Monday, November 27, 2006

The Long Wet March for better healthcare

Ok. Not so long but quite definitely wet. A few hundred residents of the Borough joined together to brave the elements and campaign to end the cuts in the NHS and St Helier in particular. A new first for me is the video blog so have a look and see what you think of my Scorsese amateur production.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

An Extraordinary waste of our money

Last night, I spoke at an Extraordinary Council Meeting that was called by our Conservative Group. We discussed one issue; the handling of the management contract for the Borough's leisure centres.

Essentially, the existing contractor, Sutton Community Leisure (SCL), a non-profit making trust gave the required 3 month notice to quit, citing the fact that they either needed to put prices up or needed a further £129,000 to keep going for the next year. Because Sutton Council had agreed to a contract with such a short break clause, they felt bounced into ignoring standard procedure of competitive procedure and appointed Greenwich Leisure to take on the remainder of the contract which expires in February 2009.

Now you might say that "where needs must", we ought to do this but there was an alternative. This appointment will cost Sutton Council £372,000 over the 26 months. If we had paid SCL £129,000 and given them 12 months notice, we could have examined all of the options according to procedure, appointed a new contractor in 2008 and spent £243,000 less than has now been agreed. To cap it all, SCL are to be taken over by Greenwich Leisure anyway, meaning that the leisure centres are going to be managed by the same people who have now received £372k rather than the £129k that they originally asked for.

If your head isn't hurting at this point, indulge me for one moment more. Lord Tope, lead councillor for Leisure refused to explain this bungled bargaining, preferring to accuse us of wasting money in calling an additional meeting. The room was booked to be used by the LibDems anyway with lighting, microphones etc. and I don't think even they can run up a bill for £243k to host a council meeting so this argument is just a touch thin.

The Conservatives were not against the appointment of Greenwich Leisure, only the lack of forethought and the disdain for procedure. Even though the cost of the meeting pales into insignificance next to this waste of out money, the need to have a meeting at all must rest with the ruling group. We take our role of Opposition seriously, holding the LibDem group to account for their decisions through proper scrutiny. Changes made by the LibDems and further changes planned show that the ruling group are not as keen at being scrutinised.

(Photo: Phoenix Centre, Roundshaw)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

One Rule for them...Part 2

Today saw two announcements from City Hall. Mayor Livingstone explained that he would be increasing the Congestion Charge for 4x4s to a rip-roaring £25 per day. He is using the same banding that Gordon Brown devised for vehicle excise. If he applies the same lack of forethought as LibDem Richmond, then 1.6l cars will find that they are finally taxed off the roads of London.

Unfortunately, these taxes are a double-edged sword. I have written elsewhere that green taxes are worth further investigation but I suspect that such a scheme will mean lighter traffic for the rich that will be only too happy to pay an extorionate amount to remove others from the roads.

The Mayor, in the meantime thought nothing of spending £36,000 of our money and sending about 8 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere for a five day jolly to Cuba and a trip to Venezuela that was cancelled at the last minute because President Chavez was too busy to see him. The only official business was a 30 minute press conference at an Olympic conference in Havana.

Having said this, the Mayor is mindful of value for money when he tells us "The costs of my visit to Cuba are modest and in line with the costs incurred on other Mayoral trips." So remember that when you look at the Thomas Cook brochure. But what has he learnt from the trip? Apparently London has much to learn from Cuba about producing Olympic boxers. You couldn't make it up.

Monday, November 06, 2006

One rule for councillors...

I sit on the Development Control Committee deciding on planning applications. Rules introduced by this Government dictate that I would have to declare a personal or prejudicial interest if I knew the applicant and might have to leave the room unable even to contribute to the debate let alone vote.

Though commonsense needs to prevail in acheiving a balance to show transparency and fairness in decision making, current rules are far too dictatorial leading to instances where councillors that have been elected on the back of a particular issue have been unable to participate in the debate even though they represent the majority view and may have some specialist knowledge. I have seen one councillor leave the room whilst an application was heard about siting a mobile phone mast because he owned a phone from that network and so might benefit from improved coverage.

Imagine my surprise on Saturday when I opened the papers to see the Attorney General claiming that it was fine for him to have the final say as to whether Tony Blair should face prosecution over the "cash for peerages" scandal. As a friend of Tony Blair and a beneficiary of his patronage, this is the cherry on top of the Labour sleaze cake. For a man whose 'independant legal opinion' on the legitimacy of the invasion of Iraq changed depending on which day of the week it was, to claim that he is above such matters is staggering. Sir Ian Blair and the head of the CPS have already stepped aside of the investigation citing personal links. Lord Goldsmith must do the same and soon.

There are simple answers to both points. Change the rules so that councillors can do the job that they were elected for and find a new Attorney General.

Solving Wallace Crescent's Congestion

Eric and I met many of the residents of Wallace Crescent at their residents' association meeting last Tuesday. The three perennial issues came up and I hope that we can make some real progress on them in the coming weeks.

Building has started on a a Mother and Baby unit in the corner of the Crescent. Residents are naturally anxious about the effect that this will have. They have resolved to get to know the
management and build up a relationship to head off any problems. Eric and I will intervene if necessary.

Four years ago, I pledged to lobby TfL to get the Crescent closed off at the Pound Street end. Now I am elected, I will finally have a chance to fulfill this. Circumstances have changed that ought to make it easier for TfL to agree with the closure of the two shops that were reliant on that stretch of road for their deliveries. I am a self-confessed rat runner myself as I live in Salisbury Road so my acid test for any solution is one that stops me from using the road as a cut through.

The final problem is the garages in the corner and the number of cars left in the Crescent taking up space, sometimes with broken wings etc. leaving sharp edges. I have the details of the landlord and will be approaching him directly. I'll report back on all of these later.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Sutton Guardian's Guide to Political Blogging

Despite the photographers' best efforts, I wasn't able to exude for the lens and looked half asleep. Richard Lyon's sharp eye noticed a photo of my garden with the ladder that I had forgotten to put away. But hey, I'm being picky. I came home to an excellent article in today's Sutton Guardian about the rise of the political blogs in Sutton, which I have covered in an earlier post. Since it hasn't gone up on their webpage yet, I have copied the text here. To spare the public and avoid incurring the wrath of the Guardian lawyers, I have put one of my own photos alongside.

Blog standard
Richard Lyons

Posted on the internet is a photograph of Conservative councillor Paul Scully’s back garden.

It is a rich, green affair with a well kept lawn and borders of shrubs. On closer inspection you can clearly make out a yellow whirlygig clothes dryer and, at the bottom, a big black trampoline. Next to the photo, which also shows a white parasol and a discarded ladder, reads the words: “The picture shows the view from my bedroom window”.

As if to remind us the site is not some kind of councillors-homes-through-the-keyhole, the text goes on to discuss the issue of back garden development. OK, so we may still be in the realm of local politics, but it is not politics as we know it. Welcome to the brave new world of political blogs.

Taking the lead from national political blogs and the webcam diary of David Cameron, a growing number of local politicians are starting their own online diaries. Mayor of Sutton Richard Bailey gave out the web address of his blog at a meeting of the full council this month and councillor Cohn Ball and former councillor, Charlie Mansell are also established bloggers.

Claiming to be the first however, is Coun Scully who is aware of the medium’s ability to let the public know what councillors are doing almost as soon as they’ve done it. And what is more he adds, blogs can break down barriers between politicians and their constituents, allowing them to get to know the person in a way never quite achieved before. “I think blogs give an immediacy and an intimacy,” he says. “When people vote for you they generally vote for the party and few people know the individual. I think it’s important they get to know the individual because you may have particular political issues and problems and if they know you have a similar outlook as them they may be able to trust you more.” Coun Scully’s first posting was on May 29, 2006— just three weeks after being elected and bore the title ‘Does cyberspace need another blog?’ Since then he has written a total of 37 entries covering everything from the future of Westcroft Leisure Centre to whether classroom assistants should wear veils.

Much less prolific, by his own admission, is deputy leader of the council Cohn Hall, who left a month between his last posting and the previous one dated September 27. But despite this under-use of his cyberspace presence, he remains extremely enthusiastic about what blogs can achieve - particularly in terms of connecting with the community. “I have had more response from doing more things on a blog than I’ve had from all the leaflets I’ve done in all the years I’ve been councillor” he says. “If I put something up on the blog I might get half a dozen emails about it which is great. The more I can engage with the residents, the better.”

There is also a suggestion the more successful blogs could start to challenge newspapers by breaking stories before journalists. Fortunately for the Sutton Guardian, there is little chance of that happening in this borough. What the blogs of our councillors do seem to demonstrate though is that the internet can bring people closer together — even the public and politicians. “I think it has the potential to change politics and make politicians more human because we do seem a very strange breed,” Coun Hall says. “The potential is there but we need to take it up a level. More councillors should start blogs.”

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Taxes to turn Mini owners green

Richmond council are seeking to introduce new payment scales for their controlled parking zones. The headline is that it will cost £300pa to park a 4x4. With the current trend for green taxes, many people will find this attractive.

As usual, the devil is in the detail. There are 7 categories A-G. 4x4s, Porsches, Ferraris etc. will come under category G. Half of the Minis sold in the UK will come under the second most expensive category, F. There are very few cars that are actually on the market in the UK that will come into category A.

With a basic 1.6 litre saloon being so penalised, it is hard to see this being more than a money-making exercise rather than a green initiative. Four years ago, I was at the forefront of the campaign to reject a proposed CPZ in Wallington that would have affected 20,000 people. Although an intial low charge was proposed, I worried about the future as the council became more dependent on this revenue. History has shown the 3000 people who objected to be right.