigh – would form close links with residents and the Borough Council to improve islanders’ lives and tackle Canvey’s poverty.

With a joyful heart, islanders signed-up to an extra Council Tax charge to finance the new organisation, and looked forward to the island’s deprivation being addressed.

Rank Ward
1 Canvey Island Central
2 Canvey Island North
3 Canvey Island Winter Gardens
4 Canvey Island East
5 Canvey Island West
6 Canvey Island South
7 St Mary’s
8 Victoria
9 Cedar Hall
10 St James
11 Appleton
12 St Peter’s
13 St George’s
14 Boyce

Nothing was more urgent. Canvey Island’s six wards take up the top six positions in the borough’s poverty and deprivation rankings (as shown in the inset table) but it soon became evident that the newly elected councillors had other things on their minds.

Their first act was to re-title the newly formed Parish Council as a Town Council – and their second was not to work with the Borough Council to improve island facilities: it was to work against the Borough Council’s attempts to improve the lives of islanders at every turn.

At no stage has this Canvey Island Independent Party (CIIP) Town Council attempted to address islanders’ needs – and its local Grants Budget, for each year since its inception, has only provided some £5,000 support for charities engaged in meeting them. That is just 1.8% of its 2010/11 precept – and £4,000 less than councillors have awarded themselves in allowances and expenses this year.

The last three years have provided an opportunity for councillors to come to grips with the lack of facilities for the island’s youth in poverty stricken areas like the Avenues. Three years in which to engage the island’s youngsters and address anti-social behaviour. But, when the Borough Council saw fit to erect a £150,000 Adizone in Kismet Park, the CIIP immediately launched a petition for its removal.

The Town Council (TC) has had three years in which to assess the island’s facilities and identify areas that need addressing. But, in all that time, the TC was apparently oblivious of the safety concerns surrounding the Concord pool. It seems that no town councillor had ever bothered to visit and assess the facility. In contrast, Leigh-on-sea’s facilities are regularly appraised by their Town Council, and councillors are keen to work in partnership with Southend’s council to ensure they are always maintained to a high standard.

Canvey Island’s Town Council instigated no such arrangement with Castle Point Borough Council (CPBC) – just as it has never attempted to table a solution to the island’s desperate housing needs.

This year, the Town Council will have squandered over one-million pounds of residents’ money. One million pounds, which, with proper planning and financial management, could have seen vast improvements to the island’s social cohesion. Local charities could have been supported; the island’s Citizens’ Advice Bureau might not have been forced to seek additional accommodation on the mainland; residents might have had their own, subsidised, Dial-a-ride service; and islanders might not have had to rely upon the local police force to arrange suitable events for Canvey’s youth during the summer holidays.

The fact is that Canvey Island Town Council does not represent the residents it was elected to serve. Rather, the Town Council is seen as serving the political agenda of the CIIP. Few residents talk of the Town Council Offices – they speak of the CIIP Clubhouse.

Parish Councils were never envisaged as political bodies. Instead they are run, in the main, by local business, charity and church leaders whom have close links to the local community – and whom are fully aware of its needs. In particular, being free of political bias, parish councillors are able to work with higher tier public bodies to ensure their services are accurately targeted where they are needed – and, because they are parish based, they also have access to grant funding that is not available to borough or county councils. For example, grants from: Awards for All; O2 It’s Your Community Programme; Green Prints Flagships; and the Sport England Small Grants programme.

Notably, Canvey Island’s TC has never applied for such funding – even though the CIIP is apparently committed to island youth facilities and preserving the environment. Perhaps this is because such bodies require detailed plans, which the Town Council appears incapable of producing.

Since its inception, the Town Council has not begun a single project that could be described as new. Not a single penny of the one-million pounds, contributed by islanders and which will have been spent by the TC later this year, has been ploughed back into the community. Instead, those funds have been wasted on maintaining existing island community assets that, until the Town Council decided to take them over, were the responsibility of CPBC and funded through the Council Tax collected from all Castle Point residents.

It is only islanders who will now contribute towards those assets upkeep – and for no corresponding reduction in their Castle Point Council Tax bills. And, because islanders are far fewer than the total number of Castle Point residents, their individual share of such upkeep will be considerably higher.

In other words: the Town Council has done nothing – other than to substantially increase islander taxes in return for no community benefits.

CITC Standing Orders On Contracts

One million-pounds is an awful lot of taxpayers’ money. It is equivalent to £25 for every man, woman and child residing on the island – or several new community centres. But, to whom that money has been paid, at this moment, remains a mystery. Moreover, it appears that the Town Council has not entered into a formal agreement with many of its contractors.

That the vast majority of the Town Council’s budgets have been aimed at building works, site clearance, greenery and environmental furniture (each totalling many thousands of pounds) residents will find it difficult to understand why these amounts have not been subject to formal contractual arrangements. After all, such contracts are the first concern of any householder embarking on engaging similar services themselves.

Here is part of the email conversation I had with John Burridge, the new Town Council clerk, regarding a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.

  • Me: Please supply a detailed, dated, list of all contracts awarded since the Town Council’s inception, along with each contract’s purpose and full details of the individual contractor.
  • Burridge: Please let me know a minimum price for contracts, as, clearly, it would be disproportionate to provide information on, say, stationery orders.
  • Me: I do not think the commissioner would agree with you there, John. It is, after all, just a detailed Bought Ledger report (and I would be surprised if your stationary were not bought in bulk to ensure maximum discounts). I am not requesting details of the Town Council’s Petty Cash expenditure. Once again, paper is fine – just let me know when you would like me to pick it up.
  • Burridge: Please find attached a list of the contracts that CITC has with suppliers. We do not have any formal contracts with any other bodies or authorities.

Burridge’s list consisted of the following contracts for 2009/10 (I still await previous years’ details):-

  • Guardtec Security, annual maintenance charge: £285.53
  • ING Leasing, photocopier lease: £1,315.96
  • Pinnacle Essex, grounds maintenance: £7,080.40
  • Talk-Talk, phone rental: £113.85

Residents have a clear right to know to whom their money is being given, so, following Burridge’s obfuscation, I submitted a further FOI focusing upon the TC’s Purchase Ledger.

  • A detailed list of the firms, organisations and individuals to whom the Town Council has paid taxpayers’ money since its formation – along with the total individual amounts concerned. Just to be clear: the details of each firm, organisation and individual recorded by the Town Council’s purchase ledger and, for each, the accumulative invoiced amounts, less any credit notes. (I am not asking for details of any Petty Cash expenditure that might require manual compilation – and I am not requesting individual Purchase Ledger balances).

I have yet to receive a reply.

Formal contracts are an important element of any public body’s administration because they ensure only those works or supplies that have been agreed by council are in fact carried out – at the agreed price and with the agreed contractor. Without them it is possible for contractors to bill for other ‘necessary’ works; evade their responsibilities; or simply inflate the previously agreed price. But contracts have a further purpose when it comes to protecting taxpayers’ money: each needs to be formally approved, and it is therefore possible for residents to trace the arrangement back to responsible councillors and the minutes taken at the respective meeting to discover who agreed with, and who opposed, the proposals.

For example: who was it that agreed to the Town Council spending £1,000 of taxpayers’ money on ‘Regalia’ this year?

If it is indeed the case that the TC has entered into no formal arrangements, other than with those declared by Burridge, councillors will be in serious breach of their own Standing Orders – which is a very serious matter.

In the meantime, while the Town Council considers my latest FOI request, residents can only speculate on the reasons it might have for not immediately dumping the requested purchase ledger information to paper or electronic spreadsheet for detailed public inspection…

Never Mind The Cost To Residents, Just Keep Voting For An Increase

YESTERDAY’S REVELATIONS regarding the Town Council’s finances exposes the myth behind the Canvey Island Independent Party’s slogan, ‘Canvey for Canvey.’ If residents want to separate Canvey Island from Castle Point: it is going to cost them – big time.

With Bob Spink temporarily removed from the local picture, this week’s Echo coverage was the first, since this Blog’s inception, not to include any reports about protests on Canvey. Despite angling their Castle Point stories from protester viewpoints, the paper’s coverage has only been of Borough Councillors quietly getting on with the job of debating local matters and implementing their promises under the public’s eye.

Nothing has changed in the Council chamber – residents have just not been confronted with Spink and Dave Blackwell posing for the Echo’s cameras and dispensing their stream of lies.

Dave Blackwell, it seems – despite being an avid reader of this Blog – is back in hiding. When questions are raised here, he chooses not to answer – just as his party chooses not to be open about its separatist aims, or to be truthful about how much those ambitions would cost. But readers now know why the CIIP led Town Council has failed to publish an Annual Report on its Website since its first year in 2007/08 – to have done so would have revealed the extent to which pursuing un-costed policies have led to a pumped-up Parish Council’s imminent insolvency.

But Blackwell and the Town Council’s chairman, Nick Harvey, are not concerned with bankruptcy; because, unlike any private organisation, they can simply vote for islanders to contribute more. They know that, next year, they can simply tell the Borough Council to increase Canvey’s Town Council levy by 84% – and there is nothing that anyone can do about it. (If you refuse to pay: you will simply be pursued through the courts and face possible imprisonment).

It is a win-win situation for the CIIP – and one from which they have chosen to spend some three-and-a-half percent of the TC’s precept (over a quarter-of-a-million pounds) on their own remuneration.

The Town Council ploughs on. Posted today, on its Website, is the Spring 2010 newsletter, finally announcing the Armed Forces Day Parade on 26th June and stating their intention to take-over the management of Canvey’s seaside pool from the Borough Council. Moreover, a statement by the new Town Clerk, John Burridge, hints at further plans by the Town Council: ‘to provide ever improving services to our residents.’

At the moment, the Town Council provides no services – they are all provided by CPBC – but it is clear that the TC has that ambition. Furthermore, it is becoming frighteningly clear that neither the CIIP, nor the Town Council, have any idea of how much their ambitions will cost.

Islanders are being forced to write a blank cheque to a financially incompetent administration…

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…