Sunday, March 30, 2008

Boris' Freedom Pass Guarantee

I was pleased to see Boris highlighting his pledge to keep the Freedom Pass on his website. There has certainly been a lot of misinformation given by Ken Livingstone and his cronies over the last year or so, suggesting that the concessionary travel scheme was under threat from the Conservatives.

This has never been the case, but Livingstone repeated the claims to divert attention away from the main argument. At the moment, London Councils, an umbrella organisation representing all of the Boroughs administers the cost of running the scheme taking money from each council. Transport for London set the price for the pass. If London Councils feel that they are getting a raw deal, they have recourse to bring it in front of an arbiter; one Ken Livingstone. This is hardly equitable and ensures that TfL can squeeze yet more money away from local control into the centralised pot being dished out from City Hall.

Each party believes that it is a good idea to provide free travel for over-65s and disabled people. However Ken Livingstone has attempted to make it received wisdom that because the Conservatives - who are the largest Party on London Councils by controlling the most Boroughs - deign to disagree with Livingstone, we would make the fantastical jump of scrapping the whole thing. Definitely a case of saying a falsehood enough times to make people believe it!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

In For a Penny, In For a Pound

Having consulted on a council budget based on a council tax increase of 4.9%, the ruling Liberal Democrats eventually bowed to our pressure by restricting themselves to 3.4% extra. Each year the Conservative Opposition highlight innovative approaches to reducing the tax burden around London such as Hillingdon where they are freezing tax for pensioners. Each year Sutton's tax continues its relentless increase with little extra in return for residents.

This year's increase was pegged back after the intervention of David Dombey's impassioned plea on behalf of pensioners. I notice that in a recent Sutton Guardian (6 March), Mrs Dombey is campaigning to stop the demolition of a public toilet in the ward represented by her daughter, a deputy leader of the council. Maybe they can succeed where other politicians have failed in getting the Lib Dem administration to listen instead of their traditional 'consult, consider, ignore' approach.

Ruth Dombey responded when her father told her how to spend the pounds. Will she act now her mother has told her how to spend a penny?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Philippa Fighting For Social Justice

Philippa Stroud, the Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Sutton & Cheam has worked closely with the Conservative councillors over the last year, adding a good brain, relevant experience and an extensive address book to our work. I hope we have been able to reciprocate.

Philippa will play a key role in any future Conservative Government through her work as Director at the Centre for Social Justice, a thinktank founded by former Conservative leader, Iain Duncan-Smith. The CSJ produced a doorstep of a report, Breakthrough Britain with 190 recommendations to follow up the interim report Breakdown Britain which highlighted social problems arising from social breakdown in the UK over the last few years. It looks at such areas as worklessness, debt, addiction and families. Gordon Brown has since adopted 16 recommendations as his own and David Cameron has incorporated 27 into his policy development.

We all know that the economy, public services and foreign policy are vital areas for any government. They tend to be easier to understand, attracting simple headlines and short-term solutions. Areas such as family breakdown are far harder to tackle. Many people I meet, shrug their shoulders and say that society is not what it was in years gone by without really stopping to think why and how we can effect change. It is good that someone is and has the drive and influence to see results.

Philippa appeared on Newsnight at the end of February on the eve of Gordon Brown's announcement about Welfare Reform. Paxman didn't need to ask her the same question more than once, never mind fourteen times as she handled herself very well as you can see in the clip above.

Common Sense For Westmead Road

On Wednesday night, my colleagues and I heard Ken Andrew speak at the Carshalton & Clockhouse Local Committee about the issues around the proposed changes to Westmead Road. He presented a petition which attracted significant support from residents that would be most affected by the proposals. I was pleased to see a good number of residents at the meeting to tell us their views.

At the meeting, Ken articulated concerns about the changes to the Hail and Ride bus service and the introduction of speed humps. No-one could disagree with making our roads safer – hence my support for the introduction of the two mini-roundabouts and other limited changes as called for in the petition - but the rest of the scheme appears to address a problem that is not there. Lower Road has an accident record that requires some action. However the plan affects the entire length of Westmead Road and unduly affects bus users and drivers.

As previously reported, when this scheme was first presented to me and Eric, we both queried why speed humps remained in the proposal after being clearly rejected in the consultation. We were told that residents only objected to humps because of possible loss of on-street parking and since no places would be lost, there was no reason to remove them from the scheme. This explanation was derived from the comments that a few residents had written. We were not satisfied with this as we believed that there were insufficient comments to jump to this conclusion and so demanded that speed humps were removed from the design.

With many of these schemes council officers come under pressure to push through plans in fear of losing the funding at the end of the financial year. The choice that we had on Wednesday was described as “take it or leave it”. Councillors unanimously voted to leave it, rejecting the proposal. It is unfortunate that we did not have the option to pick and choose the parts of the scheme that residents believed would have most benefit to them, due to the cumbersome bureaucracy of Transport for London.

Ken Andrew and local resident Paul Kelly did a great job in organising the petition and I was pleased to see how well supported it was. We often take this Council to task for not seeking and responding to residents’ opinions and I am pleased that in this instance, residents have grouped together effectively to ensure that their voice is heard. Eric and I will continue to do our utmost to reflect your views and concerns about Carshalton.

Monday, March 10, 2008

LibDems Get Post Office Worried

I walked past this Post Office in London Bridge on Saturday. It was closed as it was early morning and so no-one was around. This is in stark contrast to a few days ago when, as reported in Private Eye, LibDems queued up to have their photo taken with Mayoral hopeful Brian Paddick to save post offices.

Kingston MP Ed Davey, Hornsey & Wood Green MP Lynne Featherstone and a councillor made the pilgrimage to London Bridge to be snapped with Paddick.

Two minor points stick out. With four post offices closing in Featherstone's patch and five in Davey's backyard, could they not go along to one of those. Secondly, with 169 post offices in London for the axe could they have not at least found a post office that is at least threatened. The London Bridge post office is not on the list. The sub postmaster must have been confused.

We have all been campaigning to keep our local post offices open but this is another example of a posturing empty gesture from the LibDems that is all about electioneering and nothing to do with the future of our communities. I hope they at least bought some stamps while they were there.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Fair Deal For Sutton Tenants

On Wednesday, I joined Philippa Stroud, our Parliamentary Candidate in Sutton & Cheam and more than fifty supporters of a campaign organised by Jean Crossby and the Sutton Federation of Tenants and Residents Associations. They presented a petition to Downing Street to a fanfare of support as we watched them going in with coaches and cars giving us the occasional honk of solidarity.

The campaign which has attracted cross-party support demands an urgent review of the policy which takes £10m from our social housing rent account to maintain council houses in other parts of the country.

This equates to 19 weeks rent each year that some of the most vulnerable residents in the Borough are paying whilst living in the second-worst housing in London. Only Tower Hamlets has council-owned housing in a worse state of repair. £125,000,000 is required to bring our housing stock up to the Decent Homes Standard. This level of repair in no way equates to opulence or lavish changes. This will mean that our tenants can live in homes without mould and damp affecting their health, with an adequate kitchen and bathroom. This should not be too much to ask in a comparatively prosperous borough but we are working with one or two arms behind our back when the Government props up its marginal seats with extra money creamed off other Councils in the south.

Our Planning, Transport & Housing policy group will be looking at ways of tackling the problem of housing standards with solutions that lie within our remit. This campaign was well organised and very well supported. We are really happy to support the residents in having their say at the very top level. However, as politicians we cannot stop there. We must take a lead and ensure that we have used every channel and innovative idea that is open to us rather than simply sitting back, wringing our hands and blaming others. Leave any thoughts here or go to our Policy Groups web page and join the debate there.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Government Gets Above Itself Shocker

Geoff "Buff" Hoon is not the sharpest knife in the Government's block but as Chief Whip he has the unenviable task of whipping Labour MPs to vote for the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Bill. This piece of legislation contains some very unpalatable items for pro-life MPs including several Catholic cabinet ministers. Normally this would be a free vote so it is asking for trouble to push this through with a 3 line whip.

Today the Telegraph reports that he has granted Cabinet Ministers a dispensation to abstain if they write to him in advance. This is not normally within the remit of my blog but one line of the article made me smile. It was reported that Hoon was "irritated by the failure of some of his side to see the bigger picture."

Now I am not religious, but for the abstainers I struggle to see what they would consider bigger than the Creator of all things in heaven and earth.

The Bards of Westminster?

Now I know that MPs too often think their parliamentary orations are Churchillian but I saw that a bit of Shakespeare seems to be creeping in to the proceedings by the back door. My political anorak eagle-eyed colleague at work noticed that a Hansard reporter seems to have drifted off to a world of Shakespeare, perchance to dream. Have a look at the bottom of this page. Any rational explanations would be welcomed. Failing that your best Shakespeare/Parliamentary puns will have to do. Make them good otherwise I'll have to make the unkindest cut of them all.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Council Tax Through The Roof Again

The Council Tax increase has been confirmed at 3.4%. Only the LibDems could consider this a good news story, yet they gamely tried to justify it.

We were told that each of the neighbouring councils had bigger increases. This is true, though not the whole picture. Residents in Croydon, Merton and Surrey - all Conservative Councils - still pay far less that we do here in Sutton. One neighbour, Kingston not only had the third highest rise in London but retains the crown of having the highest tax burden of any London Borough. I'll leave you to guess who runs that Council (clue: same party as Richmond, the second highest tax bill in London).

Croydon residents know what they are getting for their extra money. £1.5m is being invested in extra policing and £4.75m is going into recycling initiatives including recycling facilities for every block of flats in Croydon, something we have failed to do in this Borough which sells its green virtues at every opportunity. Excluding flats means that a massive proportion of the residents in Sutton simply cannot recycle very easily. It also pushes the onus onto householders to meet targets that the Council sets.

This budget is merely treading water offering nothing new for residents except bigger bills. At the same time residents in Hammersmith and Fulham are seeing their bills cut by 3% for the second year in a row, there is a freeze for pensioners' bills in Hillingdon. Wandsworth and Westminster residents continue to pay just one-third of the amount than we do.

Keep School Money for School Children

Last night we had our annual bunfight that is the Budget debate. It was a strange affair, with little offered by the LibDems. Instead they say smugly attacking the Conservatives. As a politician, I don't mind this. As a resident, this leaves me fuming. Who on earth is running the Borough if the LibDems are continuing to act as an Opposition party rather than a group that should have a positive track record to boast about after 22 years with their hands on the purse strings.

I'll cover the Budget in two posts as one matter caught my eye in particular and illustrates the LibDem Council's approach to their Budget perfectly. We caught the LibDems out using the interest from huge sums of Government money to lessen its own council tax increase. Conservative councillors discovered that the mystery savings which cut the increase from the controversial 4.9% to the 'benign' 3.4% has come from a variety of sources including the interest creamed off from the Building Schools for the Future funding for Stanley Park High School in Carshalton, and a surplus of council tax from new homes.
This follows the previous controversy when the Lib Dem Council consulted on a 4.9% projected council tax increase in December 2007. The current above inflation increase of 3.4% has been set by using additional money from sources termed in council-speak as "slippage" and the "buoyancy of the Council Tax base". We confronted the Lib Dem finance executive councillor for either not being up-front about this hidden surplus when official documents announced a 4.9% increase or for simply not knowing of its existence through incompetence. No answer was forthcoming.

During the debate the LibDem executive councillor for learning services confirmed that quarterly instalments of £2.056 million have been received by the Council - from the Department for Children, Schools and Families - totalling some £6.168 million. He also confirmed that projected earnings in interest were £150,000 for 2007/08. After considerable pressure from Conservatives over the last week, he agreed that all revenue in interest should be 'ring-fenced' to be used exclusively on the project to build the new Stanley Park School.

It is good news that they have reversed their policy under pressure to ensure that the considerable revenue in interest from the school grant will be used only for the benefit of the Stanley Park School. Using this money's interest to partially offset the council tax increase is just not acceptable. School children should not be short-changed because this Council can't control it's spending.

This does mean that the budget is now incorrect to the tune of £150,000 because the Lib Dems cannot cream it off anymore. How will they make up this shortfall? Maybe we can do a swap with parents' School Vouchers?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Budget Day on Monday

No not that one. We have a Full Council meeting tomorrow where we will listen patiently to Cllr Drage telling us that we have never had it so good and that we should be grateful for only having to pay an extra 3.4% tax in the coming year.

He won't be speaking for an hour with a glass of whisky as in the Parliamentary debate. Fifteen minutes is more than enough for all of us before we correct him on a few points:)

I'll report back tomorrow

Congratulations to Jonathan in Cheam

After a hard-fought campaign, I look forward to the new version of the LibDem posters sprouting up around Cheam Village.

First the result:-
Conservative 1541
LibDem 1454
UKIP 260
Labour 106
Turnout 44.1%

So, Jonathan Pritchard was elected in a tight race. UKIP ran an campaign that, though negative and uninformed had a significant effect winning 7.5% of the vote.

The great surprise was the LibDems. I was taken aback by their newsletters which were cynical and negative. Despite running the Borough for 22 years, they resorted to personal attacks and failed to demonstrate any track record of success in that time. Instead they promised to tackle crime in Cheam despite regularly telling councillors and residents that Cheam had very little crime. They even started to steal some of the campaigning techniques from UKIP with some of the UKIP headlines being repeated word for word in the LibDem Focus. My surprise came from how clearly they demonstrated that they were living off their successes in the 1990s, with no new ideas for the Borough.

I could only agree with several women that I spoke to throughout the campaign who felt patronised by the claim that they should vote for Wendy Mathys because Cheam already had two male councillors and they didn't need a third. So much for the best man (or woman) winning. I would like to see the councillors being broadly representative of the community in which they live but quotas and female chauvinism is really not the way to go to acheive this.

Paul Burstow MP must be concerned with the result. He allied himself very closely to the LibDem candidate but could not swing any extra votes. Midway through the campaign he rediscovered the art of communication using House of Commons headed paper to write unsolicited mail to residents. I'm sure his local electorate will take a dim view of using parliamentary stationary to influence a council election whether or not he paid for it himself. Maybe he hasn't noticed the media coverage about MPs using parliamentary resources for their own ends.

Cheam has the lowest Labour vote of any ward in London, so this was never to be a happy hunting ground for them. Nonetheless they sought to ask questions of residents to debate local issues. It was an interesting tack and deserved a few more votes from the LibDems for being positive.

As for us, we picked three main themes, crime, planning and council tax. Our campaign was positive, though taking the LibDems to task where necessary. Unlike their campaign we played the ball, not the man to take a footballing analogy. It has been a hard slog for the last few weeks. We did not take a single vote for granted despite the misquote in the Sutton Advertiser and I'm really pleased that Jonathan came out as the worthy winner. He will be an asset to the residents of Cheam and he will be an asset to the Conservative Group as we look to build on this in order to win the election in 2010 when we can really effect the change required to make Sutton a better place to live.