Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Reporting Back From The Bimonthly Bunfight

Last Monday saw another knockabout Council meeting. We discussed serious issues; the Icelandic bank deposits, SEN transport, how the Council communicates with local residents amongst others. However, there is no decision making and it was apparent that the LibDems are too busy looking forward to elections in 18 months time to address the issues head on. Instead we were treated to some political grandstanding that bore little relation to the matters at hand. I guess this is what happens when a small number of LibDem councillors keep the decision making in their own hands, barely bothering to throw any scraps to their backbench colleagues. Their view is that by spending a few thousand on no smoking signs in Beddington playgrounds, residents will forgive them for the half a million wasted on the green garden waste fiasco and the inflation busting increases in council tax that they rely on us not noticing buried deep in our bank statements each month.

The video covers the salient points. One of the questions asked that I didn't cover was about the Heritage lamp posts in Cheam with a LibDem councillor blaming Boris Johnson personally for the threat to their future. This did not take into account Boris' personal attention to the matter after Steve O'Connell, local Conservative GLA member asked him a question in Mayor's Question Time on my request. A conversation with people in Boris' office opened up a new dialogue with the Council which looks like resulting in a satisfactory outcome for Carshalton and Cheam who are both affected by the same problem. Meanwhile, the Sutton LibDem MP has had his photo taken waving a petition that is yet to surface beneath a Cheam lamp. As a resident who wants to see Sutton change for the better, I'll take action over showboating and empty promises any day.

The Iceman Cometh

I was talking to a member of my family after the demise of Icesave, the UK trading arm of Icelandic bank Landsbanki. He is self employed and asked a pertinent question that hasn't been raised until now.

We know that individual depositors have been guaranteed their money back which is good. European legislation states that bank compensation schemes should pay out within 3 months which is also good.

However what about self-employed people that have set money aside to pay their tax bill? What happens if they haven't been refunded their money by then? Will HM Revenue and Customs come running after them?

The answer seems to be yes. Shailesh Vara MP, Shadow Deputy Leader of the House, asked this very question to the Chancellor. A junior minister replied that you may be able to arrange an extension but will be charged a 'competitive' interest rate.

It is important to note that Shailesh Vara has exposed another bit of disjointed thinking by the Government. Landsbanki is only in administration not liquidation. There is a subtle but vast difference between the two, not least because the compensation scheme doesn't even start until the latter occurs. The latest statement on the Icesave website explains that the process will start on or around November 3rd. If the Government pull their finger out, we might not need to get to the position when we see the effects of this problem. However, I'm a sceptical old Hector by nature when it comes to Government wheels turning. The three months won't be up until 3rd of February if the process even starts on time. We'll see.

NHS Snub Carshalton Residents

Sutton & Merton NHS Primary Care Trust have delivered a blow to residents living around Carshalton Park by scrapping plans to build a new Intermediary Care Hospital on the War Memorial site, instead seeking to flog the land off for £2.1m.

For years, residents and ward councillors were promised faithfully that the land would be used for healthcare and their fears that it would be redeveloped were unfounded. Unfortunately those promises were hollow.

I have promised to keep residents up to date. Unfortunately, I found out about the sale, not from the PCT but from a Beddington councillor who had been informed at another meeting. I had smelt a rat when I saw the site strangely absent from the latest proposals for changes to healthcare in Sutton and Merton, Better Healthcare Closer To Home.

The proposals as a whole will largely benefit residents in the ward with the new Shotfield clinic in Wallington and rebuilding of part of St Helier hospital but Sutton will largely lose out to residents in Merton after their local MP spent well over £70,000 of taxpayers' money on postage campaigning for her constituency. The Labour Government have rewarded her with the majority of the new facilities being in the north of the area covered by the Trust in places that I have only just recently heard of through my role as councillor, despite living here for all of my adult life.

The NHS will have to gen up on local strategic planning before trying to push through a major development. The parcel of land sits between a Conservation area and an area marked as low-density housing on strategic planning maps.

As we come close to the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War, it is disappointing to think that a healthcare site built through public subscription might be replaced by a memorial to the fallen by identikit modern housing. I'll keep you posted as I hear more.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Justifying our existence

Politicians have always tried to influence the behaviour of the electorate, whether by carrot or stick. I rarely like the stick approach and I can appreciate some efforts to attempt to nudge people in a certain direction, for example walking rather than driving, health prevention rather than cure etc. However, the 'ban' on smoking near playgrounds seems a typically worthy but pointless exercise that is endemic in local government.

I don't smoke but I would have voted against the ban on smoking in enclosed areas as I am instinctively against banning things, believing people should be able to exercise choice. I get fed up with politicians treating people like idiots in one breath and then, should they be wanting something from them like a vote, feting them as having the collective wisdom of Solomon. Similarly, local Liberals cannot decide whether they want to do what their party name says on the tin or give in to an authoritarian craving - the second half of their moniker, 'Democrat' went by the wayside a long time ago.

The Liberal-dominated Beddington & Wallington Local Committee has agreed to spend £3200 putting up signs politely requesting people not to smoke in playgrounds within their area. There was considerable debate as to what the wording should be as it was felt that the familiar No Smoking sign was inappropriate because the ban had no legal backing. I humbly put forward my own suggested wording in the picture above.

Of course I'm not in favour of people blowing smoke in children's faces whilst they play on the swings. However, the signs would have to be far bigger and much more wordy if they were to list all inappropriate behaviour by adults in a children's playground. This smacks of politicians scratching around for something to do. Last year, a pot of 'Public Realm' money was introduced in Sutton where local committees could direct some spending in their areas. The total budget was £2m divided between the six areas. I fear that this is an attempt to be seen to be doing something rather than considering whether that £3200 could be better spent elsewhere. Councillors were surprised to hear that each sign would cost £300. They were told that there were four playgrounds and it would be best to put two signs in each. No-one challenged the chairman, who is an accountant by day, when she announced just before voting on the issue that the total spending was £3200. Remember that when you get next year's council tax bill.

Iceland claims another scalp

Whilst the investigation into Sutton's Icelandic exposure gathers pace, another amazing story hit the press. The Audit Commission, which is the watchdog that looks into council spending, had put £10m of its own money with an Icelandic bank.

The Conservative chairman of Sutton's Audit committee has convened an emergency meeting for next week to look into our own problems. The committee will consider a review into the matter conducted by someone with considerable financial experience within both local government and the private sector. However, Audit Committee only has a remit to look at the nuts and bolts of whether correct procedures were followed. Political accountability lies within a committee called the Scrutiny Overview Committee which is chaired by a Liberal Democrat. We have insisted that this is looked at as an urgent matter at the next meeting which is on Tuesday 28th October.

As an aside, the photo used to illustrate this post looks remarkably unblocked, thus clearly demonstrating that I sourced it from the Internet rather than taking my hard-earned cash outside with a camera:)

UPDATE: Sutton's external auditors have changed this the Audit Commission.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Call For Icelandic Losses Investigation

Sutton's £5.5m exposure to the Icelandic meltdown was the big topic of discussion at last night's Executive (Cabinet) meeting. You can see the statement that the Council have issued following UK based Heritable Bank's slide into administration here.

Tim Crowley, Conservative Finance spokesman has several years of Treasury experience in the City. He addressed the cabinet at the meeting covering the following bullet points:-
  • We, as Conservatives, will do all we can to support any Government initiative to retrieve frozen monies – this is the important thing at this time.
  • Transparency in Sutton Council on this issue is of paramount importance because we are dealing with taxpayers’ public funds and we need to engender confidence and trust. This must be our next priority.
  • This is a reputational issue which could attract attention from other Council services, and potentially overshadow its work elsewhere.
  • As the Opposition we are concerned and disappointed with the public pronouncements in the national media of the Liberal Democrat Treasury Spokesman Dr Vince Cable who has described councils who deposited funds into Icelandic Banks and their subsidiaries as “unbelievably silly”.
  • We also note the comments of The Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay on the Today programme who attacked Tory-lead Winchester Council which had deposited one million pounds into an Icelandic bank’s subsidiary, Heritable, two weeks before the crash as “blind and deaf.”
  • We are disappointed that the national Liberal Democrat leadership has decided to revert to crude political point scoring in a time of crisis, and that by doing so they are undermining laudable efforts by all concerned to get this taxpayers’ money returned.
  • We would prefer to concentrate on investigating under what circumstances we lent this money to Heritable Bank, and to ensure that proper procedures were followed.
  • To enable this to happen it is imperative that all paperwork relating to these transactions be secured and that an independent investigator be seconded to provide the answers to these questions.
  • As the Opposition, we would like hardcopies of all money market transactions that the Council has taken in the last calendar year and the weekly counterparty risk limits to enable informed decisions to be made.
  • Only by us having this paperwork will we be able to ensure that scrutiny process is carried out in comprehensive and competent way.

On the party political point, it is interesting to see Vince Cable quoted in the Telegraph as saying "In a crisis like this I don't think people would warm terribly to my running around saying 'I told you so'" The LibDem parliamentary finance team certainly did not warm themselves to Sutton's Lead Finance Councillor who told Lord Oakeshott yesterday afternoon that his comments were less than helpful.

Although the Cable & Oakeshott double act is an interesting diversion, the matter is too pressing to concentrate on partisan politics. Tim is leading our investigation into the matter with considerable vigour. I am pleased that officers recognise the need for a robust and transparent enquiry. In the meantime, we will continue to support moves to get our money back in order to minimise Sutton taxpayers' exposure to this. It is important to stress that this loss will not have an immediate impact. I know that some council employees have been spooked by reports of losses in other local authorities affecting payroll. This is not the case here in Sutton.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Good Communication Is Catching On

For the last few years, Conservative conferences have gradually been introducing new innovations using new media. Two years ago, I joined other bloggers in offering advice to volunteers, councillors and other politicians who wanted to use the Internet more effectively. Last year, well-known bloggers such as Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes were given equal footing with journalists from the traditional media. This year, YouTube joined in the fun with an exhibition stand where attendees could film their thoughts and views. You have seen my rambling offering above and you can see the other Spielbergian shorts here.

This week, I was asked to write an article for Conservative Home, a leading right of centre blog, about why councillors should consider communicating with residents via a blog. You can read the resulting piece, 'Blogging Along', here. Feel free to leave a comment either there or back here.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Icelandic Meltdown Hits Sutton

People have been worrying about meltdown at the North Pole for years. They didn't suspect it would start with the Icelandic banking system.

Sutton is one of the many local authorities in the UK to suffer in the economic turmoil with £5.5m of loans in Heritable Bank plc, the UK subsidiary of Landsbanki. Heritable was placed in administration following the nationalisation of its parent company leaving Sutton and many other institutions in limbo.

I want to see that every penny-piece of taxpayers' money is secure. Safeguarding the taxpayer's well-being, coupled with sound financial management, is the Conservative way. I have given the Chief Executive my support for the call for the Government to step in to help Local Authorities in these exceptional conditions.

In this time of economic hardship it is absolutely essential that the Lib Dem-run Council does whatever it can to protect the council tax payer's interests - as Conservative councillors my colleagues and I will do whatever we can to ensure this. We have been asking questions of the ruling party and officers to investigate the Council's investment strategy and risk management whilst recognising the particular backdrop to this unexpected loss.

It was disappointing to see Vince Cable unhelpfully trying to lever some political capital out of the situation whilst others were seeing their monetary capital disappearing. He criticised councils for investing in Icelandic banks explaining that he and his colleague, Lord Oakeshott had concerns as far back as July. It is a shame that he didn't tell his colleagues at Local Authority level about his fears as it might have saved Sutton £5.5m. Never mind, he got his headline.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Bad News? Where's The Spade?

On the day I joined 350,000 anxious Icesave investors in worrying about our savings, there was also a few stories that you might have missed.

Gordon Brown seems to be preparing for a climbdown on the 42-day detention that was deemed as absolutely vital for the security of the country a few short months ago. The Times reports that ministers are admitting that there is 'not a cat in Hell's chance' of getting it onto the statute books after realising that the Lords would once again be the voice of reason. First David Davis had no serious opponent in his by-election, now it appears he will have no opponent in the House to debate the subject.

The Evening Standard has an article on the botched reform of NHS dentistry. Apparently Ministers had admitted that they had an 'insufficient focus on quality' in their revised contract for dentists which has been criticised in a Commons Health Select Committee report.

I hope that politicians, journalists and bloggers are keeping an eye out for any reports or other stories leaving No. 10 by the back door. We face an impossibly difficult time over the coming days, weeks and months. Nonetheless, Government business does not stop. Neither should good scrutiny.

One clear example of burying bad news was illustrated by the article in the Telegraph. Postman Pat has got a promotion to a sorting office. The programme will now be called Postman Pat Special Delivery Service and Pat has been given a PDA, a helicopter and a stunt bike! I assume that Mrs Goggins has been pensioned off to close her rural sub post office as well.

Monday, October 06, 2008

A Sporting Chance

Former British No 1, Jeremy Bates didn't give Eric much of a chance with his precise hitting, but the aim of this coaching session was to highlight the work of the Sutton Tennis Academy.

The Academy is a jewel in the crown of Sutton, but one that is little known outside the tennis world. As well as providing private membership facilities for residents, it offers so much more to young would-be Andrew Murrays and Laura Robsons through the very best coaching, great surfaces to play on and even in-house education to enable the elite to get the most court time. In fact, home-grown Junior Wimbledon Champion, Laura Robson trained at the Academy herself.

Fellow ward councillor, Eric Howell is fanatical about sport. However, tennis is his passion. Despite literally dying on a tennis court seven years ago after having a heart attack whilst (fortunately) playing a paramedic, he plays hours and hours of tennis every week to a very high standard regularly beating people half his age.

A few councillors went along to watch Eric have a knock-up with Jeremy Bates, the Director of Tennis having been taken on a tour of the place. British No. 3, Josh Goodall was playing former Wimbledon Champion, Pat Cash. On an adjacent court, children from 11 to 18, all among the best in their respective age groups in the country, were hitting ridiculously powerful, low topspin forehands. Playing along this company must give any inspiring child a massive boost in personal development.

It is not all about the elite. Sutton Council helps to fund some of the programmes, increasing participation at all levels of the sport. Cheam High School admits a small number of children each year on a tennis scholarship, adjusting the daily timetable to allow more time playing tennis at the Academy. Not everyone can win Wimbledon, but others will develop into good club coaches and inspire others to pick up a racquet. Sutton has one of the lowest percentages of its residents participating in sport throughout London. This is a good example of recognising that Local Government is often not the best organisation to deliver a particular service. If interests coincide between public and private sectors, we should not be dogmatic. Instead we should move forward together and take such opportunities.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Conference Report 3 - Putting The Brake On Council Tax

Localism is a word that has been bandied about in political circles for a number of years. The Labour Government are not in a rush to hand the responsibility for decision-making anywhere near the 'great unwashed' whilst they are in administration, instead hoarding power and control. Councils often get just the scraps, feeling the full force of the public's dissatisfaction whilst being reduced to a local branch of Whitehall.

Yes, centralisation started under the Conservatives in the Eighties in an attempt to curb the wild excesses of the Militant Tendency, but it has gone way too far and I'm glad to see policies to reverse this.

The headline announcement was that Council Tax would be frozen for two years. This will be acheived by giving those councils who limit their budgets to a 2.5% increase, the difference to bring that down to zero. LibDem and Labour councillors in London, led by our very own Leader of the Council threw their hands in the air and gnashed their teeth, horrified at the prospect. They explained that with inflation at 4.7%, it would be irresponsible to limit increases to less than this as services would need to be cut.

As Boris might say, what piffle. Boris himself is freezing the GLA precept, Hammersmith and Fulham have cut their council tax two years in a row whilst improving services, reducing debt and increasing resident satisfaction. No-one said it was easy, but it can be done. Sutton's administration have pledged to limit their increases to 3.4% for the next two years, so it will be interesting what they will be cutting if they follow their argument to its logical conclusion.

Now, here's the localism. Council's do not have to go along with this. If an administration believe that their residents would prefer them to spend more than the 2.5% figure, they can. No-one will stop them. Naturally, they won't get the extra funding but that is the difference between carrot and stick. Residents can judge which they prefer on election day.

I attended policy briefings from our Shadow Local Government Spokesmen and the Shadow Housing Spokesman, Grant Shapps. I liked what I heard. Housing targets and planning decisions look set to return closer to the people that will have to live with the consequences. Labour and the Liberal Democrats fell into a big hole this week. The LibDems talk a good game about localism but enjoy hiding behind the Mayor and the Government. With increased power for local representatives comes extra responsibility and challenges. I relish that opportunity to face voters without the excuse that a faceless bureaucrat in Westminster has taken a decision out of my hands. If it leaves me exposed well, I'll just have to get better at my job or take the rap.

Conference Report 2 - Business & Pleasure

Boris was the highlight of the first day of conference. Sit back with a cup of tea to watch the 16 minute video on the BBC here. As ever, he has a knack of getting some very serious, worthwhile points across in a knockabout, often self-deprecating style. He didn't disappoint as he bemoaned that his speaking style had been criticised by Arnold Schwarznegger last year. "It was a low moment, my friends, to have my rhetorical skills denounced by a monosyllabic Austrian cyborg," Boris said. He added "But I can say now to Arnie that in spite of all his doubts and though there was a great deal of suspense until the final reel, Ken Livingstone was terminated."

He tackled the financial meltdown and crime in the capital with great aplomb before delivering the line that will remain when the jokes are forgotten:-

"There will be no increase in our share of the council tax next year. When times are tough, the last thing people need is for us politicians to be adding to their burden. That is Conservative government in action."

So, in Sutton whilst the Leader of the Council appears in print to explain why it is right that London Councils should be putting up taxes by 4.7% or more each year, the one part of the budget looked after by a Conservative is to be frozen. As ever, politicians can wring their hands as much as they want. It is only decisive action that will allow efficient running of the administration of the capital to translate into real value for money.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Conference Report 1 - Plan for Change

(If the video doesn't work first time, press pause and then play again. It seems to work eventually.)

Yesterday, I came back with a number of Sutton councillors and supporters from Birmingham. I think I can speak for all when I say that we are more optimistic, excited about change and further enthused to make that change happen.

The global financial situation is at the forefront of people's minds at the moment and quite rightly. I'm worrying about whether my savings will still be there in a few weeks, the price of food and fuel over the next few months and the level of taxes that I'll have to pay over the next few years to pay for the biggest Government deficit in the developed world except Pakistan, Egypt and Hungary.

Since the news has been concentrating on the Bradford & Bingley and the American bailout, you may have missed some of the main announcements from the Conservatives that will affect you. Have a look at the video above for a brief starter whilst I fish out further details of the main course and desert.