Sunday, March 29, 2009

LibDems Greatest Hits from 2008

I came across this video during an idle moment and thought it was worth revisiting as a reminder of another example of the remoteness of the present council administration. It is a clip of the local ITV news from last autumn discussing the changes to school transport for children with Special Educational Needs. In case you weren't following the story, the change went through, rubberstamped by the LibDem backbenchers at a full meeting of the Council. Autistic children were exempted from the change after some passionate campaigning from affected residents.

The changes are being introduced anytime now. I'm still not convinced that the expected savings will materialise. In the meantime, children and their parents are being put through massive upheaval to their already difficult lives. Rather than fronting up about the fact that this is a cost-cutting exercise, the Lead Councillor claims that the move is greener and will give the children exercise.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Sutton's Empty Houses

Last year Sutton was 6th in London for having the highest proportion of empty houses. Many of these were private homes. The Local Government Association has called on the Government to cut VAT on refurbishment work to encourage owners to bring them up to scratch and occupied. At the moment, new builds are exempt from VAT but refurbishment is not. A separate campaign, Cut the VAT has more details.

In the meantime, residents have been asking what is happening with the empty property in The Square. There have been security problems over the period whilst it has been empty. It has been earmarked for some residents moving from Orchard Hill in Carshalton. The Primary Care Trust seem to be the sticking point. I hope that they start to accelerate their efforts to rehouse people from Orchard Hill which was due to have been closed down last year. Whilst the delays continue to this major project, Stanley Park High School remains unbuilt, the property above remains empty and some residents remain in unsuitable accommodation.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Shooting the Messenger about Jargon

This week's Sutton Guardian had a story about the use of council jargon that was excellent in every regard apart from one. I was accused of using a bit of jargon myself, when in fact, I had only used it in a previous article slamming the use of council-speak. The bit of jargon was no ordinary word. It was 'deliverology'; a word that I believe was first used in Tony Blair's 'Delivery Unit'. Both of the phrases in the last sentence should be committed to trial in the lexicographical equivalent of the Hague.

Anyway, here's my response, which I hope that the Guardian will publish next week.

"I was somewhat surprised to see that I had been singled out for criticism for the use of the word "deliverology" (Tories call for end to waffling jargonology, Guardian 26.03.09). The only time that I have used this barmy word was when slamming its use in these pages last year. I have heard it used elsewhere but still have no clue what it actually means. I would be grateful if any readers can enlighten me.

I'm always happy to take criticism on board and I am my own biggest critic, but I think on this occasion my direction of travel has been tested for soundness by my colleagues and we are coterminous in that the outcome suggests that my use of the government lexicon is a predictor of beaconicity. Either that, or to translate for the real world, anyone that knows me would think that I am pretty jargon-free."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Brown Battered in Brussels

Well worth watching SE England MEP Dan Hannan laying into Gordon Brown after the Prime Minister had addressed the European Parliament. Dan lays the charges at Gordon Brown's feet in the most succint way that I have seen for sometime.

Update: After more than 600,000 views on the internet, the mainstream media are starting to report the speech. Someone with too much time on their hands has produced a transcript:-

Prime Minister, I see you’ve already mastered the essential craft of the European politician, namely the ability to say one thing in this chamber and a very different thing to your home electorate. You’ve spoken here about free trade, and amen to that. Who would have guessed, listening to you just now, that you were the author of the phrase 'British jobs for British workers' and that you have subsidised, where you have not nationalised outright, swathes of our economy, including the car industry and many of the banks? Perhaps you would have more moral authority in this house if your actions matched your words? Perhaps you would have more legitimacy in the councils of the world if the United Kingdom were not going into this recession in the worst condition of any G20 country?

The truth, Prime Minister, is that you have run out of our money. The country as a whole is now in negative equity. Every British child is born owing around £20,000. Servicing the interest on that debt is going to cost more than educating the child. Now, once again today you try to spread the blame around; you spoke about an international recession, international crisis. Well, it is true that we are all sailing together into the squalls. But not every vessel in the convoy is in the same dilapidated condition. Other ships used the good years to caulk their hulls and clear their rigging; in other words – to pay off debt. But you used the good years to raise borrowing yet further. As a consequence, under your captaincy, our hull is pressed deep into the water line under the accumulated weight of your debt. We are now running a deficit that touches 10% of GDP, an almost unbelievable figure. More than Pakistan, more than Hungary; countries where the IMF have already been called in. Now, it’s not that you’re not apologising; like everyone else I have long accepted that you’re pathologically incapable of accepting responsibility for these things. It’s that you’re carrying on, wilfully worsening our situation, wantonly spending what little we have left. Last year - in the last twelve months – a hundred thousand private sector jobs have been lost and yet you created thirty thousand public sector jobs.

Prime Minister, you cannot carry on for ever squeezing the productive bit of the economy in order to fund an unprecedented engorgement of the unproductive bit. You cannot spend your way out of recession or borrow your way out of debt. And when you repeat, in that wooden and perfunctory way, that our situation is better than others, that we’re ‘well-placed to weather the storm’, I have to tell you that you sound like a Brezhnev-era apparatchik giving the party line. You know, and we know, and you know that we know that it’s nonsense! Everyone knows that Britain is worse off than any other country as we go into these hard times. The IMF has said so; the European Commission has said so; the markets have said so – which is why our currency has devalued by thirty percent. And soon the voters too will get their chance to say so. They can see what the markets have already seen: that you are the devalued Prime Minister of a devalued government.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Building The Foundations for Success

As I go around speaking to residents, it is always interesting to hear about people's perceptions of political parties. Not just the differences between them but how they believe that they work. I thought it may enlighten some to show a little of what goes on behind the scenes. When I turn up on someone's doorstep, I haven't been personally charged to do so by David Cameron. There is a big devolved structure that enables the Conservative Party to work across the country in a reasonably consistent way.

The Conservative party has three main branches, the Parliamentary Party, professionals and volunteers.

Most people immediately think of the first group as it is these people who they see in the media. There is a lot beyond Westminster. The professionals don't just deal with press releases and research policy but also cover the mundane; helping organise local associations and providing support for IT, offices, printing etc. The often unsung volunteers number in the hundreds of thousands up and down the country, giving their time knocking on doors, stuffing envelopes, delivering leaflets. Contrary to popular belief, there is no magic way that a large wodge of money can provide an alternative to these fundamental basics.

Heading up all of this is the Conservative Party Board made up of all three sections of the party. They set the strategy, resolve tough problems, organise the party in the most efficient and effective way possible and slightly scarily become liable for the debts of the party as trustees. Below this for the voluntary side is the National Convention. This is largely made up of representatives from local constituencies. The top brass on this are elected and have a place on the Party Board.

Elections are coming up this spring with the results due on the 25th April. Three people are standing for chairman of the Convention, Simon Mort, Sir Graham Bright and Jeremy Middleton. Yes, even these elections require an online presence in order to get messages across the country in a short space of time. Each of the candidates talk about local volunteers having a greater say in choosing candidates and running their local associations. Localism is not just attractive for local government, the clamour has been there for greater devolution of power within the party organisation for sometime.

Three are also standing for the position of Vice President, Paul Swaddle (pictured), Fiona Hodgson and Charles Barwell. It is interesting to see the difference in approach in campaigning for the two roles. Certainly Paul and Charles have a sense of action. As someone well down the food chain in all of this, I am only interested in the structures and committees if I see them making a difference for me and the thousands of others who are trying to get the change we need through a Conservative government and a Conservative-run Council here in Sutton. Looking at some of the aims and objectives of the candidates, I get a sense of urgency from Jeremy Middleton and Paul Swaddle. I don't have a vote but I would be content that these two would make the top-end of the Party relevant for more people within the Party, which should translate into success at the ballot box which is what we all give up our time for.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

This week David Cameron took the step that our own Councillor, Tim Crowley asked Gordon Brown to take at "Any Questions" last week. Our local spokesman for Finance and Value for Money tackled Junior Minister Sadiq Khan, asking him why Gordon Brown wouldn't acknowledge the part that he played as Chancellor and Prime Minister in the failure of the regulation of the banks and the proliferation of such high debt which makes the UK spectacularly badly positioned to weather the global credit crisis.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

War Memorial Update

I've come across a map which may be helpful for residents living near the War Memorial to show what the NHS have planned for the site. Click on the photo to enlarge it.

The site has been split into three for administrative purposes.

  1. Ashcombe House is the dark block to the south which is currently being rebuilt as flats to allow disabled people that use large, specialist wheelchairs a greater degree of independence.
  2. The land to the north (the light grey block) will be given to the Council in exchange for Cedar Close (the area marked by the dotted line to the west). This will have new buildings to house the residents of Cedar Close in more modern facilities.
  3. The land around the current footprint of the actual hospital and Cedar Close will be sold to fund the reprovisioning.

It is assumed that the land sold will be for residential. Since there will be no plans until developers get interested in the land, everything is based on best guess. I can envisage either two cul-de-sacs or one road joining The Park and Salisbury Road. Since the area lies in between a low-density housing area and a Conservation Area, there will be limits on what development can be acheived on this site, so we are afforded some protection as neighbours. (I live opposite Cedar Close on Salisbury Road, so this will directly affect me too.)

In the meantime, the battle to keep the land available for public use continues. Local Conservative Parliamentary Candidate, Ken Andrew has collected a substantial petition demonstrating public support for his campaign to save the hospital and will be holding a public meeting -details to follow. You can also still join the Facebook Group "Save Carshalton War Memorial Hospital".

TomToms Replace Commonsense in Leicestershire

The Daily Mirror reports that Leicestershire County Council have spent £6,000 on fitting Sat-Navs to fourteen lawnmowers because they get lost in the long grass. Interactive maps will also help check whether the grass has been cut or not. A spokesman from the National Allotment Society called it 'bonkers' and 'a waste of money' saying:
"All it takes is for someone to look out the window and see if the grass needs cutting, you don’t need a satellite to tell you."

(Just to confirm that April 1st is still some way away.)

The US take on Gordon Brown

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart often throws up great commentary. This is an excellent example.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Councillor Cliff Gets Snow Damage Fixed

Recently, I wrote about the LibDem's frankly odd response to the snow when they cut £20k from the Winter Highways Maintenance Budget, whilst looking out of the window at people sliding around on the ice outside the Civic Offices.

At their Cabinet meeting a few days later, the Lead Councillor scoffed at the Evening Standard and others who had commented on this blinkered approach.

It took a question by Councillor Cliff Carter to finally shame the LibDems into realising that Sutton's roads had more holes than a slice of Emmenthal. We've already got the raised obstructions in speed bumps, the potholes that have formed after the frozen conditions are a result of nature's way of evening things up a bit. The LibDems were forced into an emergency change in their budget, taking £250k from their contingency fund to fill some of the holes.

Interestingly they have spent all of their contingency in this current year. They haven't identified any more cash, so watch this space to see if they can last the coming year without scratching around raiding another pot of cash. Either way, it was good work by Cliff to get across the clear message that residents have been saying for the last few weeks.

I Spend Therefore I Am

A passionate debate took place at last night’s meeting of Sutton’s Full Council as the Liberal Democrat finance boss commended his budget to councillors for the financial year 2009/10, with an above average council tax increase of 2.9%.

I've included a few highlights below. Bizarrely, the points were met with speeches on John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Boris Johnson, the state of the railways in 1919 and the benefit of exercise for over-50s. Far be it for me to say that the LibDem administration are losing their way, but I suspect the 180,000 Sutton residents who rarely set foot in the Civic Offices have more pressing matters when looking at how their representatives are doing with their cash.

Opposition Finance spokesman, Councillor Tim Crowley, who spearheaded the Conservatives’ attack, levelled the charges that Sutton’s LibDem town hall leadership is: -

  1. Failing to make life easier for residents in a time of financial hardship with a council tax freeze - fully costed and easily achievable.
  2. Ignoring an overwhelming response from the Conservatives' alternative budget consultation (1200+ responses) which shows that 93% of residents believe council tax should be frozen (
  3. Perilously pressing ahead with the controversial £8million pet project, the 'Sutton Life Centre' - an unaffordable and high-risk project, in a dire financial time.
  4. Betraying all the residents of the Borough who voted for the LibDems because of the Council leadership's slavish pursuit of Labour Government targets, ahead of the needs and at the expense of local residents. In short: vote LibDem, get Labour.
  5. Ideologically incapable of lowering the tax burden on Sutton's residents because local LibDems define themselves through the high expenditure of public money.
  6. Pleading poverty when, behind the spin, the LibDem Council is hoarding nearly £12million of taxpayers' cash in a 'war chest' to fund controversial pet projects.
  7. Controversially raiding the schools budgets by £1.3million and 'siphoning' £3.6million from adult social services into these pet projects - when this money should be ring-fenced for the services that they were intended for.
  8. Irresponsibly taking money away from maintenance budgets for the upkeep of council-owned properties to the tune of £2million.

Councillor Tim Crowley commented on the budget by saying: -

“Last night the LibDems voted to inflict yet another above average council tax hike on residents. But the difference this year is that we’re in the worst recession in many years. The Lib Dems’ answer is to press ahead with the controversial £8million Sutton Life Centre without asking residents, by raiding other budgets to build it, and without knowing how they’ll afford to keep it open. In this budget, all roads lead to the Life Centre

“We issued a compassionate plea to the LibDem leadership to help residents by freezing the tax. Regardless of their spin, this was entirely achievable through large windfalls received by this Council.”

Councillor Paul Scully, Leader of the Conservative Opposition, added: -

“Sutton’s LibDem Council has lived up to its reputation for an epic refusal to listen to local taxpayers, by failing to freeze the tax burden when most needed.

“They seem totally incapable of reducing their burden on local peoples’ pockets and frighteningly quick to throw money at controversial pet projects. This is made worse as we face a deepening recession. Now is the time for the LibDem Council to employ thrift, not to be a spendthrift.”

- Speech Summary -

Councillor Tim Crowley made the following points in his speech: -

On addressing the concerns of the recession and its impact on Sutton:
“As an outer London Borough many of our residents commute to London and have jobs in either the financial industry, or are employed in support services to that sector. These people’s futures are under an ever darkening cloud.”

On criticising the Lib Dem Council’s ‘get out clause’ of a poor settlement from Government:
“Every time Councillor Drage stands up and discusses all local matters financial he refers to the fact that we are a floor authority with one of the lowest grant settlements in London.

“This is Councillor Drage’s “get-out clause” for anything that this administration says it can not do. But let’s remember that the 3 year grant settlement secured last year was actually higher than the council was expecting.”

On Lib Dem finance boss Councillor Drage’s magic act:
“Like David Copperfield - famous for making large objects like tanks and the Statue of Liberty disappear – Councillor Drage is performing the equally impressive feat of making a mountain of taxpayers’ money vanish into thin air.”

On freezing the council tax via windfalls from a VAT refund and the Freedom Pass:
“Let’s look at the other areas where you have had money in that you weren’t expecting - The 2 windfalls as laid out in the tabled report: -
· £1.3 million from a VAT refund going back to 1975 and
· £1 million from a refund from the Freedom Pass, London’s concessionary fare scheme.
“This equates to £2.3 million which would have enabled you to freeze the council tax without affecting overall long term budgets. This is money which the taxpayers have paid out once, why should they not get it back?

“This LibDem Council has had a stroke of good luck with the millions it has received via windfalls, it should now pass this good luck on to taxpayers who are currently suffering bad luck in this recession.”

On Sutton Council’s £5.5million frozen investment in Heritable Bank, subsidiary of Landsbanki:
“Then we have the big one…the £1.5million that is having to be set aside to cover potential losses arising from the freezing of £5.5million of assets that are frozen in an Icelandic bank account.

“We have had a debate and an inquiry about how and why this took place. But the fact remains it did take place and it has happened on your watch with a possible large cost to the Sutton taxpayer.”

On the LibDems’ betrayal of residents by “slavish” relationship with the Labour Government:
“The final major issue that lies at the heart of the LibDem approach to public finance, and this budget, is your relationship with central government and your slavish pursuit of central government targets, ahead of the needs and at the expense of local residents and taxpayers.

“When a council is elected then the least that the voters expect is that you will, as an administration, fight for their needs, ahead of the Mandarins of Whitehall. It really is vote LibDem, get Labour.”

Council Pulls A Fast One Over £8m Pet Project

Sutton’s Liberal Democrat town hall bosses pushed through planning permission for the controversial £8million ‘Sutton Life Centre’ last week, following two planning committee meetings. Conservatives have raised severe concerns about the planning suitability of the ‘pet project’ as well as the cost, which has been labelled a “financial minefield”. Approval came at a second hearing after an initial attempt to ram it through late at night at the end of the first meeting.

At the meeting of the Development Control Committee, Conservative councillors questioned the suitability of building the Life Centre adjacent to Sutton Cemetery and Crematorium; the impact on traffic and congestion in the local area; the environmental impact of upwards of 1000 coaches coming to the area; the inconsistent number of visitors due to come to the Centre; and the inevitable noise and light pollution which will emanate from the site, causing disruption to local residents.

Committee member Councillor Tony Shields raised concerns about the climbing wall and the flood lighting which will accompany it. He also highlighted the controversy surrounding the disputed figures for visitor numbers to the Life Centre. A briefing sent to councillors in January stating that the Centre is expected to receive 40,000 visitors per year, a figure echoed in the 1997 feasibility study for the project. In contrast, the projected visitor numbers presented to the committee suggested only 21,000 visitors.

Scant notice was paid to the section of the report which explained that the Life Centre would be available to the public for private hire in the evenings and the problems in Alcorn Close, Barrington Road, Sherborne Road and Thompson Close which will follow.

Conservative Deputy Leader Tony Shields commented: “The Lib Dem-run Council has practically done nothing to consult local people. Additional and unacceptable pressures will be placed on local residents’ parking. Approximately 1000 coach loads of visitors from all round the South East certainly isn’t very green, is it?

“No one has asked for this controversial £8million pet project. The fact is even it’s major Lib Dem supporters have called this project ‘high risk’. They’re shoving Sutton into a financial minefield in a time of economic crisis. It’s now obvious that they haven’t got a clue how many people are going to visit the Centre. The project has been granted permission based on 21,000 visitors but they’re going to need 40,000 to keep it open – doubling the impact on the local area.”

Councillor Shields concluded: “Lib Dem town hall bosses must halt this scheme now, while they still can.”