Good News / Bad News

Checking the recent activity on here, I noticed that there had been a few people clicking on the “Join Labour” ad (on the left hand side). Cool, I thought, someone has decided to join the party, and maybe I’ve helped to encourage them.

Turns out, though, that the link was out of date, and so whoever it was may have got a 404 screen, or if they were lucky, a relatively unhelpful list of possible pages.

I’ve fixed it now, so, should anyone be wanting to use it to join the Labour Party, they should be alright. Hope I haven’t lost us a member

Why closing fire stations may not be a great idea

Warwickshire County Council, who run the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS), are currently considering proposals to close down 7 of the 19 stations across the county. This will remove many of the retained crews and concentrate resources on the full-time crews based in the larger towns. There are quite a few concerns that this will lead to gaps in coverage.

Last week, as today’s Advertiser reports, the Fire Service were stretched very thin due to three incidents occurring at around the same time on Thursday afternoon – a community center in Leamington caught fire and a crew from Rugby went to help deal with it. Then a nasty road accident at Butlers Leap in Rugby led to people being trapped in two cars requiring the other Rugby crew and that of Brinklow. Shortly afterwards, the Brinklow appliance was pulled from that to deal with a fire on Newbold Road that ended up being attended by crews from six stations.

Brinklow is one of the places that could lose their station. As it’s near to Rugby, that will have a knock-on effect to the town, as the crews based here will have to cover a larger area and support from elsewhere will have further to travel. WCC and the Fire Service management really need to explain how last Thursday’s events would have been covered under their proposed changes.

Andy King is already campaigning on this, opposing the closure of the stations and encouraging people to have their say about it.

If you want to contact Warwickshire FRS about this issue, the details are below:

In writing to

Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service Improvement Plan Consultation
Service Headquarters
Warwick Street
Leamington Spa
CV32 5LH

Or by e-mail to fireandrescue@warwickshire.gov.uk

Hospital Parking – for free?

I had been meaning to post something about Hospital parking charges. Locally, Andy King has an ongoing campaign on the issue, and a couple of weeks ago I saw Mike Ion’s post calling for a change at a national level. However, my laziness meant that it’s only now that Andy Burnham has announced a rethink by the government that I’ve gotten around to it.

What Burnham has announced will only really affect inpatients and their visitors – the idea is that for the duration of their stay, an inpatient will get the means for family or friends to get free parking. Outpatients (some of whom do need to visit hospital very frequently) won’t benefit. Still, it is a step in the right direction.

The cost should not affect hospital or other health spending, however (not a problem at the moment, as the NHS is running at a surplus of about 10 times the amount made from parking charges).

I would prefer it if parking could be free for all patients and those who visit them regularly. However, there are pitfalls involved in that approach, especially in locations near to town centres where parking is at a premium – it should be ensured that commuters and shoppers don’t take up all the free spaces. I’m sure there are ways to do it – after all, you can get free parking at Asda if you shop there, simply by getting a ticket validated.

Sun ‘goes’ Tory

Today, the Sun announced (having trailed their front page by sending out emails to loads of leading bloggers – but where was mine, eh?) that they will be backing the Conservatives in the next General Election.

This is not a huge surprise. They have been in a ‘neutral’ position for some time, and even when they did back Labour it was always from the basis that the Tories were rubbish and that New Labour were adopting policies they could get behind. There’s a hint that they only back the party likely to win anyway, so as to curry favour for Mr Murdoch when it comes to media regulation. There’s a fair amount of following readers rather than leading them as well.

I’m not going to go over the reactions, as they are not very much use – either dismissive, as if a paper read by millions can be ignored, or too angry, as if Labour has been betrayed by an old friend. What interesting is the timing…

During the Labour Conference, on the day after the PM’s speech, is clearly a time to give some kind of verdict on the Government. Fair enough. However, the Tories haven’t had their conference yet. What if they manage (wishful thinking perhaps) mess it up? What if they drop a right clanger? Surely it would have been better to have a two-stage strategy: visibly abandon Labour today but put the Tories on notice that they are being watched, and then next week, after ‘careful consideration’ of the performance of the Conservatives, give them a resounding endorsement.

Not only would that allow the Sun a way to avoid a hasty decision, so that they could instead simply call for ‘ABL’ (anyone but Labour), but it would give them two opportunities to make a big splash – after all, they are in the business of selling papers.

You came and you gave without taking…

Ahem.

Peter ‘Mandy’ Mandelson apparently wowed the Labour Conference today. I’ve never been a great fan of the guy, going back to the moustached days when he was running election campaigns, through my days as a student when he came to speak to us, to his career in the early Blair governments, through to his return in the last year or so.

Still, the extension of the car-scrappage scheme is good – it’s cost neutral and it is keeping the car industry in the UK away from total disaster, so it should be a no-brainer. Of course the Tories would still oppose it, because that’s their way at the moment (and reinforces the ‘no-brainer’ aspect).

And I am also glad to see some fighting spirit at last. The leadership has looked too resigned over the past few months, to scared to come out battling and too easily caught up in pointless weasel words. A bit of fire in the belly is good. Of course, it’s easy to make a stirring speech to Conference. Well, I mean that it’s easier than it is to stir up the British public in the run up to an election – a public that is being trained by the media to despise you and to discount anything you say while they fluff up anything that the opposition says*.

I agree that the election is not a foregone conclusion – after all, anything can happen in the next 8 months – but it looks very bad for Labour at the moment. If anything is likely to have any major effect, I would say it would have to be some visible sign of recovery in the economy combined with some spectacular show of idiocy from Cameron and/or Osborne. But absent that, the only way is to keep pressing the case for a continued Labour government.

And why should Labour remain in power? Well, I happen to think that they have handled the economic crisis very well. The investment that has been made – particularly the co-ordination with international partners – has at least stopped the financial system from total collapse following the downfall of Lehman Bros, and now is definitely the time to run an increased deficit in order to stimulate the economy. Cuts too early could stall any recovery, and national economic growth will have a far greater positive outcome on revenue than taking the knife to budgets will.

Yes, there will need to be areas where budgets are cut – or at least frozen. That’s relative to current spending, which is high because of the recession, not relative to normal levels. The timing of such moves should be carefully considered, with a weather eye on the wider impact. Cuts in budgets will often mean redundancies, which means more people looking for jobs. Not really a good idea when unemployment is already high, surely?

Brown and Darling may not be exciting characters, but I do have trust in how they are dealing with the economy. I don’t get any measure of comfort from the idea of Osborne or Cameron being in the same positions. These are the guys who had three different policies on Northern Rock in as many weeks, who can’t tell the difference between an income tax hike and increased projected revenue caused by GDP growth, and who seem to think that it’s helpful to continually give the impression that the country is almost bankrupt (which it is by no means – the interest payments on our current level of debt at lower than they were in the 1980s).

* and yes, I am aware of the parallels with 1996-7, when Blair could promise to slaughter the first born and get a glowing write-up, while Major could have single-handedly cured cancer and still have been reviled as a bumbling grey fool.

Not much changes

I went to my first local Labour Party meeting last night. After twelve years of them in Crawley, it’s eerie how familiar it was – the rambling speeches on irrelevant topics, the wandering points of order, the roundabout debates on procedure, and then eventually (gah!) a decision is made.

If you’ve not been to a political party’s meeting, then you’d get a flavour from the People’s Front of Judea scenes in The Life of Brian. Only they seem to get more done.

But still, you get there in the end, and the people are friendly and welcomed me in. We did actually discuss issues, such as parking at St Cross and other nearby hospitals and the idea of a crematorium for the town.

I also met Andy King, who was MP between 1997 and 2005, and is campaigning to take the seat in the next election (whenever it will be). He came across as a genuine bloke, and I can see why he’s got a good local reputation.

Building for the future?

The government has today announced a £925M boost for house building. What it actually boils down to is:

  • £419M in repayable loans or equity financing
  • £130M for low-cost home ownership
  • £209M for social rented housing
  • £167M in non-repayable grants

This is to be spread over 270 projects, resulting in up to 22,400 new houses. However, it appears that most are already planned developments that have stalled. The programme is called ‘Kickstart’, and this is just the first phase.

I have to say that I am in favour of support of housing at the current time. Yes, market demand is down and prices are low compared to recent years, but the fact remains that we have a general housing shortage in the UK, which is getting acute in some areas.

The fixation with home-ownership has meant that the rented sector has been ignored. Private renting has been dominated by the buy-to-let market, which is under serious pressure as the equity behind the mortgages has been squeezed, and while interest rates are lower, the chances of tenants needing to move has increased the risks to landlords. I’ve always felt that tenants get a raw deal in this area anyway, with rapacious agents charging 10-15% for ‘management fees’ and doing little, while also charging for every thing they do on top (inventory checks, credit checks, drawing up a contract, etc etc), but of course they don’t charge ‘key money’ because that’s illegal.

Public rented housing has declined markedly over the past 30 years. As successive governments have promoted the right to buy, they have also forced councils to give away large discounts, and for a long time, also made sure that councils did not have the ability to replace stock. The Housing Associations – now called ‘Registered Social Landlords’ (RSLs) have been pushed into try and fill the gap, but they are largely undercapitalised and rely in large part on grants and favourable land deals (from councils in many cases) to build a modest number of properties each year.

That’s why, despite a slump in prices, the average house is worth about 6-8 times the average salary (the vagueness is because the definition of ‘average’ depends on which survey you look at, and house prices are not easy to accurately measure at times of low market activity). Most mortgages are limited to about 3-4 times annual salary – for good reason – and so you can see that people need to have a fair amount saved or in equity to be able to buy at present. This suggests (based on simple market theory) that demand is still high, and comparisons over history suggest that is the case.

Now, were I a free-market capitalist, right now I’d be suggesting that the market will correct this situation, and as if by magic, all will be well. Problem is that this doesn’t appear to have been the case over the past few decades of increasing private involvement in housing – if anything, the recent slump demonstrates that while the private sector can boost prices for owners and then create a self-destructive bubble, it cannot do much for people at the lower end of the market who get priced out of buying and get fleeced when renting.

So, instead, I believe that it is right for the government to stimulate the housing market by putting money (whether grants or loans) in to ensure that homes are available to buy or rent more easily, and hopefully at more reasonable prices. That they should have been doing this over the past 12 years, instead of simply producing targets for development that don’t go very far, is by-the-by. I can’t change the past, and neither can the government. That the likely next government will do less for housing is to me almost a given (the Tories seem to have a visceral hatred of social housing, where with New Labour it was just something that they didn’t understand, not having come from the background that many previous Labour politicians did). So we might as well welcome what we get when we can get it.

However, 22,400 houses is not going to solve the real problems we face. Check any local council that has a housing register. I believe many will have over 1,000 people on waiting lists, with a fair number of those homeless. There are far more people in what’s called the ‘hidden homeless’ – people who are living with parents or others because they can’t afford to move out into their own place, even though they really want to, and can’t qualify for assistance because they are working and have a ‘low housing need’. In the 1950s and 1960s, the UK were building about 150,000 houses a year – and that was just the social housing. Now the target is 150,000 in the next decade.

While there are people who are going to be against more housing, especially when it is planned for near where they live (especially social housing, because we can’t have the proles living near ‘nice’ people, can we?), the reality is that if we don’t built more than we are – more than we are even planning to – and if much of that new capacity is not for affordable renting (which tends to mean council or RSL), then we are going to be storing up problems for the future.

Rugby BC Full Council 21 July 2009

Naff all on the telly this evening, so off to the Town Hall to see what they’re up to…

I had a little chat with the other person in the public gallery, who wasn’t happy that there were bits of the meeting that would be dealt with in private (the decisions relating to the Ken Marriott Leisure Centre – whether to extend the management contract with DC Leisure, and a business case for repair/refurbishment/rebuild). She was firm that all debates should be held in public. Of course the results will be made public if the council decide to do anything, and there are reasons why contractual information is not released until a firm decision is made.

The first bit of business was a presentation to Cllr Ron Ravenhall. It wasn’t immediately clear what it was, but I think he was being made a Freeman of the Borough. It was not explained why (length of service? a particular contribution?), and when he gave his speech it was all about how nice the actual vellum scroll was. Bizarre.

I’m not really much for these things, and I get that from my dad. When he was a councillor he voted against introducing such things for Crawley Borough, and when I was on, I didn’t support ‘long service awards’. Basically, we should all be ‘Freemen and Freewomen of the Borough’, and councillors should do the job for reasons other than a plaudit or an automatic gong just for hanging around for x years.

There was a written question, from Cllr O’Rourke (Labour), asking for information about how many contracts there were with Service Level Agreements (SLAs), and how often they were measured.

The response was that there were lots of them, and so it would take a lot of effort to answer the question. But yeah, basically there are lots and they are reviewed based on the contract and before any extension or renewal.

This is not actually very encouraging. I’m sure that the council does have a lot of contracts with suppliers and partners, in which there are targets set and which the Council. But even if there are too many to describe verbally, surely somehow the Council should know what they are? Shouldn’t they? And if not, rather than whine about how it would be a lot of effort, they should at least have a plan to gather the information over time?

Nahhh. I mean, it’s only taxpayers’ money.

We also had the Leader’s annual Speech to the Council, on ‘Vision 2026’. Much of it was about the aspirations for a nicer town (and surrounding area) and a more responsive council. There were several areas covered as priorities:

  • Access to the Council: last year they had planned to have a ‘One Stop Shop’ set up in new premises. However, as it was to be funded by selling property (the ‘Lawn’ and the ‘Retreat’ ?), the slump has made the land unsaleable., so it couldn’t happen. There has been work to improve contact in the Town Hall, but the main concern has been problems with answering the phones.
  • Housing: As mentioned before, the Housing Service is undergoing a programme of improvement. A whole host of new policies and strategies have been set up. It’s too early to say whether they will work, although the latest inspection from the Audit Commission said that the prospects for improvement were good.I was pleasantly surprised to see that 100 units of Affordable Social Housing had been built in the past year (exceeding a target of 82).
  • In Leisure, there was mention of the Art Centre & Museum getting awards, new projects for Play equipment funded from the National Lottery, and the Viaduct cycleway project
  • The Environment: The new recycling collection scheme started in April, and appears to be a success (I have no complaints about it, either). There is a target to enforce 150 ‘environmental crimes’ over the next year – mainly I suppose fly-tipping, which seems to be an issue in the rural areas of the Borough
  • Value For Money: A moan about the government grants (which council doesn’t), and also of course the problem of £3 million stuck in an Icelandic Bank (euphemistically described as ‘a loss of investment income’ presents a challenge to this. A 2.4% rise in Council Tax was achieved partly through making redundancies, but we a promised that services will not suffer.

Cllr Ravenhall was the first to respond. He said the idea of an overreaching speech about all of the council’s activities was a good idea and should happen every year (it happened last year, but apparently maybe he didn’t notice it). He also described it as ‘spin-less’. Hmm. I’m not sure that Cllr Ravenhall was listening to this year’s speech properly either….

His Lib Dem Colleague, Cllr Sandison, raised questions about how to diversify the economy away from just ‘sheds for logistics’. He also warned that development could be fueled by builder’s greed rather than local needs, and that the market town ‘feel’ could be threatened if Rugby ends up with too many national retail chains in the town centre.

Labour councillors Ish Mistry and Jim Shera both wanted to see more detail, with targets and for next year’s speech to include more about what had been achieved against target. Cllr Shera also mentioned disappearing allotments, the problems of road congestion on the air quality, and asked how many people were on the Housing Register.

There wasn’t much more debate after that, as most items went through on the nod, and of course the two of us in the public gallery had to leave before the items on the Leisure Centre came up.

Inflexibility, or outright arm-twisting?

From the Rugby Observer report of 1 July:

But Coun Maggie O’Rourke, who spoke at Monday’s meeting said while she was in favour of the development, she was unhappy at the lack of changes to address the concerns…

…”I just feel there was very little in the way of flexibility in the discussion and the issues people are concerned about are still there”

That’s a very diplomatic way of putting it. It seemed more to me that there was a definite effort to quell debate and dissent. Firstly through heckling speakers (mainly, it seemed, the women). Secondly through threats of dire consequences should the plans not be approved. Thirdly through suggesting that just because councillors had seen the original plans before (which had been changed for the new application), somehow objections were not really allowed to be heard. Seeing as many of the objections came not direct from councillors, but from the public, through their representatives, this seems a little haughty.

What I still don’t understand is how at least two Conservative councillors voted to refuse in committee, but voted in favour at Full Council. Was there any pressure brought to bear from their senior colleagues?

Cattle Market Application Approved

Not knowing the history behind it all, and not having a particular view beforehand (I can see that the site is ripe for development, but I didn’t know what was planned and it’s obvious that there are traffic and parking problems nearby), it was a revelation to see what was really going on with this application.

The Tories were angry that the Planning Committee had referred this to the Full Council at all, accusing them of being mischievous and politically motivated. It went over their heads when it was pointed out that at least two Conservative councillors on the committee must have supported referral. The Tories – in particular the cabinet members – pressed their view that it was a partisan action to the point that Cllr David Wright had to be made to withdraw his remark towards Labour member Maggie O’Rourke “Is she worried about her seat?”, which was a particularly low blow.

The other points made by the majority group were that there was the risk that the developer might walk away, and so the site remain undeveloped. There are two flaws with this line – firstly that the developer would most likely appeal, and that if not or alongside would nogotiate change; secondly that it’s highly unlikely that the development would start in a hurry anyway, given the current economic circumstances.

A few Labour councillors spoke against the application – Cllr O’Rourke outlined a series of reasons, presumably summing up the views of a range of her group’s members (and was rudely interrupted by Tory braying), and Cllr Whinstance said he would grudgingly vote in favour because the original outline permission had been granted, even though he opposed it.

The Lib Dems who spoke appeared to be critical, but most ended up voting in favour. In the end, they said that it was not about mischief, but about making a major decision carefully and allowing people (councillors and members of the public) a say. When councillor Noreen New of the Lib Dems was speaking, she was twice interrupted by Tories  again braying and laughing.

The main objections / criticisms were: parking problems nearby, traffic congestion (particularly along Murray Road/Mill Road), too big a retail space (a new Tesco, not far from two existing convenience stores on Murray Road), not enought green space, no GP surgery as ‘promised’ a few years ago, and too modern a look considering that most properties on Murray Road and Craven Road are Victorian or Edwardian.

In the end, the vote was 35 in favour (27 Tories, which I think is all of them, so whoever voted to defer at Planning switched their vote, but according to the Tories there was ‘no whip’; 6 Lib Dems; 2 Labour). As there was not much point, the remaining councillors – mainly Labour, declined to vote against.

Now that I’ve seen more detail of the plans, I have to say I’m generally in favour of the development (and not too worried about a hotel and Tesco), but I can definitely see why there are worries at a local level.

It seemed to me that the Tories were prepared to railroad this through, a development that the Council had itself an interest in along with a single developer, and they used a few scare tactics to do so, including playing the traveller card “if the site is left empty and people occupy it, we’ll know who to blame”, the partisan card (which backfired as far as I can see, as it was only the Tories who appeared to have a solid position and they kept mentioning the politics rather than the planning aspects), and the spurious idea that it should not have come to Full Council at all (yes, it’s unusual, but actually, it does happen from time to time and it is perfectly valid for large scale and contentious developments).

The new plans are not quite the same as those in the outline permission that was granted in November 2008 (the one that was shown to the public at that time). I can’t say wether the differences were material enough to justify a refusal, but they certainly needed to be debated.

Whether or not the debate was up to the standard required, I don’t know. Certainly I spotted a couple of dodgy statements from those determined to see the application succeed. I think I’ll need to keep an eye on these Tories. They seem just a little bit smug and prone to patronising their opponents (and the public too).