Friday, January 08, 2010

Sorry Gordon- wish you were here!

fight the good fight...

The Daily Echo reports that the Prime Minister has had to cancel a trip to Southampton yesterday (Thursday) as a result of the snow. I have to say, inclement weather not withstanding, Southampton appeared to manage without him OK...
The interesting thing is that on Wednesday John Denham MP appears to have been out of the country when the Snow Storm Plotters Hoon & Hewitt went public and this appears to be his defence of why he didn't rally to the flag of Gordon sooner*. One thing that I certainly concede is that Denham is fulsome of his praise for Brown, far more so that some of his Cabinet colleagues so the new message is presumably clear- Denham is a Brownite now and is content to stand at the next election on Brown's record. I have to say I am rather surprised.
(* NB although quite why John Denham, the Secretary of State with responsibility for Housing and Local government should be abroad meeting the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh I'm not quite sure...)

Serious national salt shortage beckons...

The American baseball player Earl Wilson once reportedly said, "Snow and adolescence are the only problems that disappear if you ignore them long enough." but it appears that this government seems to be developing that into something of a policy- at least as far as the snow is concerned...

To late, the government has realised that we are on the cusp of a national crisis and after a day of dithering, have finally started to take charge as The Times reports HERE

A combination of good luck and good management meant that Southampton City Council happened to be one of the best prepared local authorities in the country with over 10 days salt stock (triple some authorities), with a fleet of highway gritting machines (albeit some rather elderly)and a workforce to get the salt out onto our roads (unlike some councils, our parks & open spaces teams, refuse collectors, road gangs are all expected to 'muck in'). As a result of our prudence and this Labour government's indolence, we are now being penalised as we have been told we are not a 'priority authority' (I wonder where is?) despite snow being forecast here over the weekend.
At Southampton, we currently (8pm) have 70t of pure rock salt in the depot. This is enough for 3 days salting of the A routes (local authority speak for key roads to hospitals, city centres, major retailers, employers etc, not to be confused with a roads). Our final delivery of 30t direct from salt union turned up this morning. Earlier today confusion reigned as initially local authorities were informed that all future deliveries will be managed through the government’s ‘Salt Cell’. Later today it emerged the Salt Cell’s recommendations to the Salt Union (one of two UK deep salt mine suppliers) were not binding so ultimately everyone and no one was in charge today prior to Adonis's evening statement by which time the government the realised it could no longer continue to fudge the issue.
Every council will have different levels of salt stocks (my guess in anything from no virtually salt to 6 days on a-routes). Certainly the Salt Cell is aware of our salt position and we have to be seen to use our stocks wisely so Southampton will have enough for 5 days of A route salting but we have to allow for the possibility of needing to grit B routes at least once in this period. This assumption doesn’t factor in the possibility that any rain will require an additional salting of the road network. Like most authorities, at the moment we are responding to ad hoc requests for salting and gritting with priority being given to hospitals, emergency services, buses, precincts etc. It is Officer's strong highway operational advice that we do not prioritise salt reserves to filling grit bins which in itself may cause a little public unrest this weekend (if we did, we would use the equivalent salt in the bins to one A route run). Instead, the council will respond to requests for refilling, by stating we will prioritise all requests for salt, but we have to keep the city main routes clear. We are asking that all salt requests should go through the council's Actionline service so they can be recorded and prioritised and have mobile resources available that will respond to requests based on our assessment of risk.
The grim reality is that there is now a national shortage of salt and if the weather is as forecast over the weekend that could develop into a severe national shortage due to poor government planning.
The key message to residents then that extreme care needs exercised during the next few days by those going out on car & by foot and people should only to travel if it is absolutely imperative to do so...
And the second message is as a result of bureaucratic incompetence both prior and during the current cold snap, this government has left the country ill prepared.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Silence is golden?

Cometh the hour, dither the man
Hoon & Hewitt have put the knife in and perhaps predictably, as the BBC reports 'Ministers are lining up behind Brown' in response. Anything less would be notable as Ministers are of course on the payroll vote and the LabourList site has now started producing responses from loyal backbenchers.
But there is one interesting exception, the Rt Hon John Denham MP .
Always happy to call himself a Blairite, Denham has been less happy of late, talking about "Southern Discomfort" and as my friend Iain Dale reported a while ago, their has been speculation about his loyalty before.
If he has any guts, for the good of his career and the good of his party, he ought to do it.
Urbane, almost good-looking, refreshingly normal (at least in Labour terms), he would appeal to moderate voters who had supported Blair in a way that only Brown could dream of. With a reasonable Ministerial career behind him, he (almost uniquely) also has a fairly clean pair of hands having been one of the few ministers who resigned as he could not vote with the government on plans to go to war with Iraq. Further, in months Labour faces likely defeat in a general election and in his late fifties, Denham's ministerial career will end with it. He may even be defeated in the seat of Southampton Itchen which he has represented since 1992 as he faces a strong challenge from my friend, the Deputy Leader of the Council Royston Smith. why not challenge and be damned- for what does he have to lose?
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, one might think. An inately cautious politician, I am sure Denham has been agonising all day and yet despite all the attractions of welding the knife, I think he will bottle it.
As one former Cabinet Minister reported to James Landale about those Cabinet Ministers who still hadn't come out in support of Brown, "they don't have the guts to support him, they don't have the guts to defend him".

Life in the Snow

In keeping with much of the UK, the weather paid havoc in Southampton yesterday and for much of today. In my position as the Cabinet Member for Environment & Transport, I have been something of an eye-witness as well as being the Administration's press spokesman and political lead.
Given that, I thought it might be interesting to record for posterity what the Highways Team have been up at Southampton City Council and reflect on the implications of the weather generally.
The city's 5 gritting vehicles were out last night, starting at about 10pm salting the roads, again in the early hours (about 3am), and again late morning. The Operational Manager was at Town Depot shortly after 0600hrs, and by 0700hrs every available flatbed lorry was loaded with grit and despatched with teams of men to high priority pedestrian areas across the City. Open Spaces vehicles were similarly loaded and their teams despatched. In truth, this operation genuinly runs with military precision and the efforts of those involved are never found to be wanting. The work ethic of some of the guys I've encountered is amazing and we are talking hard physical work here. In total, the council spread around 80 tons of grit on roads and footways today.
The operational approach is always to deal with known priorities first and then respond to as many reactive calls as we possible can. In this way we exercise control over the situation and work more efficiently. This winter has been unusual in that Southampton, and elsewhere on the South Coast, saw ‘sheet ice’ conditions for the first time in 15 years. In truth, every footway in the City was dangerous, particularly for the elderly and infirm. In this situation the public have some responsibility for their own safety because it is simply not possible to meet every demand made on the service.
As I write, Southampton City Council has enough rock salt to grit the main A routes in the city this week, should the weather conditions remain extreme. Other roads may well be icy and slippery so the council is urging extreme caution and advising people to only make essential journeys during this time which the majority of the public accept although it would be fair to say that there is a vaciferious minority of less that 5% who consider the situation is outragious. While Southampton City Council is in a better position then many neighbouring authorities, supplies of rock salt at the council’s town depot have been gradually reducing as further deliveries have been delayed and reduced so the council is now prioritising its stocks to the major routes.
The council will be receiving deliveries, albeit reduced, today, Thursday and Friday, from the Salt Union, which faces huge demand for salt from authorities across the country. Operationally, the council tries to keep enough stocks of salt to enable us to cope with more than a week of the worst weather conditions. Salt is normally received from our suppliers within two days but at the moment, the massive national demand has meant that the council’s deliveries have been reduced. As a result, the decision has been made to introduce a reduced salting programme to conserve supplies whilst ensuring that the main roads in the city are kept open for essential vehicles.
The key message then to residents unpalatable as it may be;
Make only essential journeys during this time.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Congratulations to Dr Beer...

Another Beer...

Congratulations to Dr John Beer who was awarded a gong in the New Year's honours list for his services to local government. John was the longest serving Executive Director notching up 13 years in that role -the average for the challenging post of Director of Adult Social Services is just 3 or 4 years. Before his retirement last summer, John worked for 5 different council administrations and was instrumental in setting up the 'Safe City Partnership' which attemps to draw the council closer to the police and other agencies.
Although I suspect (not least because of his occasional 'In my View' articles in The Daily Echo) that he was an instinctive left winger, John was the consummate professional to his fingertips, improving the performance of his directorate considerably and is a personally charming man as well as being something of an intellectual.
His OBE is richly deserved. Congratulations.