Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The PM & Cabinet comes to Southampton


Brown addresses Southampton (I am seated with my back to the photographer,
1st on the left, next to the Chief Constable)

Above; Smith points to me (out of camera happily!)Milliband, Whitehead, Blears & Simon Woodward of Utlicom unveiling
the 'Carbon Calculator' at the CHP plant during the visit I hosted.

As was widely trailed in the press that morning, Monday the 23rd was the day the Cabinet left the metropolis to visit Southampton.
As the Cabinet member responsible for Environment & Transport, the first official confirmation I had about the visit was from a stream of complaints from commuters who were stopped from exiting or entering Southampton Central railway station as some of the Cabinet arrived by train.
After doing some press at the City College (that is doing an excellent job training and supporting new apprentices), local MP John Denham and Gordon Brown joined the Cabinet for a (very short) meeting at the Cruise liner Terminal. There then followed a invitation only Q&A session with about 200 local worthies. Denham introduced Brown who stood up and spoke without notes for 20 minutes or so. Each table was chaired by a Minister (usually a Cabinet Minister) with an Official note taker to record the proceedings. My minister was Home Secretary Jacqui Smith although interestingly, the MP for the mega marginal seat of Crawley Laura Moffatt was also there. I had the misfortune to sit next to Ms Moffatt who throughout Mr Brown's speech 'oohed' and 'ahhhed' with a regular peppering of 'well saids', 'yes, yes' and 'quite rights' thrown in for good measure. Quite who she thought her audience was, I can't imagine. Smith was businesslike and well briefed and looked the part, although from a Hampshire point of view, pointedly refused to offer to guarantee that the ring fenced funding for all the PCSOs across the county would continue.
Gordon Brown got around about half the tables in the room and when he got to ours, I noticed how white and tired looking he was. In addition, his eye looked quite sore. After a deafening silence from my table, I asked the PM if he would be prepared to look again at the revaluation of business rates- a subject that is worrying many businesses in the country- big and small and was an issue that is causing real nervousness in the business community. Brown didn't appear to know about it, mumbled a few words about it being linked with inflation, smiled and moved on. Interestingly, the first question that was then asked when Brown stepped back up to the podium and invited questions from the audience was on this very subject! This time (conscious that he wasn't answering me but hundreds of people no doubt!), he deferred to Hazel Blears, inviting her to reply. Encouragingly, she said she would have another look at it!
Brown spoke at length but there was little new in what he had to say- other than the odd reference to the new government initiative 'Real Help Now'.
For the next part of the day, Ministers were dispatched across the city on various photo opportunities. As the Cabinet member for Environment, I hosted a visit to the groundbreaking Geothermal & CHP scheme that is run as a joint venture between Utilicom and the City Council. As we toured the site under the watchful eye of local Labour MP Alan Whitehead, my two guests Ed Miliband and Hazel Blears could not have been more different.
Milliband came across as urbane, serious, well briefed minister who was very smooth, Ms Blears excitable and touchy feely but with little interest in the subject which is amazing given her Cabinet responsibilities. I would go further and say Hazel might not be too keen on bloggers but as far as I was concerned, the unattraction was fairly mutual! Our party was given a short (but excellent) presentation by the Chief Exec of Utilicom, Simon Woodward and I noticed Milliband was listening intently.
A real concern about the viability of big CHP schemes is DECC's proposal to open up private networks to third party access- the net result being that the banks would just not finance district energy schemes with multiple users (e.g. residential projects) due to the risk of customer erosion.
A second issue is the implementation of the CRC (Carbon reduction Commitment) in 2010 which will apply to gas in communal housing but not individual gas boilers so many (often social) landlords are considering removing communal schemes. Miliband promised to look at both of these issues, and to his credit, I think he meant it. Meanwhile, Hazel smiled benignly...
A quick look around a residential development that utilised the scheme followed, then in a flash they were boarding the three o'clock train and were gone.
So what did I think?
Well, the battle lines are being drawn for the next general election and the line in the sand Labour is choosing to defend is clearly Southampton. To put 220 people in a room drawn from the local community and then have them worked on by the PM and the best 20 people in the Labour party (presumably in the expectation that some messages will then be disseminated into the community) is smart politics. Ditto for getting the Ministers to do co-ordinated photoshoots and press opportunities across the city.
It is a tribute to Royston Smith & Jeremy Moulton that Labour should regard them as such a threat- I doubt they would have done two years ago.