Sunday, November 25, 2007

Why are we so badly governed?

Gateway to good governance?

"Why are we so badly governed?" asked Sir Christopher Foster in 2005. Unlike most, it seems that he is doing something about it, being the Chairman of the cross-party and until now secret "Better Government Initiative".
It seems that the first of the BGI's reports are to be released imminently and apparently they don't spare any blushes for
"The verdict of the Better Government Initiative, contained in a series of reports to be released over the next few weeks, is damning.
Government departments have “serious deficiencies”; the combined output of Parliament and the executive contain “too many disappointments and failures”; and “emphasis on ‘management’ has led to more bureaucracy at the expense of substance” in the Foreign Office. " as The Daily Telegraph reported on Saturday.
It will be interesting to see if Sir Christoper's reports are accepted by the government machine or rubbished and Foster himself smeared and spinned against over the next few weeks...

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Speaker Meetings!

The Wellington Room at the Carlton Club was one up from the Park Hotel...

For information, the next two speaker meetings of the Conservative History Group are as follows;

Monday 19 November, 6.30pm JONATHAN AITKEN speaks on "Confessions of a speech-maker and speechwriter to be held at the (Carol?) Thatcher Room in Portcullis House

and then on Tuesday 4 December, 6.30pm ALISTAIR COOKE speaks on "The history of the Carlton Club"at the Boothroyd Room in Portcullis House.

Should both be interesting events- if you like that sort of thing!

Dean wades in to the Deanery debate.

Above; an artists impression of the new development (copyright- Highwood Group) and below; How the Daily Echo reported the row.

Quite an interesting row has erupted over a development site in the heart of St Marys on a piece of land owned by Southampton City College and has been written up in this-evenings Echo (in the usual sensationalist way!)

A planning application was considered by the Planning & Rights of Way Panel last week (on which I sit) at the Deanery site in Chapel. I had a number of concerns, not least with the Officers written report which I thought was somewhat biased in favour of the development and did not consider what I thought were at least other, partially relevant matters. It is interesting to note that some authorities, officers do not give a reccomendation to refuse or grant a planning application- that is not the case in Southampton.

The report read to me as if the local plan foresaw this application as part of regeneration of the wider area, whereas actually the site had only very recently become available to the developer. The reality was the site in modern times had always been college land. Despite Officer protestations to the contrary, nobody ever thought that it would be available for development for housing or indeed any other use-other than possibly sporting given the location of the college gym on part of the site. Recently the Panel Report on the South East Region drew attention to the shortage of employment and education land, especially in the urban areas. I viewed the proposal as really a departure from the local plan, or at least its spirit, as this land had long been seen as education and college land (certainly not housing!).

The fact that the development by Chandlers Ford based Highwood Group comprised of 142 flats and 39 houses, just 20% family housing and not the 30% in the recently adopted core strategy was not mentioned in the report.

In my view, the site was taken out of context by the report in that is the surrounding derelict land in chapel which has been considered for redevelopment- quite rightly so but this area was not part of it. The application contributed nothing to employment or education uses. Interstingly in the report, what did Officers mean by partial redevelopment? i should have pressed them on this. One could certainly argue that the site should stand by itself or not at all.

There was also the significant issue that the site was one that has been identified as liable to flooding under certain conditions. On this matter alone, planning approval would lead to the decision being called in by the Secretary of State.

However the biggest concern to me was that the education department of the city council has not been consulted! Given the council is becoming the strategic authority for college education this seemed to me to be an extraordinary omission as they would have surely objected. There was nothing about the needs of the college sector for the future in the report with the city centre location being an ideal location for the work of the college. Even if surplus to college requirements, the city is looking for possible sites for the building of a new primary school and is currently conducting a primary school review.

At the meeting itself the Headmaster of Taunton's College Jonathan Prest spoke describing the development as a 'missed opportunity' adding, ' I wonder whether for the educational planning of the city it is not worth holding onto an area of land that large'. He has articulated these views further in tonight's paper.

Personally, I think he rather has a point.

The irony is that unknown to the Panel members at the time (including me), the City College no-longer wanted to sell the land because they had secured the redevelopment and modernisation of their remaining college buildings through an alternative funding source.

As Lindsey Noble, Principle of the City College says, "it is up to the council to make sure its planning policy restricted the 'disposal of too much educational land".

Victims of an old-fashioned stich-up!


During breaking for coffee at a meeting with a senior Southampton City Council Officer recently, she commented that she was surprised how good a press the new Conservative administration was receiving in comparison with previous administrations. Oops! Today the press bit back with a front page spread on the Southern Daily Echo continued on page two and rounded off with a highly critical editorial.
The background is that the Conservatives, mindful of the fact they have no overall control (Labour & the Lib-Dems can easily combine to outvote the Tories or even remove them from office) and that the council is facing the most difficult revenue support grant settlement in its history, decided to published its draft budget months early for consultation. The rationale behind this is that it will lead to hopefully a more transparent and better informed budget making process. It also shows the other politicalgroups what the council is up against and not least demonstrates our political priorities.
One feeling Conservatives feel particularly concerned about locally is the plight of the elderly. It is those on modest fixed incomes that have been hit hardest by council tax increases since Labour came to power in 1997 and of course those on pension form a disproportionate number of this group. One way of alleviating this hardship is to introduce what we called the 10% discount for households where all the occupants were over 65 and paying the full level of council tax. From the reaction of The Echo you would think we were advocating a policy similar in social policy terms to the sacrificing the firstborn!
They certainly didn't hold back. Their central beef is 'Almost half of Southampton's pensioners will miss out on a promised ten per cent discount on their council tax'. They go on to accuse the Conservatives of ‘conning pensioners for votes’ -strong meat indeed, especially as it doesn’t happen to be true!
I would have thought that for the article to be fair they would have also felt obligated to point out that the reason most of those pensioners who are not eligible to get the discount is that they are having their council tax paid for by benefit anyway! You can hardly give someone a discount if they are not paying it anyway. While everyone is entitled to their view on the Tory budget and indeed its political priorities, I feel that the use of emotive language and misinformation is hardly productive.
It is interesting to speculate on the source of the story. My pet theory is that Matt Tipper, the local UNITE regional industrial organiser got onto them and fed them a few lines as he is bitterly opposed to the Conservatives and all there works. a hunk of old Socialist heavy metal, Tipper was a leading light in the decision to spend his members money on urging the public to 'Vote Labour' in a full page advert in the said Echo last May. readers may be interested to note however that despite being written to to ask for their views, Unite still haven't responded to our request for consultation on our budget proposals, despite us writing to them weeks ago- except in the press that is !

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

turn again Denham...

think about it...

It is a shame that John Denham's decision to rejoin the Labour government has meant that he feels forced to defend it at every opportunity, whatever the cost to Southampton's residents. Some would say it is strange that he rejoined the government at all given that he resigned due to his opposition to the war in Iraq, a war Gordon Brown's government are committed to continuing.Be that as it may, his absurd attempts to defend the inadequate revenue support grant given to Southampton by central government are deeply irresponsible as the authority is clearly underfunded. The hard-pressed council taxpayer locally cannot be expected to contribute any more as Labour continues to divert funds from the South to councils in the North East & North West. This view is accepted by all three political parties on Southampton city council, including Labour who voted for my council motion asking for adequate funding as recently as September. On this issue Mr Denham is at odds with even his local partySadly this is not the first example of Mr Denham defending the indefensible. As the respected BBC journalist Nick Robinson has pointed out, as a backbencher and indeed Chairman of the influential Home Affairs select committee, Mr Denham pronounced that ' any new legislation should not propose longer than 28 days detention' without trial. Now legislation proposed in the Queen's speech proposes exactly that and Mr Denham has been given a job miraculously he is in now favour!
An MP who supports underfunding of his local council and an undermining of Southampton citizen's civil liberties, how long will it be until the charge is made that John Denham is simply a new Labour careerist rather than fighting for our interests in government?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Core Cities

This is work in progree; I haven't finished writing it yet!!!!

Report on the Core Cities Summit 7th and 8th November 2007.

Who are the ‘Core Cities Group’?
Established circa 10 years ago, the Core Cities Group is a network of England's major regional cities: Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield. They form the economic and urban cores of wider surrounding territories, the city regions. In 2006 Adrian Vinson asked if Southampton could join and was politely rebuffed; currently all the members are significantly larger than Southampton. Given the make up of the core city members, the group has been seen in some quarters as something of a left-wing pressure group, however as the Conservatives had made gains in local government, the cross-party status of the organisation has increasingly been emphasised by its members.

Key themes of the summit

The keynote address was given by

The Rt Hon Hazel Blears MP, Secretary of State for Communities & Local government.
Most of her speech centered upon the snappily titled ‘Review of Sub-national economic development and regeneration’ and concentrated on devolving powers to local authorities and regions to ‘respond to local challenges and improve economic outcomes. She made the point that responsibilities should be allocated in line with economic outcomes (i.e. growth & regeneration) based on a bottom up approach and that neighbourhood renewal funding should be more closely focused on the most deprieved areas with incentives (presumably financhial but she did not elaborate) for improved performance. The concept of ‘Partnership Working’ with organisations like PUSH was considered by her department key and she indicated that while her department had no plans for local government reorganisation, they would be forthcoming if partnership working was not taking place at every level. Formal multi-area agreements were to be encouraged to allow groups of councils to work together. As well as expecting authorities to work together at a sub-regional level, she also sees an extended role for Regional Development Agencies with their key role again being to facilitate economic growth. She stressed that greater authority and devolution for councils would be a message that her department would fight for across Whitehall and described the local government settlement as ‘tight but fair’(!) I thought the speech was pretty flat in terms of delivery but as the key messages generally supportive of councils it went down fairly well in the hall.
One of her team
John Healey MP, Minister of State for Communities & local Government then spoke. He reinforced her points and gave an excellent speech that reflected the fact he had led the review from the Treasury when a minister there and it seems has now been bought into the DCLG by Gordon Brown to implement it. Personally on the basis of his performance, I would make him the Secretary of State and sack Blears! He was positively outspoken on the need to devolve power. He also devoted a significant part of his speech to local government funding and said that;
He expected to see

  • Increased revenue from charges and
  • Expanded trading activities by local government
  • Increased borrowing by councils against capital assets, especially to fund major infrastructure projects.
  • Use of supplementary business rates to raise funds