Posted by: iangilbert | January 9, 2014

New year, new blog

Now I’ve got a website as a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate, there doesn’t seem a lot of point in maintaining two separate blogs.

Instead any ramblings I might want to post about life and politics will be blogged here: http://www.iangilbert.org.uk/blog

Happy New Year!

Posted by: iangilbert | November 11, 2013

MP is wrong on gambling

I am depressed by James Duddridge’s call to relax gaming laws for the benefit of casinos in the town.

I have no problem with the casinos that operate in Southend and am not adverse to responsible gambling. I enjoy gambling from time to time so I am no moral puritan on the issue.

However I do think that current gambling laws on balance need to be tightened rather than relaxed, and it worries me that our MP scrutinising the current Gambling Bill feels the opposite. The proliferation of betting shops on every High Street is a real problem, and Mr Duddridge would be better off using his time to address that.

It also makes me deeply uneasy when public bodies advocate gambling as a regeneration strategy. I know from the public reaction when the then Conservative Council Leader Anna Waite launched the doomed ‘super casino’ bid that large numbers of people in Southend share that distaste. Gambling is an activity that causes serious harm to a number of people. To rely on it betrays a worrying lack of confidence in other strategies to bring jobs and investment to Southend.

Posted by: iangilbert | August 14, 2013

Maldon Road

Dealing with the routine things can make a difference to how the area looks. Walking through Maldon Road today I spotted two problems. First some dumped rubbish just around the corner in Granger Road:

 

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Second a tree which is growing a long way into the road and also blocking the footpath.

 

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I’ve reported both problems, and will be monitoring to see that they are dealt with.

Posted by: iangilbert | July 31, 2013

A fifteen year anniversary

Fifteen years ago today the Minimum Wage act was passed by Tony Blair’s Labour government.

People who were in parliament at the time will remember all night sittings of the House of Commons as the Tories fought this and other legislation tooth and nail.

At the time I was starting a degree at Birmingham University, and I used to work over the summer in Telford where I grew up. There was very little in the way of office admin type work in Telford, so I used to end up in factories or warehouses, sometimes in the warehouse where my dad worked.

My first wage whilst at sixth form, at the age of sixteen was £2.50 an hour. Every year I went back to work in Telford for the summer I got paid more money, as a direct result of the minimum wage being introduced and it’s subsequent rises.

The extra money wasn’t critical for me, it was spending money for whilst at university. But there were plenty of men and women working on the same agency terms as me and trying to support families (the agencies didn’t use age differentials fortunately for me). People working on those terms would have seen their wages close to double over the space of three or four years.

I think because the battle for minimum wage was over so quickly following the Labour victory in 97 that we take it for granted. Perhaps by the standards of London and the South East the rate was low enough that it didn’t make a great difference for a great many people.

We forget that it was something Labour’s first manifesto that no Labour Prime Minister prior to Tony Blair could deliver, and a truly radical step at the time. (The Tories were bitterly opposed, and so actually were the Lib Dems at first) In many parts of the country it raised living standards for a good number of people, and the bogus claims on the right about it causing unemployment were proven to be false.

Today, fifteen years later, I see people claiming that there’s no difference between a Labour government and a Conservative government. From where I stand, that looks like a lazy conceit from people who never did a low-paid job in the 90s.

Posted by: iangilbert | July 5, 2013

2015

Last weekend I submitted an application to be Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Rochford & Southend East at the next general election, which will be held in 2015 if the coalition lasts till then.

It is with some trepidation that I put myself forward for this. I’m not naturally the most outgoing of people. I dislike public speaking. Whilst many people involved in politics, me included, would like to be an MP if the chance presented itself, I have not had a burning ambition to get myself onto the green benches any time soon.

So why am I going for it? Well, firstly there’s the fact that I have a very strong idea about what needs to be done and how we should campaign. It would be wrong therefore to sit back and moan at people who might have a different approach to me if I were not willing to have a go myself. Second, I do genuinely believe that my experience is useful. Eleven years living in the constituency, being involved in every single election, I’ve canvassed in every ward, leafleted in every ward and have knowledge of the issues in every ward.

When I first moved down to Southend, the constituency was ranked the 9th most winnable for the Labour Party in Essex. Today, two general elections later it is the fourth most winnable. There are a few people, one or two councillors, one or two behind the scenes people, who have kept the Labour party running through thick and thin. We have been lucky to have had exceptional parliamentary candidates in Kevin Bonavia and Fred Grindrod. Slogging away in a constituency that has been Conservative for a century, at a time when the Labour government in power is deeply unpopular, is not the most glamorous of activities.

Can we win Rochford & Southend East? I don’t know, that’s up to the people, and a large part of their decision will be based on the national campaign. But I am absolutely committed to continuing the progress that we have made, and making sure that people’s hard work over the last decade does not go to waste.

In Southend and Rochford we’re faced with a lack of vision and toothless parliamentary representation. I’m fortunate to have campaigned with two truly first class constituency MPs at different points in my life, Gisela Stuart in Edgbaston and Angela Smith in Basildon, which has given me an understanding of what a really good MP can accomplish for an area. Here I look around and I see parts of town neglected and ignored by the Conservatives in office. I see indifference to the loss of treasured services and facilities. I see a lack of understanding and compassion. Nationally, the Conservatives are practicing the most divisive politics we’ve ever seen in our country. They seek to win by setting North against South, public sector against private sector, those who are struggling to get by in a job against those who are struggling to get one. That’s not the sort of country I want to live in.

I believe in the power of politics to change society for the better. I’m under no illusions about how unfashionable that view is amongst the wider population. I still inwardly wince every time I hear the word ‘political’ used pejoratively. Trust in politicians of all parties is at an all-time low. When people think that the state, directed by politicians, cannot be trusted with anything, then the right win by default.

The premise of my campaign will be the need to build trust. I know how hard it will be. Simply asserting that you’re ‘working hard’ or ‘on your side’ on leaflets will not do the trick. Words have to be backed by action. I’m a great believer in that idea that if you do your best to help people resolve the small-scale problems they are faced with in their neighbourhoods, you will win their trust to take the bigger decisions. I want to run a campaign that makes a positive difference across this constituency.

Members will choose who is to be their candidate at the end of the month. If you would like to contact me about the parliamentary selection please email me at ian.gilbert@SouthendLabour.com – look forward to hearing from you.

Posted by: iangilbert | July 3, 2013

Common sense on pavement closure

At our last neighbourhood meeting people raised me with me the fact that the closure of the pavement in Chichester Road between Essex Street and Quantock (to facilitate the demolition of Queensway House) was very dangerous. It forces pedestrians from Quantock or those walking into town from the Short Street / Milton street area to cross in an unsafe position, close to the turning and where lines of sight are often obstructed by buses pulling in and out.

Indeed this location is so dangerous that we have a sign up at this location saying ‘Warning – pedestrian accident area’ – but there was nowhere else to cross because the pavement simply ended. (The able-bodied could theoretically have walked up the stairs to the bridge over to the Victorias, crossed the bridge and come back down inside the Victorias and out – but people with limited mobility or with babies etc wouldn’t manage it)

I wrote to the relevant Director last week and pointed this out. I’m delighted to say that today the pavement is back open with a covered walkway and it was nice to see it being used by a mum with a young child in a buggy. It’s not perfect because it’s very narrow – however I can’t see any way to avoid that given the need to close off space for the demolition works.

Pleased to see that common sense has prevailed. Maybe, just maybe, this may have prevented a serious accident.

Posted by: iangilbert | June 28, 2013

No agreement on spending cuts

My collgeaues are complaining I haven’t blogged for a while. Here’s a letter I’ve just written to the evening Echo in response to Nigel Holdcroft’s comments in today’s Echo.

Sir,

It’s always amusing when a politician implores opponents not to play politics, whilst simultaneously playing politics themselves, as Councilor Holdcroft has done (Echo Friday June 19th). Councillor Holdcroft is being completely disingenuous in saying that Labour has accepted the George Osborne’s cuts to local government in 2015/16. I’ve never known any political party spell out spending plans in detail two years before a general election, and we certainly have not done so.

What we have done is acknowledged the obvious, that thanks to the disastrous effect of the Conservatives’ policies on growth and investment, there will be less money in total to go around, and it would be foolish to make promises now about what we may or may not be able to do after two further years of Conservative failure. Any additional spending that we wish to make will have to be found from somewhere.

I would suggest a few decisions that could be made to put money back into frontline services without the need to borrow an extra penny. Stop government money going into ‘free schools’ where there isn’t the demand for extra school places. Axe the role of ‘Police and Crime Commissioner’ and all the bureaucracy that surrounds them. We could stop the pointless and damaging reorganisation of the NHS. We could reverse the Conservatives’ tax cut for millionaires, and ask bankers to pay a fairer share. All of these options and more are being actively considered and could be used to put money back into local services.

Councillor Holdcroft should also remember that this spending review is a result of failure. Two years ago George Osborne said “We have asked the British people for what is needed, we do not need to ask for more.” Exactly as predicted, George Osborne’s policies have sucked the growth out of the economy, so  he now comes back to ask for more cuts.

Labour councillors will play a constructive part in budget discussions, but we will not be co-opted to support the Conservatives’ vicious and self-defeating agenda.

Yours sincerely,
Ian Gilbert

Leader of the Labour Group, Southend Borough Council

Posted by: iangilbert | March 19, 2013

Back our children’s centres

In the council’s budget setting process, Labour and other opposition councillors put forward a budget amendment that would have meant no cuts to children’s centres this year, and massively reduced the need for savings in future years. The Conservatives rejected this plan, and instead committed the council to making savings that would total £224K a year within two years. In real terms, this equates to a cut of around 20% and comes on top of previous big cuts.

I think our children’s centres do vital work in the community. This is what I said in my budget speech:

My key concern is about children’s centres. The £55K saving in the budget is to be part of annual savings of £224K. This is a huge sum of money. It is 16% of the planned budget in cash terms. After inflationary pressures are taken into consideration this will probably amount to a real terms cut of around 20%.

Let us not forget that we have already seen a large sum of money taken out of the children’s centre budget with a management restructure and the downgrading of two smaller centres. I simply do not believe that you can cut a budget by a fifth in real terms without real services being affected.

 These centres are a lifeline to many families. They are not just about childcare, though affordable childcare is a key issue for our economy and our society. They are not just about advice and support, though these are vital. Advice and support can break a cycle of bad parenting that has continued through generations. They can offer practical support to get parents back to work. They can fulfil a vital health roles and contribute to better educational outcomes. Whenever I visit Summercourt in my ward or any of our children’s centres, you can feel a warm loving and supportive environment. I’m also struck by the fact that our staff are not only very committed to what they do, they are extremely knowledgeable about children’s health and educational well-being.

 It is an unpleasant fact that however much the government seek to manage the statistics, more children are growing up in poverty. We need more of these services not less.

Let’s not forget, going back to hard numbers – the cut to the children’s centres is about a 5th in real terms. If the administration believes our children’s centres are so inefficient that these savings can be made purely through efficiency gains, let them say so. And if the savings can be found, with our proposal at least some of them can be re-invested, because these services are going to be needed more not less in the coming year.

There is to be a consultation from Southend Council starting soon. Southend council consultations do not have the best reputation, and of course our children’s centres are spread through the borough, so I want to make sure that everyone knows what’s going on and how to respond, and that we can take action if any centre is threatened with closure.

That’s why I’ve set up a Facebook group here and will be looking to build up contacts over the coming months.

 

I’m feeling too tired to write much coherent about the budget debate last night, full council finished at about half-past midnight.

One thing that I find absolutely, staggeringly disgraceful is when the council is cutting vital services and raising council tax, certain Independent and Conservative councillors decided to vote for a specific amendment to the budget to take money from reserves and use it reduce parking charges on Thorpe Bay Broadway.

They wouldn’t vote for reversing cuts to children’s centres, or our resources to tackle domestic violence, but they would vote to cut parking charges in Thorpe Bay.

If all fifty-one of us came forward with budget amendments that just benefited our own wards to the detriment of others, the result would be utter chaos.

When I get the minutes I will post a full list of councillors who voted for this absurdity, because they should be utterly ashamed of themselves.

 

Posted by: iangilbert | March 1, 2013

Budget speech

My budget speech – give or take a few last minute additions:

We meet at a gloomy time for our economy and for public finances in particular. We are faced with a budget that raises tax and cuts services. The airshow, the delivery of black sacks. Our children’s centres. Envirnomental Health. Customer Services. The pier. Social Services. Support for the disabled. Parks maintainence. Toilet cleaning. Resources to tackle domestic violence. Resources to tackle drug and alcohol addiction. The administration has already forced through the imposition of council tax on the unemployed and the disabled for the first time. And with the current news, the cut in the food safety budget looks a little disturbing.

It is a sign of the times that we can reduce the size of our planning team owing to lack of work for them to do. We lost over a hundred businesses more than were created in Southend last year.

7.4% of 16-24 year olds are out of work and claiming benefits, as of last month. That’s not quite the worst figure in Essex but it’s close. In fact madam mayor I can only find six districts in the whole of the South and the whole of the East of the country that have worse figures.

Madam Mayor, it a sobering statistic that a young person is more likely to be on the dole in Southend than they are in Liverpool or Salford, or Yorkshire. I hope members opposite realise that in the light of such statistics members of my group will react with justified anger to anything that smacks of complacency or bragging from the administration.

Madam mayor, against this backdrop even the prospect of a Wembley final may not lift members’ spirits that much. Actually, we’d probably better not touch the subject of football stadiums.

I am well aware that we are in the midst of huge spending cuts set by Whitehall, that massively reduce our freedom to act. How then do we judge this budget and the performance of the administration at this moment?

Well these are tough times, and I don’t want to be unfair to the Leader. It certainly wouldn’t be fair to compare his performance to what we might like to do in a more benign climate. I thought I’d pick a somewhat easier benchmark, and I’d compare their performance to what their own government says they should be doing.

I know that Eric Pickles gets invited down by local Conservatives to be applauded at black tie dinners. I know that their loyal to their MPs and their government’s programme, so surely they won’t object to being judged by their yardstick.

So what does Eric Pickles and the coalition government say that we should have done? Well, he says that “All councils have a moral duty to freeze council tax,” yes, he said that in the commons when he announced the funding settlement – a moral duty to freeze council tax. Well that’s not a good start is it? We may be arguing about 0.2% later, but nobody here thinks that council tax can be frozen this year.

What does Eric Pickles think of making the poor and disabled pay a share of council tax? Well commenting on Cornwall’s plans which are rather similar to the ones that the leader forced though he said That struck me as being obscene.” Councils could instead focus on helping people find work, he said. “I thought it was a singularly unambitious scheme, just taxing people who are in receipt of council tax benefit rather than helping them get into work, dealing with mistakes and fraud.”

Perhaps Councillor Holdcroft could tell us in his summing up how it feels to see his policies be labelled obscene by his own government.
Eric Pickles says that councils should share services. “By sharing back-office services, they’ll be able to protect the front line – and even improve the choice and services that’s on offer to local residents.” He says. So how have we done? Well there are friendly Conservative held councils all around fully behind Eric Pickles surely? Well I know there have been a few things, but certainly no really big savings have been achieved by joint working, or if they have, they’ve not been enough.
Eric Pickles say we should share senior staff. Only one of our management team is shared at the moment I believe.

I’ll avoid dwelling on Eric Pickles’ suggestion that we should doing without a chief executive altogether, tempted as I am to ask the Town Clerk’s advice on this one.

I did consider going through the secretary of state’s fifty proposals but we’d probably all lose the will to live. We do have a coffee shop in at least one library. I suppose I might give the administration a tick for that.

No Madam Mayor, it seems that the administration has failed pretty much all of Eric Pickles’ tests for saving money, safeguarding services and not increasing tax. This budget contains many cuts to front line services and we’re not freezing council tax. And we’re supposed to be the council of year.

Madam mayor, this may seem like political knockabout, but I think there is an extremely serious issue here. It seems that Conservatives in Westminster are inhabiting a completely different world to the Conservatives in local government, and this has major consequences for us here today. To be blunt at least one side must be living in cloud cuckoo land, and whilst I certainly know that it’s possible to disagree with what your government is doing nationally, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to ask Councillor Holdcroft to explain this disconnect.

So that’s the context, let’s turn to what is before us in this budget.

I’ll start with our airshow. Members of my group have been saying for a number of years that the airshow cannot be a priority for public money in these austere times. This does not mean we agree with the way the administration has handled the issue.

When we have previously questioned the level of public subsidy given to the airshow, Councillors sitting opposite have said that it is absolutely crucial to the prestige of the town and vital to our economy. Conservative Councillors have stood up and said that the airshow literally brings in millions to the town and we can’t put that at risk. To change their position almost overnight on publication of this budget does little for the credibility of the administration or the council.

If when passing the last budget, Conservatives had been clear that would be the last airshow delivered in that way with that amount of public money, we would have given an opportunity for others to step in, or for some alternative to be found. It may have been a long shot, but it would have been a more honest and practical approach than this last minute knifing.

I had the privilege of chairing an economic & environmental project team talking to businesses in town. One medium sized company based just over the road told me that they have never ever been approached by the council with a view to contributing to the airshow.

As an aside, a very large cost pressure for the airshow – more than the cost of the planes I believe – is the charge levied by Essex Police for policing the event. I’d be interested to know whether the Conservative leader of the council has sought to negotiate with the Conservative Police & Crime Commissioner about this.

Madam Mayor I will listen to any proposal that would save the airshow in some form that would not further sacrifice public services in the town, but at this late hour I cannot honestly see how this could be delivered.

Whatever the Leader of the Council might say, the opposition does not exercise the same day to day influence on the running of council and the oversight of officers drawing up the budget in the way that he and his Executive Councillors can. It is simply ridiculous to assume that we could fundamentally re-write the budget.

Nevertheless, opposition groups have worked constructively to put forward proposals which significantly improve the budget as presented to us by the administration.

My key concern is about children’s centres. The £55thousand saving in the budget is to be part of annual savings of £224thousand. This is a huge sum of money. It is 16% of the planned budget in cash terms. After inflationary pressures are taken into consideration this will probably amount to a real terms cut of around 20%.

Let us not forget that we have already seen a large sum of money taken out of the children’s centre budget with a management restructure and the downgrading of two smaller centres. I simply do not believe that you can cut a budget by a fifth in real terms without real services being affected.

These centres are a lifeline to many families. They are not just about childcare, though affordable childcare is a key issue for our economy and our society. They are not just about advice and support, though these are vital. Advice and support can break a cycle of bad parenting that has continued through generations. They can offer practical support to get parents back to work. They can fulfil a vital health roles and contribute to better educational outcomes. Whenever I visit Summercourt in my ward or any of our children’s centres, you can feel a warm loving and supportive environment. I’m also struck by the fact that our staff are not only very committed to what they do, they are extremely knowledgeable about children’s health and educational well-being.

It is an unpleasant fact that however much the government seek to manage the statistics more children are growing up in poverty. We need more of these services not less.

Let’s not forget, going back to hard numbers – the cut to the children’s centres is about a 5th in real terms. If the administration believes our children’s centres are so inefficient that these savings can be made purely through efficiency gains, let them say so. And if the savings can be found, with our proposal at least some of them can be re-invested, because these services are going to be needed more not less in the coming year.

Turning to other specific items in our budget proposal, we believe that it is a travesty that the administration is proposing to reduce the resources available for tackling domestic violence. This is huge problem that blights lives and which has been insufficiently resourced for a long time. It seems that whenever there is a serious incident, and some failings on behalf of the authorities, a lack of communication between agencies always seems to be a major factor. Yet we are cutting the post who’s job it is to ensure that communication happens.

In this as with many staff reductions the administration’s argument is completely illogical. On the one hand they say they are the Council of the Year, supremely efficient. On the other hand they try to tell us that there are posts that we can get rid of and we’ll hardly notice them going. I don’t believe we have staff sitting around drinking coffee all day who contribute nothing to the town, and I believe that each and every post reduction will reduce the service we provide. I only wish we could present a proposal that would safeguard more of their jobs.

I fully understand the logic of holding posts vacant so as to avoid redundancy wherever possible, but this just means we experience the loss of service before we’ve discussed it here in council. I defy anyone to say that they haven’t noticed services become more stretched, taking longer

Other items of savings we propose are smaller, but I believe these small items will have an effect in promoting and maintaining tourism and the economic health of the town more widely, as Councillor Longley has said.

This list of measures are a compromise, the are not what me, or Councillor Longley or Councillor Terry would have written down by ourselves, but I have always thought it strange that in politics people never seem to be able to admit the value of an honourable compromise. The overall affect is a better budget providing a better services than the one we were originally presented with.

These measures have to be paid for. I am pleased that we have been able to put forward a budget proposal that includes a modest draw-down on reserves. This is the worst possible time to cut services. Were I planning a budget from scratch I would have proposed a larger managed reduction. We have to keep reserves, but we are towards top end of what our chief finance officer believes is reasonable and keeping any services going when people need them most is of value in and of itself.

The singling out of the behavioural support service is not, I must stress in any way because we do not value the work done or do not appreciate the importance of the services. But it something which I believed there was wide agreement that it should not be funded by the council indefinitely when money for it has been diverted to schools, therefore it was the most appropriate item to replace with money from reserves. In schools policy like everything else, this government shows contempt for the role of local government, it is clear that this government does not want us involved in schooling. As in anything else our room to oppose the will of central government is limited.

Nobody wants to increase council tax if there were other ways to pay for vital services. The additional cost to the average tax-payer of our measure is 4 or 5 pence. I would remind the Conservatives that when they voted to make the disabled and unemployed pay council tax for the first time, resulting in bills of an extra 4 or 5 pounds a week the portfolio holder pointed out it was equivalent to an extra couple of pints or packet of fags. I wonder if I’ll hear arguments today as to why forcing the disabled to pay 4 or 5 pounds a week is fine but 4 or 5 pence for everybody is dreadful.

I considered coming up with a budget proposal that addressed our group’s two biggest objections, children’s centres and the domestic violence coordinator, without any council tax increase at all beyond what was planned by the administration. The £75thousand from reserves and a few other savings we were considering would have done it. It would have made good headlines in the short term, but I think that would have been less than honest, because only with the extra £120,000 in the base budget can we make a credible case for protecting these things from cuts not just this year but in future years as well.

Madam Mayor, let me return to the theme of public services in general. They are things which tie us together. Councillor Terry is absolutely right to lambast the government’s attitude to public services, their actions exhibit a mixture of contempt and neglect for local government.

The proposals we make today will not change the world, or even the town in a vast way. They will however be a small marker placed down that we care about public services and will fight to keep them.

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