Thursday, April 30, 2009

£300k extra for new pothole repairs- but it is still a drop in the ocean!

The fabled 'Rhinopatch' machine

Good, great and bad news!

I have pressed the council to find more money centrally to help support the Highways Service reactive repairs programme (in English, that really means the gangs who repair potholes) and the GREAT news is the Conservative Administration has been able to find the extra cash. As anyone who drives or cycles in Southampton knows, the state of our roads is appalling after decades of underinvestment.

The GOOD news (and this is almost impossible to quantify), the money will fill anything up to 4000- 4500 pot holes which is by anybodies recognising, a significant amount. Since becoming the portfolio holder for Environment & Transport, I have worked hard to try and raise the productivity of the service. Morale was low, absenteeism high, the quality of repairs variable and productivity at times unacceptable. Our first step was to introduce a private sector partner, in the form of Colas, to work with us and crucially actually embed their staff into the management of the Council's organisation. They had access to all sorts of capital equipment and road treatments that a relatively small unitary authority could not afford (such as the Rhinopatch machine, pictured above). We commissioned gangs from Colas to work alongside our own crews to benchmark our own productivity- and help raise it. Our record keeping was shambolic. We have bought an off the shelf computerised system to ensure that jobs are not 'lost' rather than relying on paper based methods. We recruited dedicated Highways inspectors who would examine defects, arrange for the repairs to be carried out and then check the quality of the work post-completion. We sorted out our procurement so we were not over paying on materials. And with a near doubling of productivity, we have committed to spend an additional £700k p.a. each and every year for the next four years. So no one can say, despite the chronic underfunding that the Conservative-run Southampton City Council faces from central government, that we are not doing our bit.

The BAD news is, it is not enough. Some of our roads shouldn't be maintained by the city at all (such as the A35 and A3024). Despite being designated by the Highways Agency as roads of 'national strategic or economic importance', the HA refuses to fund their repair. Even more serious is that since about September last year, the government has been procrastinating on releasing a whole new round of PFI credits. From a Southampton perspective, it is vital that we get a slice of that government money to repair our appalling road network in Southampton. Central government should wake up to its responsibilities and fund local authorities properly to do this essential work.

Happy returns for the Duke of Boots

Tory Historian speculates that today might be the birthday of the great Iron Duke -I wouldn't know.
Pleasingly, part of his legacy is that two of Southampton's best pubs are named in his honour- the Duke of Wellington in Bugle Street and the Wellington Arms in Park Road. His birthday or not, it is always a pleasant experience to visit either hostelry as the beer in both in terms of choice and condition, is always excellent, the clientele convivial.

A good day for the Gurkhas- and parliamentary democracy.

Pic courtesy Peter Brookes, The Times 30th April 2009

The shock defeat of the government yesterday by just 21 votes over the issue of allowing Gurka former solders, their families and dependants to settle in the UK is great news; not just for for the Gurkas themselves of course (and surely they are the most deserving of groups?) but also a great day for parliamentary democracy. Parliament works best when backbenchers find their voice, especially over issues such as this and this is the first time a government has lost an opposition day debate since James Callaghan had a bloody nose in January 1978.
The Gurkhas have quite some connection with with Southern Hampshire as the King's Royal Rifle Corp, which later became the Royal Green Jackets, fought with the Gurkhas in the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and Winchester is home to the Gurkha museum. while just down the road, in Ampfield is the Sir Harold Hillier Garden and Arboretum where the Gurkha memorial garden which commemorates the Gurkha soldiers who have given their lives in the service of the Crown (not even their country) is situated.
How did our local MPs vote? As usual, a depressing story. In thrall of the whips, Denham and Whitehead voted with the government to keep the Gurkhas out, while shockingly Lib-Dem MP Sandra Gidley missed the vote as did even more amazingly did Winchester MP Mark Oaten. Perhaps Gidley and Oaten didn't feel it a matter of significant importance to warrant their attendance? If so, a damning indictment of their political priorities.
It will be interesting to see if this is the beginning of the political end-game for Brown now. Personally, I doubt he will be able to recover not least due to today's almost certain humiliation over his proposals regarding MP's expenses. And as Labour MPs peer into the political abyss after Labour's meltdown of the forthcoming European elections, they will surely strike?
P.S. There are some fairly good Gurkha restaurants locally for people that like mainly dry, Nepalese curries;the first two are both run or owned by Gurkha veterans.
The Gurkha Kitchen in Canute Road is probably the best of the bunch, situated in an old 'beer house' off Ocean Village and pleasingly decorated with a varied menu and good service .
The Gurkha Chef, is just down from the Railway station in Winchester and while a little faded, is always busy but you are at the mercy of which staff are on duty as the service can be a bit variable.
A third, untried (by me) is the Gurkha Kitchen in Parchment Street in Winch.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Chris, I don't know about dragons but a leopard never changes its spots!

Echo letter.

Dear Letters Editor,

'Let's celebrate St George and Englishness' says Chris Huhne.

Good idea but could this really be the same man who wrote 'The Arguments for the Euro' and as one of our most federalist MEPs, led the campaign locally to scrap the pound and erode British sovereignty?

If I was a cynic, I would be tempted to suggest Mr Huhne's new found patriotism may have something to do with him having to submit himself to a general election within the next 11 months in a highly marginal seat rather than a change in his political views!

You would have to ask St George about dragons, but I suspect that Lib-Dem MPs, like leopards, never change their spots!

Yours sincerely,

Matthew Dean

Saturday, April 18, 2009

What's worth reading at the moment?

I had a (relatively) pleasant afternoon walking around Southampton's IKEA (no recession there- as busy as anything), pondering which bookcases to buy and purchasing the obligitory Swedish meatballs.
Purchases at the nearby Border's bookshop were as follows;

and the optimistically titled

I am not sure that Dr Butler of the Adam Smith Institute will agree with doyen of the Liberal -Democrats, Mr Cable's anaysis but I expect they will be a good read. My only frustation is that with running my own business and being a portfolio holder at the Council, I never seem to get time to do any serious recretional reading any more!

Seen and not 'herd' !

moo...ved in- Aberdean Angus Cattle

As SKY report, a small heard of cows are set to become the guardians of part of the Monks Brook site - at least for the time being.
Longtime readers of this blog will recall Monks Brook is a site in the ownership of two local Authorities, Southampton City Council at one end and Hampshire County Council at the other. The Southampton end was proposed for a Gypsy and Travellers transit site by the last Lib-Dem administration and this was supported by the Labour despite a huge campaign by locals and the Conservatives as the site is unsuitable for a plethora of reasons despite being granted planning approval.
The new Conservative Council are strongly committed to saving this important area of green open space. In the short term, while BTC conclude their discussions with Hampshire County Council to determine if they may or may not use the site recreationally for sports pitches, the County Council seem to have taken pragmatic measures to deal with an ongoing problem.
Good for them!

Farewell Sir Clement

Cranberry Terrace today,
one-time site of the Berkley Hotel in Southampton.

I was sorry to hear of the death of Sir Clement Freud, dog food advertiser, wit, cookery expert, one-time Liberal MP and as Keith Hamilton reports, director of the Berkley Hotel in Cranberry Terrace (now, in a microcosm of what Southampton has become, a mix of private flats and social housing...).
As well as running great gastronomic feasts there, Sir Clement also ran one cookery demonstration at the Southampton Guildhall that attracted over 500 people as well as making a number of TV programmes from the old Northam TV studios.
He was a regular of the long-running BBC comedy radio programme 'Just a Minute' the Panel game in which the contestants are challenged to speak on a named subject for one minute without hesitation, deviation or repetition.
As the Daily Telegraph note, Freud was a brilliant joke teller. Some of them can be seen and heard HERE.
my favorite was on 'Just a Minute' he told a joke about how he had been asked to address a public meeting. One particularly bad tempered old Socialist barked out from the back of the room, 'Why are you so fat?'
'Because every time I sleep with your wife she gives me a biscuit.' Clement Freud replied.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Highfield Resident's Association

Highfield House Hotel, venue of the Highfield Resident's Association Meeting
Speech delivered to the 33rd AGM of Highfield Resident's Association (well, near enough- I expanded on the bullet points and told a few more jokes!). It was a interesting night!
Thank-you Mr. Chairman for your kind invitation this evening.

To misquote a famous phrase, I see you are working on the premise

Last and least rather than last and not least

as you have heard the distinguished speakers who have addressed you before me tonight.

A few months ago, I had lunch with the author, broadcaster, entertainer and one-time Conservative MP Gyles Brandreth.

He said to me, “you know Matthew, as a politician you meet only two types of people; people with problems and people who are right”.

Well Mr Chairman, as the Cabinet Member for Environment & Transport, I have spent quite some time engaging with Highfield Resident’s Association and if I may say so, you happen to be quite unusual as you don’t shy away from sharing your problems and, an inconvenience for a minor elected politician, you also happen to almost always be RIGHT!

So 9 months as your Cabinet Member for Environment and Transport and one year into the new Conservative administration, perhaps this 33rd AGM of Highfield resident's Association is a good time for me to reflect on what the Council has achieved that is pertinent to your area and muse a little over what the Council needs to focus on in the immediate future.

So what have we done?

- Conservation Officer Team Leader

- Conservation Officer

- Local list

- Started to update character appraisals for Conservation Areas

- Oakmount Triangle Conservation Area

- Article 4 dedication of Portswood Gardens tightening up Development control requirements for this area

- Family housing policy
o Core strategy

- Parking
o –TROs, esp Brookvale Road

- Little Common- a serious clear up

- Saved the Number 7 bus!

- Appointed a permanent Head of Planning & Sustainability in Paul Nichols and it is great to see him in the audience here this evening

and I think shows you the level of commitment Officers have to both this area and the city.

I mentioned to Paul after a meeting this afternoon that I was speaking this evening and asked him if he knew any good Town Planning jokes- after all greater love hath no man than he who lays down his jokes for his colleagues.

Paul replied that planning jokes, like Development Control Enforcement Officers are sometimes a little short on the ground when you need them!

So what’s next Mr Chairman?

Big ticket items.

Firstly, to continue to lobby government RE HMOs and the use classes order so we have some proper planning rules that actually bite.

Secondly, lobby her majesty’s opposition to the same end. Without subjecting you to my political prejudices Chairman and despite the Minister of State’s assurances when we met him, I still believe there is a real chance that any new housing and planning bill could fail through lack of parliamentary time and we need to be alive of the consequences of a possible change of government following a general election.

Thirdly, to make it as easy as possible to facilitate the University and other institutions to build more Halls of Residence through the planning process and indeed, lobby them to do so.

Fourthly, to continue to pursue enforcement action where appropriate in areas like the unauthorised developments in Crofton Close

And finally,

To campaign for a fair government grant to fund local government for cities like Southampton. All of what we have spoken about this evening costs money Chairman and this council is not resourced appropriately.

Mr. Chairman, Lord Mancroft the businessman, politician and former heroin addict once said that a speech is like a love affair. Any fool can start it but to end it requires considerable skill.

Not in this case Mr. Mayor- who am I to keep you and your colleagues from that very tempting array of wine and nibbles over there?

It remains only for me, on behalf of the City Council to thank Highfield Residents Association for all you do for your area and the wider community.

Friday, April 10, 2009

It was 20 years ago!

one out, all out...

As my friend Iain Dale reports in the Daily Telegraph, twenty years ago the Dock Labour scheme was abolished. The scheme had become, as Norman Fowler said in parliament, "a total anachronism"

The Dock Labour Scheme was based on Bevin’s wartime registration scheme for dockworkers. Then in 1972, as a result of an infamous deal between Lord Aldington on behalf of Ted Heath's government of the day and the union baron Jack Jones, dockers were effectively given 'jobs for life' as registered dockers laid off by any of the 150 firms bound by the scheme have to be taken on by another or be paid £25,000.

The NDLS became responsible for the registration, allocation, payment, training and medical care of all dockworkers in ports like Southampton. The Southampton branch of the Transport and General Workers Union became masters of all they surveyed. The Unions had effective control over recruitment and dismissals. Restrictive practises were rife. As in the print industry at that time, 'ghosting' was popular'- the practise of allocating and paying dockers to do a job which couldn't’t be done by dockers and ensuring they never appeared to do the job. The trouble is they had real pay packets and the shippers, importers and exporters had to pay. The docks were losing trade to foreign ports and non- unionised facilities in places like Felixstow. Other practices such as welting and bobbing were endemic. All these practices involved establishing an inflated gang size and letting half of them "bob off" home for the day. Disappointment money, embarrassment money; all sorts of money for fictional hardships, you name it, it was all there. If you weren't related to a docker, the chances of you getting a job in the industry were minimal and if you happened to be female, it was also virtually a no no as the old Trade Union order asserted itself. It was, in every sense, 'job for the boys'.

Major strikes over wages and working arrangements threatened to bring the port to a standstiill on a regular basis. Management was effectively hand tied as it was a criminal offence for docks such as Southampton not to be part of the scheme and a criminal offence to employ non registered dockers. Essential investment into the docks such as the move to containerisation was effectively vetoed by the Unions as they existed solely to protect the interests of a narrow section of employees at the expense of all else. Even if a dock worker committed a criminal offence, it was effectively impossible to sack or discipline him without union approval. The former director of Britain’s National Association of Port Employers, Nicholas Finney OBE tells the story of how in 1982 a Southampton dockworker was dismissed for a serious criminal offence involving theft over quite a long period of time. He served the prison sentence, was returned to the labour pool and within six months on full back pay, was put back to employment in the same area from which he had come.

In short, the dock Labour scheme had to go.

When the then Secretary of State, Norman Fowler announced the Dock Labour (Abolition) Bill including generous redundancy terms of £35,000 to every docker in April, it genuinely appeared to catch the T&GWU on the hop. Wildcat strikes by militants were inevitable but a Saturday session of the High Court then ruled an all out national strike illegal.

Locally, Sir James Hill the Member of Parliament for Southampton Test welcomed the Bill in the teeth of opposition from Labour politicians. The act received Royal Assent on 6 July. By then, strike action was dying out as the court action and the return to work by many dockers, not least as they didn't wish to lose their £35,000 redundancy, coupled with the ability of shippers to find other ports meant that the unions knew that the game was up.

Within months, new jobs were created, shipping costs fell as productivity increased and morale improved. The port of Southampton was able to develop its site and in time, was privatised and a what was a drain on the public purse became a contributor to the exchequer.

And all in the teeth of Labour opposition.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

'Manners maketh man'

Politness personified?- William of Wykeham

'Manners maketh man' so said William of Wykeham (1324-1404), bishop of Winchester and Chancellor of England, founder of Winchester College and New College, Oxford.

One of the few things I think I am fairly good at is thanking people who work for me, both in my pubs and at the Council and after all politeness costs nothing and a little courtesy can generate a lot of good will.
How amazing then to see this footage at the BBC.
It reminds me of the story that Alastair Campbell tells in his diary when the then Prime Minister
Tony Blair arrived at an election event during a downpour. The organiser, a lady called Jess Tyrell was holding an umbrella: "TB just took it out of her hands and walked on, leaving her to get wet' records Campbell. As Peter Oborne observes, such behaviour from Tony Blair was by no means unusual.
Needlessly unpleasant.