Astonishing and worrying – all Rayleigh Councillors are kept out of the District Council Cabinet

Chris Black
Chris Black

So, the elections are over for another year … and thanks to everyone who voted Liberal Democrat in Rayleigh this May. We had two councillors elected, and actually got more votes than the Conservatives. (They don’t like us mentioning that!)

And we have had one or two successes in the council chamber lately. After a lot of work, led by my colleague June Lumley, in the autumn we will get back a cheap rate 40p parking charge for the first half-hour in council car parks. We were also pleased to see that you will be able to pay by mobile phone (handy if you are stuck at the dentists, or getting a perm!) We’re still not satisfied – we’d like to see free parking after 6 pm to encourage early evening trade. But we’ll keep battling away.

However, I want to write about something that alarms me – not as a Lib Dem – but as a resident of Rayleigh. It’s about how the District Council’s most important committee, the “Cabinet” (officially called the “Executive”) is going from bad to worse from a Rayleigh point of view.

The new situation is that no Rayleigh councillors are in the cabinet at all. It’s astonishing and worrying. And it matters. Rayleigh is by far the largest town in our district; it has the biggest shopping centre; it contributes well over 40% of the total income to the council. All the other large villages and towns are represented. But there’s no Rayleigh member to express a view in important meetings.

I guess I should explain the background a bit. The cabinet consists of the Conservative leader of the council, Terry Cutmore, plus 7 other Conservatives that he picks. Councillors who aren’t in the cabinet aren’t normally allowed to speak at all at the meetings – even if you want to point out a mistake, or even if they are discussing part of your council ward. That’s unlike most other council meetings.

Other councils – like Essex County Council – allow minority parties to have a representative in their cabinet so they can at least make suggestions. And if a Lib Dem were included in the cabinet we would put forward a councillor from Rayleigh. But unfortunately the Conservatives decided the cabinet would have 8 Conservatives and 0 others.

There is still some control over things. For example, we can ask for something to be dealt with at a meeting of the Full Council instead of the cabinet – that’s what we did with car parking. Though by that stage the Conservative councillors were so whipped into line that hardly any of them spoke and the whole meeting on car parking charges, budgets, types of machines and methods of payment was over in 16 minutes!

Decisions can also be ‘called in’ by 3 backbench members or by the Chair of the Review Committee. But quite often things can’t be called in at all because some decisions are urgent.

Now I’ve never liked the cabinet. I prefer the traditional system of having committees, where all councillors are fundamentally equal and everyone can have their say and every part of the district can be represented. The old system is also about £46,000 a year cheaper, because the council wouldn’t be paying substantial extra payments to councillors.

And this year the Cabinet has no Rayleigh councillors at all. There’s one from Ashingdon, one from Barling , one from Hawkwell, two from Hockley, two from Rochford and one from Great Wakering . A totally unbalanced arrangement – which may well put Rayleigh at a disadvantage when some issues are discussed. There are 12 Conservative District Councillors in Rayleigh – not one of them has been included.

By the way, the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Council this year are both from Rayleigh. You’ll see their photos in the papers a lot as they visit places, and we wish them well. But these are really ceremonial posts, and have nothing to do with the cabinet.

Another worrying sign is the “Local Development Framework Subcommittee”. That’s a long title, but this is basically a panel that decides which bits of the green belt get houses built on them. It’s made up of 5 Conservatives and 1 Lib Dem. I’m the Lib Dem, so Rayleigh and Rawreth have some representation. But guess what – the Tories haven’t picked any Rayleigh members for this one either. Why is that ?

As Lib Dems , we will carry on regardless. At least we aren’t under the Tory whip and can say what we like, which helps us achieve things. We will push to get big issues discussed at Full Council (like car parking). But it’s worrying to see that the ordinary Rayleigh backbench Conservatives have been completely outmanoeuvred and sidelined.

 

Close the Cabinet – and ease the cuts

Chris Black

Chris Black

I hope the editor of the Rayleigh Times won’t be too cross with me … but I want to write about a couple of things I’ve recently seen in another newspaper – the Daily Mail.

The first item was on their front page last month.

There were headlines screaming “DOING YOUR CIVIC DUTY NEVER PAID SO WELL – HOW COUNCILLORS’ PAYOUTS HAVE SOARED AS LOCAL SERVICES FACE SAVAGE CUTS”. The newspaper went on to say:

“The highest single increase over the past five years was at Rochford council in Essex, where allowances increased by 158 per cent – almost ten times the rate of inflation over the same period … Rochford spent £287,000 on allowances last year, which amounts to 2.5 per cent of its entire £11.3million spending budget. By contrast, it spent £199,000 on grants for equipment to help the disabled, and £447 on leisure and play facilities.”

The first thing to say is that the Daily Mail has one big whopping mistake here – it’s that last figure about leisure and play facilities. In fact if you asked a bright six-year-old who was actually using our play facilities they’d probably give a more accurate figure than the journalist who wrote this. Because the actual total spend in 2009/10 on leisure, parks and play facilities was about £4.5m, including capital investment.

The second thing to say is that most councillors aren’t receiving big allowances – the increase is largely due to the council setting up an all-Conservative ‘cabinet’. But otherwise the Mail is right – introducing a cabinet has certainly increased the council spending on allowances.

Having a cabinet system means that:

• things are less democratic
• money is spent on councillors’ allowances that could be spent on protecting services
• because we are wasting funds this way, the council loses credibility when asking the government for more money.

You may be wondering what a cabinet system is. A ‘cabinet system’ means that 8 Conservative councillors are given special powers so that council staff can meet with them individually to agree with things. This is instead of the council staff having to take things to a committee of 10 or 20 councillors. It sounds speedier – and it usually is. But the advantage of a committee is that it makes use of the experience of ‘ordinary’ councillors – councillors with young children, or councillors with up-to-date business experience, or councillors with local knowledge, or just councillors who say ‘hang on a minute, you haven’t thought about this…” Sometimes the cabinet system is just a speedier way of agreeing to the wrong decision.

But things are worse than that – because under the cabinet system you pay those councillors a much bigger allowance – which is why the cost has shot up so much. And now the cabinet allowances are creating a credibility problem for the council. The Daily Mail reported that the leader of Rochford District Council has a higher leader’s allowance than the leader of Canterbury City Council. That’s pretty astonishing. After all, when we have a local priest come to say prayers before one of our council meetings he or she isn’t on a bigger stipend than the Archbishop of Canterbury!

Council services are under threat in our district. Grants to voluntary groups are being cut. Rayleigh’s public toilets are at risk of closing. Residents – even those on low incomes or pensions – are now going to be charged a fee if they call in the council to deal with rats or mice. If our local Conservatives got rid of the cabinet system we would save enough money to avoid most of this.

The second item in the Daily Mail was on national politics. An online opinion poll on the Daily Mail website asked its readers “How will you vote on the Alternative Vote system?” Interestingly, the answer was that 61% of them would vote with Nick Clegg and vote for the Alternative Vote system.

I don’t trust the accuracy of online opinion polls – but it’s still an encouraging sign. A very similar system is used for electing the London Mayor – and nobody seems unhappy about that.

And having the Alternative Vote system would mean that there were fewer safe seats in British politics – which would mean that more of our elected representatives in Britain would have to a bit work harder to get re-elected.

 

Who isn’t on Rayleigh’s side?

Chris Black
Chris Black

We now have a Conservative / Lib Dem coalition in parliament – which is something I never ever expected six months ago. Since May people keep asking me – are we in coalition on the District Council now too?

The answer is, of course, no. The Conservatives have a huge majority on the District Council; they don’t need Lib Dem support, and there’s been no suggestion of a local coalition. In fact our two parties seem to be differing more and more in issues that affect Rayleigh.

There is one big area where we have similar thoughts, and that’s recycling. We originally worked on the details of the ‘3 bin’ system with the Conservatives, and we are delighted with the outcome. Recycling rates are very high. And that’s good for the environment, good for council income, and good for council tax payers. The council is doing a very good job on this, so credit where it’s due …

But on other issues there’s a big difference between the Lib Dem councillors and the Tory leadership – for example on car parking. Earlier this year a cross-party committee of councillors, led by Lib Dem June Lumley with some Tory backbenchers, came up with some car parking ideas. Unfortunately most of the proposals were then vetoed by the Tory leadership, and we were so angry about this we forced a vote in the council chamber.

The motion was that a 30 minute parking time band with a 40p charge be reintroduced (to encourage people making quick visits to our town centres, and supported by Rayleigh Chamber of Trade) and that there be no parking charges after 6.00 pm (to encourage early evening shopping and restaurant use). This is how the voting went (taken from the official council minutes):

For (7) Cllrs C I Black ; Mrs J Dillnutt; M Hoy; C J Lumley; Mrs J R Lumley; J R F Mason; R A Oatham (5 Lib Dems, I Green 1 Rochford Resident)

Against (20) Cllrs Mrs P Aves; Mrs L A Butcher; P A Capon; J P Cottis; T G Cutmore; K A Gibbs; Mrs H L A Glynn; J E Grey; K H Hudson; T Livings; Mrs G A Lucas-Gill: Mrs J E McPherson; D Merrick; A C Priest; C G Seagers: D G Stansby; M J Steptoe; J Thomass; Mrs M J Webster; P F A Webster (All Conservative)

Abstentions (1) Cllr M Maddocks (Conservative)

Absent (11): Cllrs Mrs T J Capon, M R Carter, Mrs L M Cox, T E Goodwin, K J Gordon, A J Humphries, Mrs J A Mockford, P Robinson, S P Smith, Mrs C A Weston and Mrs B J Wilkins. (all Conservative)

There are 3 things to note from this. First of all, we obviously lost the vote, which is a great pity. Secondly, none of the Tory backbenchers who originally supported these proposals were willing to vote with us in the council chamber and defy their party whip. (But credit to Cllr Maddocks for at least abstaining) And thirdly – look at how many Conservatives didn’t even come to the meeting!

Another parking issue is residents’ parking schemes. The Lib Dem group would like schemes in roads where most residents ask for one. My colleague Chris Lumley has been researching this, because of the problems that people have in places like Creswick Avenue. Some other councils offer parking permits to residents for £20 per year or less. We would like to do something similar – but the leadership on the District Council are dead against it.

The other big subject at the moment is our Green Belt. One of the good things the government coalition has done is to scrap the housing targets that had been imposed under Labour. So instead of having to build 2785 homes in the Green Belt in the next 15 years, the District Council is allowed to set its own target.

However the Conservatives who run our District Council are sticking with the Labour figures. Their only concession is to allow building a bit more slowly – over 21 years instead of 15. This means that green field sites around Rayleigh, Rawreth and Hullbridge that we think are unsuitable are still likely to get developed.

We do need some more homes – especially for young adults in our area – but in the right places.

I am genuinely shocked that the same councillors, who were keen to blame Labour before the election, are still supporting the same figures now. This has caused some pretty bitter disagreements in the council chamber…..

I’ll finish by quoting something from the minutes of a recent Rayleigh Chamber of Trade meeting. One of the Conservative Town Councillors said “within the District Council there are people who are not on Rayleigh’s side.” He’s right!

 

Lib Dem Policies In Government

Delivering Real Change

Sid Cumberland

Sid Cumberland

The face of British politics has changed quite radically since I last wrote for the Rayleigh Times, and that change may well have long-lasting effects. The voters of Britain set the political parties quite a conundrum at the election; only time will tell if they have solved the puzzle satisfactorily.

A number of dissatisfied voters have asked why the Lib Dems have ended up in a coalition with the Conservatives. I entirely understand their concerns – after all, there are plenty of areas where we disagree significantly. But I keep coming back to two fundamental questions:

Question 1: Was there ever a realistic alternative to a Lib Dem/Conservative coalition? Well, we could have tried a coalition with Labour, the Scots and Welsh nationalists, the one Green MP from Brighton – but can you imagine the fractious negotiating of deals and constant threats of pulling the rug from under the whole enterprise? I doubt such an enterprise could have held (though most Lib Dems would probably instinctively align themselves with Labour values rather than Conservative values). And in any case, Labour had polled the lowest percentage of votes by any outgoing government since 1832 – a poor 29%.

The other alternative was to leave the Conservatives to run a minority government, with whatever support they could garner on an issue-by-issue basis. But Nick Clegg had said before the election that in the event of a hung parliament, he would negotiate first with whoever got most seats and most votes (not always the same thing, of course) – and that was the Conservatives.

Question 2: Will this government be better for having Liberal Democrat ministers and policies? Undoubtedly. Many people will have voted Lib Dem because of our promise to raise the tax allowance so that people earning under £10,000 a year wouldn’t have to pay tax. That wasn’t in the Tory manifesto, and Labour had already made clear their lack of concern for low earners by scrapping the 10p tax band. This key Lib Dem policy is now part of the coalition agreement, and will be implemented over the course of this parliament.

There are, of course, a number of Conservative policies which we disagree with (e.g. whether to keep Trident or not) – and we have had to compromise in the interests of stable government. The Conservatives have had to compromise too – but that is what coalition is all about.

So none of the parties liked the result of the election, but Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have agreed to work together to achieve what we see to be the best way forward for the country. We are not used to coalitions in this country (though all political parties are coalitions to some extent), and some people are finding it hard to come to terms with. A number of media commentators in particular are finding it difficult to get out of their old ways of thinking; it’s easier to think in black-and-white terms, two parties alternating in power as Conservative and Labour have done for the last century, except in case of national emergency. But I would suggest that we have to get used to a more diverse and plural way of thinking about how we run our country.

One of the pluses for the Conservatives is that David Cameron is shielded from the loose cannon on the extreme right of his party – he doesn’t have to kowtow to the eurosceptics to keep them on board, as the coalition has a healthy parliamentary majority.

For Liberal Democrats, the bottom line is that the coalition agreement is full of policies that we have been campaigning on for years, and which we now have the opportunity to put into practice. I’m particularly pleased to see the end of detention of children for immigration purposes in the agreement, along with many other Lib Dem civil liberties initiatives.

It has always been Lib Dem policy to delegate power to the lowest possible level – which means not having decisions made in Whitehall which should be made locally. I’m glad to say that both coalition partners have agreed that the number of houses built in any area should be decided by the local council for that area – not by diktat from on high. Which means that if Rochford District Council gets its act together, the housing target imposed on us by the last government (4,600 houses, with no funding for infrastructure) should become nothing more than a bad dream.

We’ve also secured a commitment to voting reform, which Lib Dems feel is well overdue. In 1951, Clement Attlee’s Labour Party polled more than a million votes more than Churchill’s Conservatives, but the distortions allowed by the first-past-the-post system saw Churchill form the government having won 321 seats to Attlee’s 295. It’s also worth noting that in that election the two main parties won 93% of the vote between them. In 2005 they won just under 68% – and this year, the figure was down to 65%. As politics becomes more pluralistic, we are going to find ourselves having to form coalitions more frequently.

One thing I should make clear – the coalition at Westminster does NOT mean that Lib Dems and Conservatives locally are in coalition. On Rochford Dictrict Council we are committed to fighting for the interests of local residents, keeping people informed, and trying to make the council more democratic and accountable.

 

My Mum, Nick Clegg, and Norman Tebbit

Chris Black

Chris Black

When I won my first election to the council, my Mum, bless her, was delighted for me. She began voting Liberal in the 1980s, though she respected any politician whom she thought was willing to speak out. This meant she liked Arch-Tory Norman Tebbit and Labour left-winger Ken Livingstone.

Because of this she’d be contemptuous of the current Conservative councillors on Rochford District, who nowadays seem barely allowed by their party to even speak in full council meetings, let alone vote freely. But that’s another matter …

Sadly my Mum died some years ago. But I think she’d be fascinated to see that even Norman Tebbit is now supporting a Lib Dem proposal.

The proposal is about cutting income tax. We want to change the system so that nobody would pay any income tax on their first £10,000 of earned income. That would mean the average worker would be £700 better off, and four million people would stop paying tax altogether. We would fund it by such things as changing capital gains tax and clamping down on the use of offshore companies to avoid paying tax.

Norman Tebbit wrote for the Daily Telegraph:

“… only one party leader seems to have grasped that, if you construct a system where unskilled people are worse off by taking a job than by staying on welfare, they remain trapped in poverty – and that is Nick Clegg … the two main parties are unwilling to bite on the bullet and commit themselves to raising the income tax threshold from £6,475 to something like £10,000 or £12,000. It is madness to claim that people so poor that they need welfare payments are at the same time sufficiently well-off to pay income tax. The effect is that people at the bottom of the stack living on benefits who try to get back into work are hit by 20 per cent tax, 11 per cent National Insurance and benefit losses that can add up to almost 100 pence in the pound.”

So even Norman Tebbit can see we are right! It would make for a fairer tax system – and the economy has certainly became more unfair in the past 40 years, the gap between rich and poor grew much wider under the Conservatives – and things haven’t changed under Labour, And Nick Clegg is right on other economic issues as well. For example, the government said they didn’t want the US food company Kraft to take over Cadbury’s. There’s every danger now that this takeover will lead to job losses in the UK. Nick has rightly protested in the Commons that the deal’s only going ahead because Kraft are being loaned money by RBS – which is now 84 percent state-owned! When taxpayers bailed out RBS, I don’t think we expected to see our money used for this …

I couldn’t write about Lib Dem economic policies without mentioning Vince Cable – the man that the other parties would love to have. Vince has provided us with an overarching strategy for the economy, which I don’t think Labour and the Conservatives have really got.

What does this strategy mean?

First, the nation’s finances are in a mess, so there are going to be some difficult cuts to make. For example, Labour’s unrealistic programme to further increase the number of people going to universities would be cut back. And we would stop tax credits for high earners.

Secondly, the foundations of our economy were damaged by the actions of the banks. The most important part of banking reform is to split the banks up. So we would have ordinary ‘retail’ banks where people deposit their money that are separate from the banks that carry on with those risky deals and loans. No other party is saying this, which is a pity.

Thirdly, for the long-term recovery of the country, we need investment in our infrastructure in ways that make sense in terms of economics AND green issues – for example, in our railways.

Finally, we need fairness, and that’s where that “No income tax on your first £10,000” comes in.

The shock over the closure of Eon in Rayleigh – and the way it was handled – has made it a very bitter start to the New Year. I spent 11 months out of work back in the Thatcher recession of the 1980s, and I know just how desperately demoralising it can be to be out of work, even apart from the financial aspect.

It’s the Lib Dems who have the best economic policies for Britain (although if you are very rich you will do better under the Tories). There’s a general election coming soon – and there’s a good chance of a hung parliament, where our ideas can be put into effect. Fingers crossed …

 

How on earth did we end up here?

Why Nick Clegg’s 100-day plan to save our democracy is necessary

Sid Cumberland

Sid Cumberland

Every election has its own character. Sometimes there’s apathy – a feeling that we’re just going through the motions, the result a foregone conclusion. Sometimes there is genuine excitement in the air, with the prospect of radical change. And sometimes there’s anger – and in the elections we’ve just had, there was plenty of that. Talking to people on the doorstep, the policies of the various parties were swamped by outrage at the behaviour of the people we had chosen to represent us in parliament.

The fact that these elections were for local councils and Europe could not dissuade people from using them to attack their MPs in Westminster. There was not just anger – there was frustration, indignation, and a sense that things were going to have to change.

Nick Clegg has been in the vanguard of the calls for change. While the other leaders played catch-up with each other, failing to grasp the true extent of public feeling, the Lib Dem leader laid out a 100-day plan to tackle the fundamental problems that have destroyed confidence in parliament – including MPs’ expenses, electoral reform, reform of the House of Lords, and much more.

But how on earth did we get to the position where such reforms were necessary?

Think back to May 1997. Tony Blair, the youngest British prime minister of the twentieth century, standing on the steps of 10 Downing Street, promising he would deliver ‘unity and purpose for the future’.

New Labour had displaced – or rather routed – the tired old government of John Major. The Tories, trapped between ‘cash for questions’ sleaze and ‘back to basics’ morality, had nowhere to go. Black Wednesday had shattered the Conservatives’ reputation for economic competence. Major’s waning majority reduced him to announcing desperate initiatives like the cones hotline (apparently the most common request was ‘two 99s and a Cornetto’). They had nothing left to offer. The country was ready for change.

Following New Labour’s landslide victory, Tony Blair told us: ‘For 18 years – for 18 long years – my party has been in opposition. It could only say, it could not do. Today, we are charged with the deep responsibility of government. Today, enough of talking – it is time now to do.’

It was indeed time to do – but New Labour didn’t. Given their huge majority, they could have acted quickly to resuscitate our public services – but they stuck to Tory spending plans for two long years. It was almost as if Blair and his colleagues couldn’t quite believe they were really in charge. Boldness was called for – and all they had was timidity.

Labour’s plans for reform faltered. They tinkered half-heartedly with the House of Lords. The promised referendum on electoral reform was shelved. The Prime Minister became more and more presidential, and back-bench MPs became less and less significant. At the same time, the unelected editors of our tabloid newspapers became more powerful. Blair’s response to the demands of the popular press was always appeasement. When the Daily Mail screamed about immigrants or prison places or single mothers or Europe, the response of Blair and his ministers was invariably to agree that there was indeed a problem and to outline the steps they were taking to sort things out. This has lent legitimacy to the tabloids’ bigotry, and has made this country a less pleasant place to live in.

Many of us hoped for better things when Gordon Brown became leader, and he took over with a huge fund of popular goodwill. The country had tired of spin, public services did not seem to have benefited as we had been promised, and the war in Iraq cast an increasingly dark shadow. But Brown wasn’t up to the job. He promised significant constitutional changes, but nothing has happened.

One of the reforms Nick Clegg has proposed is fixed-term parliaments – this would prevent the current situation where the Prime Minister can give himself an electoral advantage by choosing the date of the election.

Clegg also argues that a new electoral system is needed, to reflect more accurately the wishes of the whole population. One of the reasons people feel so disgruntled by the whole Westminster shambles is that the our current first-past-the-post system encourages parties to focus their attention on a very small number of voters in a very small number of seats – the voters most likely to change their minds in the seats most likely to change hands. (This is not the place for a detailed discussion about proportional representation – but if you are interested, you could try this article: A Fair Voting System At Last?)

The focus on a small number of swing seats has left the rest of us feeling unrepresented – and this vacuum has created an opportunity for the BNP and other assorted fringe parties. And this is another reason why people feel so angry about MPs and their foolish expenses claims. It’s not just the pathetic greed – though that’s reason enough to be angry – it’s the fact that our elected representatives have brought parliament into such disrepute that people will stay at home, or will feel pushed to vote for charlatans and racists, just so that they can say their voices have been heard.

 

These Days I Need A Coffee To Get Me Through The Day

Chris Black

Chris Black

It’s funny how places change. About 40 years ago Rayleigh town centre had seven supermarkets all competing for business. Then the number of supermarkets went down and we had a huge number of shoe shops. And in 2009? Well, let’s just say that if you want a really good cup of coffee, you are spoilt for choice …

So this is turning into a good year for coffee lovers. But apart from that, it’s a worrying time for nearly everybody, and I’m seeing a lot of angry people these days. They are angry about a lot of national issues (you can guess what most of them are) and they are worried over a lot of local stuff too.

One of the big subjects in the last few days has been MPs’ expenses. It’s been bad enough seeing how failing bankers have got away with huge bonuses, but now members of Parliament have been caught out over expenses.

There’s an allowance that MPs from outside inner London can claim for. It’s to cover the cost of staying away from their main home when carrying out parliamentary duties. That seems fair enough; if you are an MP for somewhere outside commuting distance of the capital you will need two places to live – one near parliament, and one near your constituency.

But one Labour MP has reportedly claimed £60,000 since 2002 for a house in Harrow – when his main home is only a few miles away in Hammersmith, and Westminster is only 11 miles away. And he’s not the only one who’s exploiting the rules.

Now, this MP has done nothing illegal – apparently the regs are drafted in such a way that this is all allowed. But as a friend said to me, “Something can still be wrong even if it is legal. And someone who’s just been made redundant by Woolworths and received the minimum redundancy pay isn’t going to be impressed”

I was talking to a resident on the doorstep who was really angry about this and he said and “Just because a Lib Dem MP hasn’t been caught out yet, doesn’t mean that the Lib Dems are in the clear – there just aren’t so many MPs in your party!”

Well, so far we are definitely in the clear on this. None of the Lib Dem MPs who represent London constituencies are claiming this allowance. What’s more, Lib Dem MP Sarah Teather has now tabled a Commons motion trying to stop any London MPs doing this in future.

Meanwhile, closer to home, councillors are much less likely to be in trouble over this sort of thing. We have to be, because the code of conduct for councillors is much tougher than it is for MPs. If an MP steps out of line, they can be banned for a few days. But councillors can be suspended for a year, sometimes for not-very-serious issues.

Trouble is, councils are being seduced into adopting some of central government’s ways, such as having a ‘cabinet-style’ operation, where just one councillor can make a decision. For example, are you unhappy about the new average-speed cameras on the A127? That was decided by just one Conservative councillor from Danbury. None of his colleagues seem to want to defend him on this issue; they just shrug their shoulders. But people in Rayleigh – or Southend – can’t vote him out.

And then there’s ‘spin’. Conservative Essex County Council is one of the nine highest spending councils in Britain on publicity . The cost has nearly doubled over the last nine years, and now stands at nearly £5 million per year!

And it’s not as if everything else in Essex is rosy. The County Child protection services were investigated by Ofsted and were rated as ‘inadequate’ . Only another seven other authorities were rated as low as Essex and one of them was Haringey, where the tragic ‘Baby P’ case occurred. So we can’t do better than Haringey? And we are in the top nine on publicity spending but in the bottom eight on Child Protection?

I hope this piece hasn’t turned into a rant. But there are so many things going on that make me angry at the moment – maybe I’m just getting grumpy in my old age. Perhaps I need to take stroll up to the High Street and have a latte and a cake. Though times are getting tough, there’s still coffee …

 

Twelve Wishes For Rayleigh

Chris Black
Chris Black

Somebody asked me recently ‘Why are you a councillor, what do you want to happen in Rayleigh?’ It seemed a fairly easy question to answer, but then I realised there are a whole load of things I want to see happen in our town, So here’s my personal wish-list – I’d be interested to know if other people agree.

  1. We should limit the extra housing that is coming. The District Council will have to allow about 3700 extra homes to be built in our district in the next 13 years. That’s all the way from here to Foulness Island. I am firmly against the council’s original suggestion of having 1800 of these in Rayleigh. We’ve taken the lion’s share of housebuilding for the last 20 years, the town has suffered as a result, and it’s about time we had some fairness.
  2. When developers provide land or money for new amenities, they should get built! The District Council has a pretty atrocious record at supplying new amenities, even when money or land has been provided. A new doctor’s surgery in Rayleigh? Not built, even though the developer gave the land for one and £50,000 towards building it. A pedestrian crossing in Rawreth Lane? Not built, even though the developer provided £73,000 for one. A neighbourhood centre at the Park School site? Not built yet …
  3. Sensible planning policies. When new houses do get built, they need to have adequate car parking spaces and a reasonable–sized garden. I think councillors need to look again at the ‘small print’ of our planning policies to make sure we can insist on this.
  4. More facilities for young people. This doesn’t have to be done by the District Council; sometimes private enterprise can do it. For example, the bowling alley in Hockley is a commercial venture that removed nearly all the young people hanging about on the streets there. Originally the council officers wanted to refuse it. Fortunately councillors made their own decision and voted to allow it.
  5. We need a satellite clinic of Southend Hospital. The District Council is saying that we should get a clinic like this in Rayleigh in nine years time. With the pace at which bureaucracy works, I wonder what ‘nine years’ will actually mean! This is much too slow – we should be putting pressure in the health authorities right now on this. It wouldn’t affect the work that our local GPs do, but would save people a lot of hospital trips.
  6. Get a proper swimming pool built in Rayleigh. The District Council has completely stopped thinking about this. But if we have to have some more housebuilding here, maybe that’s the new amenity we should insist on getting.
  7. Get some common sense on bus routes. One of the biggest local issues is the loss of the 24 bus along London Road. It’s been switched along Down Hall Road to Asda. Since this switch it’s often running empty. Meanwhile people often have to stand on the remaining buses along London Road. This is hitting a lot of elderly people very hard. Perhaps the easiest thing to do would be to add an extra bus every hour on the no. 25 route along London Road.
  8. Can we have some common decency with the West Rayleigh Sewage Works? Residents who live nearby are furious with the uncovered lorries carrying human sewage ‘cake’ from there.
  9. Help the High Street. Traders in our town centre have suffered a couple of blows in the last 12 months – increased car parking charges and the opening of Asda. The national economy is starting to look a bit dodgy. So I would like the council to think carefully on how it can help the Town Centre shops prosper.
  10. I think we should try a few Residents Parking Schemes. They could solve parking problems in a few areas. However for some reason the District Council seems dead against them.
  11. Have some councillors with small children. For councils to work well, you need a wide variety of councillors. However at the moment nearly all of the Rayleigh councillors are either retired, or in their fifties. So I’m very pleased that two of the Lib Dem candidates this year – Lindsay Frend and Trevor Parrett – are in their thirties and are parents of small children.
  12. And finally – when the Lib Dems ran the District Council, we came up with a very cheap way of brightening up our area. We got the council to buy some sacks of daffodil bulbs, and then the councillors ourselves planted them all over the place. So when you see daffodils on our grass verges or the edges of open spaces, that’s our work! I’d like to see the council get some more bulbs so we can do some more planting.

 

The Great Liberal Tradition

Sid Cumberland

Sid Cumberland

I’ve just had another birthday, and I was interested to discover that I share my special day with Thomas Paine – author of Rights of Man, Common Sense and many other thought-provoking pamphlets and books. There are many worse people with whom one could share a birthday. Paine, of course, is one name in a long list of illustrious liberals who have contributed the ideas which make the Liberal Party the most progressive and radical party in Britain today.

The two contenders in our leadership contest last autumn were asked to choose their political heroes. Chris Huhne went for David Lloyd George, Nick Clegg cheated slightly and picked two – Harry Willcock and Vaclav Havel. I’m guessing everyone will have heard of Lloyd George, and that many people will remember Havel – one of the leaders of the Velvet Revolution which saw the bloodless end of communism in Czechoslovakia.

But Harry Willcock? Do people remember him? I certainly think they ought to. He was a north London dry cleaner, and a member of the Liberal Party. A policeman stopped him one day in 1950 and asked to see his ID card. He refused. “I am a Liberal,” he said. “I am against that sort of thing.” Thanks to his stand, which was supported by Liberal MPs and Lords at the time, the ID cards programme was challenged in the courts and eventually scrapped.

The liberal argument put forward by Harry and others in opposition was a fundamental one; it was an argument about liberty and the relationship between the individual and the state. For them, the imposition of ID cards was intolerable because of the power it gave to the state, a power which was inevitably abused. The same argument holds today. If anything, it has become even more relevant. The technology we possess now makes the use and abuse of information much more dangerous than it was.

The Labour government thinks that the state has the right to collect all the information it wants about us. Liberals believe that the state only has a right to know what it needs to know, and what we citizens agree to let it know. We think the whole ID card scheme, in particular the national database that would underpin it, go too far. To paraphrase Harry Willcock, ‘We are Liberals. We are against that sort of thing.’

Thomas Paine certainly wouldn’t have recognized the database state we are morphing into. We have more CCTV cameras per citizen than any other country. We have the largest DNA database in the world. Plans are far advanced to centralise all our medical records and introduce the most elaborate biometric ID cards in the world.

The government has recently highlighted the foolishness of the whole venture by scattering our private and personal data across the countryside like confetti. They blame human error – but as all government IT schemes are manned by humans, they are all susceptible to the same vulnerabilities. The government also seems to be unable to bring in any IT project on time or on budget. The Liberal Democrats would like to see the billions ear-marked for this project spent on measures to make our country safer – more police in particular.

We are different to the other parties in other areas as well. We believe in human rights, social justice and the fight against inequality.

Much of the agenda of the current government runs directly counter to liberal principles.

Liberals believe in international law. The government was prepared to flout it in their support for the war in Iraq, for rendition, and for Guantánamo.

Liberals believe in creating a fairer society, in which individuals have the opportunity to make the most of their talents. Britain is becoming more and more unequal.

Labour seems to have lost its belief in social justice. One in 12 of our children is likely to develop asthma, TB or bronchitis because of poor housing. Over a million children live in slums. The government has failed to understand the fact that sub-standard housing is the root cause of so much poor health and low educational attainment. To be fait, the blame for this should be shared with the Conservatives. When Mrs Thatcher was preaching about the return of Victorian values, we didn’t know she meant bringing back rickets.

Liberals believe in localism: giving greater responsibility to locally elected representatives and more power to local communities. Under Labour, we have seen the centralisation of public life. Citizens feel increasingly powerless. Public services controlled by officialdom are out of touch and remote.

David Cameron’s claim to the liberal mantle is no more plausible than the government’s. We cannot be forced to believe that it is year zero and that the recent past never happened. Was David Cameron not the author of the 2005 Conservative manifesto, the most reactionary of modern times? Was he not the brains behind Black Wednesday? Cameron is a man who thinks that being a liberal means not wearing a tie.

If Gordon Brown and David Cameron really want to know about liberal values, they should look at the great Liberals – the well known, like Lloyd George, J S Mill, John Locke, Beveridge, and the not-so-well-known, like Harry Willcock.

 

We Are The Residents’ Watchdogs – So Don’t Muzzle Us!

Jackie Dillnutt

Jackie Dillnutt

Back in May I was the surprise winner in the council elections in Rayleigh’s Sweyne Park Ward. Winning an election is an exciting and humbling experience knowing that people came out and bothered to vote for you and what you have to offer. Then you get your first pile of documents to read, and you get down to work …

Meeting with local residents is definitely the best part of the job. Whether they vote for you or not, people are generally very friendly and if you can sort out a local problem and make a difference for residents, then you get a sense of achievement.

I’ve learned that the Lib Dem group can be great ‘watchdogs’ for Rayleigh. My colleagues, especially Ron Oatham and Chris Black, fought such an effective campaign about housing figures for Rayleigh that the Conservative group have been forced to reduce the numbers from 1800 to 740. Ron and Chris achieved this by doing what the Lib Dems do best: listening to residents and representing their views forcibly and repeatedly.

I’ve learned that achieving things needs real persistence. You get sent on training courses to learn how to be an effective councillor – and then find that the council bureaucracy ties you down in ways you didn’t expect. If you can get through the bureaucracy you find that the majority of councillors (in our district that’s the Conservatives) are failing to reflect the wishes of the local communities they serve.

A big example of this is the Grange Community Centre. It’s been run successfully for 21 years by local volunteers. All in all they’ve done a great job and are providing a much needed and very well supported local amenity. But now the lease is up for renewal.

Council officers recommended that the council continued charging a rent of £100 per year, something I fully support. But suddenly the Conservative group are acting tough. They want the association to do a whole load more maintenance on the building – costing tens of thousands of pounds, and then negotiate a new rent next year. Figures of up to £4,000 have been suggested!

This is an issue that concerns me greatly. There’s no guarantee that if the association do all the work that the council wants, that the council will still lease the centre to them. There’s a big playing field around it, and the Conservative Group are talking about allowing 500 houses in this part of Rayleigh. Is someone thinking of letting the centre die so that the council can sell the land and cash in? Stranger things have happened.

The council has the power to appoint two councillors to be trustees for the association, so that they can keep a close eye on the association and report back. Now, the Lib Dems proposed the obvious persons – the two ward councillors, Conservative Cllr Mrs Joan Mockford and myself.

However the Conservative leadership decided that they wanted to keep me away from the association, and proposed a Tory councillor from another ward instead.

Now, there are 32 Conservative Councillors and only 5 Lib Dems. It’s pretty clear that when you are outnumbered 32-5 you are going to lose the vote. But we decided to force a vote anyway, and there was a bit of a surprise. The Conservatives only won by 13 votes to 8 , which was really embarrassing for them. A lot of ordinary Tory councillors clearly felt that this wasn’t how ward councillors of whatever party should be treated, and abstained. Two Tories – Carole Weston and James Cottis – actually voted with us as did the Hawkwell Councillor John Mason and I respect them for that.

Though I’m not a Council Trustee I’ll still keep in contact with the community association. However I think the actions of the Conservative group are an insult to the people who voted for me in May …

The biggest way that councillors are muzzled now is the new ‘cabinet system’. This means that most decisions are taken by a committee of nine Tory councillors. Ordinary councillors – whether they are ‘backbench’ Tories, Lib Dems or Independents can’t even speak at these meetings, can’t ask any questions or even point out mistakes in reports written about their own wards.

As an example, my colleagues Chris and June Lumley have been looking at the possibility of residents being allowed parking permits in certain roads where there are yellow lines to stop commuter parking. There’s a report just gone to the cabinet dealing with this, but the council haven’t asked Chris or June for their opinions and Chris has found some mistakes in the written report, which means that the cabinet could decide things on the basis of wrong information.

As I said, we are good watchdogs so we know how to be effective on these issues. If we are unhappy with the decisions being made at cabinet we will ‘refer up’ the matter so it can be decided at full council by all councillors – not just a few. We will continue to find out what residents think and keep them informed in person, via our ward newsletters and through our local website at www.onlinefocus.org. And local newspapers such as the Rayleigh Times are doing a good job telling people what’s going on as well!