Posted by: iangilbert | February 12, 2013

Work un-fair

I see that the courts have ruled that the government’s work-fare programme is illegal. I think this is excellent news, but let’s just head off a few right-wing myths.

I am not against work-fare because I think people should have the option of remaining on benefits indefinitely when there is work available. I don’t think that, the Labour leadership do not think that and the vast majority of people in the Labour Party do not think that.

What I do think as an absolute principle is that work should pay. To force the unemployed to work in shops like Poundland unpaid is nothing more than a government subsidy to big business. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that it helps people’s chances of finding proper employment, quite the reverse in fact.

I also think that far and away the biggest reason that people don’t work is the simple fact that there aren’t enough jobs available. Perhaps Tories like James Duddridge who seem to think that unemployment is a moral failing on the part of the individual (there is no other explanation for their policies) should explain why he thinks that people in his constituency are more lazy than those nearby.

The unemployment problem in Southend is significant. But checking and commenting the unemployment figures is a staple of economists and politicians. I believe an even bigger problem in Southend is underemployment, which passes with little attention from policy-makers. It’s where people are able to find a few hours work here and there, maybe on zero hours contracts, but can’t actually find enough work to earn enough to live. Again the Tories think that tinkering with the incentives in the benefits system can change this. Unfortunately we’re about to see this detached and remote Westminster thinking run up against cold hard economic reality.

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Posted by: iangilbert | February 12, 2013

Rattled Tories

I’m glad to see that the Conservatives are so rattled by my colleague Julian’s efforts in Milton. Conservative Leader Nigel Holdcroft doesn’t usually stoop to misrepresentation but these blog posts clearly show that he has deliberately taken Julian’s general comments in favour of organised cruises out of context and twisted them to start a synthetic argument.

No doubt with a Conservative Mayor wanting to plonk one of the world’s biggest airports outside their front windows and a Conservative council ignoring their wishes on the cliffs museum, the normally strongly Conservative areas of Milton along the cliffs will be wondering just why on earth they should reward the Conservatives with their vote. I’m sure Nigel and Tony will be calculating that a nice little row about cruisers could be just the distraction they need.

Who controls the council could well be determined by who wins Milton. I’m not sure this rather transparent tactic will be enough to save Nigel’s administration.

Posted by: iangilbert | January 30, 2013

Surreal Scrutiny

Last night saw a particularly lively meeting of the Community Services & Culture Scrutiny Committee.

The high point, or rather low point, was when Councillor Velmurugan labeled Echo readers complaining about the cost of senior management as scroungers. Interestingly Conservative leader Nigel Holdcroft who had the task of responding to Councillor Velmurugan’s point did not pull him up on his offensive choice of language. But then we all know that Councillor Velmurugan’s vote is crucial in propping up the Conservative administration.

Councillor Velmurugan went on to call for the council to sack housing inspectors and keep senior managers. I wonder how many people in Westborough share this priority.

My colleague Judy McMahon raised a number of good points with the pre-scrutiny item on homelessness, and whether we should compel homeless people to take offers of housing in the private sector rather than offering them social housing. Homeless people are by definition vulnerable, and there’s a heck of a lot that can go wrong in the private sector. The risk is that if something goes wrong the council may not be required to find alternative accommodation and the homeless person will be destitute and forgotten.

Evidently a detailed discussion of homelessness bored other members of the committee, particularly on the Conservative side of the table, because when the chair brought the matter to a conclusion they couldn’t wait to shout ‘agreed’. Judy pointed out the report gave three options and nobody has indicated which one they had actually agreed to. That’s right, Conservative members of the committee were so keen to get through this item which was no doubt distasteful to them that they didn’t even know what they were agreeing to.

The evening got even stranger when Councillor Ron Woodley, the ‘conservatively minded independent’ from Thorpe Bay, suggested that the entire private sector rented sector should be nationalised. I may have been tempted to give him a Labour Party membership form, but as my colleague David Norman pointed out, the Labour manifesto of 1919 called for such a nationalisation but we’d decided it was impractical by 1945. Some of my colleagues around the country have called for statutory rent controls however, so maybe we are moving to the same point of view! Councillor Velmurugan countered that private landlords should be able to make money and perhaps we should build social housing on Thorpe Bay golf course.

Posted by: iangilbert | January 22, 2013

Quick response to Nigel Holdcroft

Councillor Holdcroft bemoans the fact that parties are picking younger candidates for parliamentary seats, and wryly notes that “this apparent trend in selection approach has not as yet improved the public view as to the merit of our elected representatives.”

http://nigel-holdcroft.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/the-age-of-inexperience.html

Councillor Holdcroft is not alone in finding the quality of our elected representatives to be lacking of course.

However, it’s very hard to take seriously an enthusiastic supporter of David Amess when complaining about the reputation of Members of Parliament…

Posted by: iangilbert | October 31, 2012

Another Week

Last week wasn’t quite as busy as the previous one, but there’s still a lot going on. Hopefully I’m helping to give a sense of the sorts of things that I’m working on.

On Monday I left work a little early to attend a meeting with the council’s Chief Executive. One of the advantages of being a Group Leader is you get time most months to speak one-to-one the person who is in overall charge of the council’s operations on a day-to-day basis. After meeting the Chief Exec I went to the budget briefing for corporate support services, which is the directorate which does financial management, IT services, legal services, customer services and the like.

Tuesday was another packed evening. A meeting of the group leaders was cancelled as one group leader was left stranded by the foggy conditions, instead I was able to go to the shadow support services portfolio briefing. There were a number of controversial issues including the council tax benefit reform (cut), changes to council tax exemptions and whether or not to webcast council meetings. Without divulging any of our confidential discussions, I can say that I remain a strong supporter of allowing people to see what goes on in council, and having councillors speak ‘on the record’ so that the public can hold us to account.

Following that there was a special meeting of Economic & Environmental Scrutiny. Both items on the agenda were confidential as they involve items that could possibly be commercially sensitive. One was in relation to the future of Queensway house and was regarding sites to be developed by the Limited Liability Partnership (LLP) which the council has formed to with private sector partners to develop assets in the town. Unfortunately attending that meant that I missed the Victoria Ward Neighbourhood meeting, however my colleagues David and Margaret were there and able to raise some ward issues on my behalf.

Following the conclusion of that meeting, I went to Labour Party meeting at 268 Sutton Road. It was packed and there were a number of new faces which is always great to see. Membership of the local party seems to have got a bit of a bounce from our really successful conference season.

Wednesday evening was another budget discussion. Thursday was a quieter day, just one short meeting which was regarding the Economic & Environmental Scrutiny Committee project for the year, which is to be on investigating how the council can help to bring jobs and investment to Southend. I was being nominated for chair of the project group and wanted to give the officers supporting the project a steer on how I would want it to progress. I’m very keen that we start with an evaluation of the job market in Southend and how we can help not just encourage business, but encourage business that provides jobs that benefit local people.

Friday was a day off (from council, not from work), though Saturday I was back to it with my council surgery and delivering PCC election leaflets in parts of Victoria and Milton wards.

Posted by: iangilbert | October 22, 2012

A week in the life

Being a councillor is not meant to be a full time job. You get a fairly generous allowance, but it isn’t, and isn’t meant to be, the equivalent of a paid job. Some weeks are busier than others. Last week was one of the busier weeks, and covered an interesting variety of issues, so I’d thought I’d write it up.

Monday

9:00 Full day at work.

17:45 Markets task and finish group

Markets or lack of them have been a hot issue in Southend ever since the council closed York Road market. The administration has not always sounded very sympathetic to the idea of a traditional market in Southend, but a number of members feel passionately about it, and it is an issue that a number of Victoria residents have asked me about. When I was a teenager my dad did a brief spell as a market trader, so it’s something I know a bit about.

19:30 Political meeting

Having been elected as a Labour councillor, I want to continue to do all I can to make the party stronger and break the Conservative stranglehold in this part of Essex. After meetings in the civic centre I went to give some advice and support to colleagues hoping to be elected over the border in Rochford. (Checking before I left the civic centre that there was indeed Labour representation on the culture and tourism budget briefing)

Tuesday

9:00 Full day at work.

18:00 Primary School Places – Pre-cabinet Scrutiny

A depressing meeting really. We need to provide considerably more primary school places in the centre of town, as our group has been arguing for a long time. None of the options presented sounded ideal because of lack of funds and the government’s ridiculous free school legislation, which means we cannot just open a new school ourselves. If the Conservatives had listened to my Kursaal ward colleagues and used the Maybrook site for a school we would be in a much better position. We pointed out some pitfalls in the preferred solution, but there’s not a lot of flexibility at this stage.

19:00 Balmoral Residents’ meeting

It was actually 19:25 by the time I got here after the schools meeting. I was keen to make it as the stuff in the press about South Essex Homes is causing uncertainty and I wanted to know what residents thought. Also got a plug in for the Community First Panel. Some residents were clearly worried about the government’s cuts to housing benefit. I had to pester South Essex Homes for many months to get these meetings set up (there used to be a community circle for this area run by the police, but eventually the police said – quite correctly – that the issues being raise were more SEH matters than police matters) but they are clearly a useful exercise and it was well attended.

Wednesday

9:00 – Morning in work

13:00 – took a half day off, intending to have a bit of a break and watch the re-arranged England game. I ended up dealing with a bit of administrative disaster in the office. Saw about fifteen minutes of the England v Poland game. David and Margaret were of course at the very controversial Development Control Committee meeting.

5:30pm – Triangle Residents’ Association Committee meeting

A few years ago I found myself voted on to the committee of the Triangle Residents Association that covers the ‘Poets’ estate area of the ward. I really enjoy working with the residents in the association and also the very active community group that covers the area. The residents are very involved with the workings of South Essex Homes and again I felt it particularly important to stay in touch with them over the review.

18:30 – Special Community Services & Culture Scrutiny Committee – Review of South Essex Homes

A packed meeting, councillors, tenants of South Essex Homes, employees of South Essex Homes, council officers. A number of people said that this was their first and only council meeting that they’d attended. We spent about three hours discussing the issues raise, which is a heck of a lot for a single item. I shall post a full review of what I said and my opinions on the issues because there’s too much to go into here.

Thursday

9:00 – Full day in work

Found a few minutes to speak to BBC Essex about the discussion on South Essex Homes the night before.

13:00 – spent lunch hour delivering letters to residents

17:30 – break

Looking forward to a less stressful night, went for a pint and ended up chatting to a new member of the Labour Party. Fortunately I only had one pint because…

18:30 –

…Realised there was no Labour representation at a budget briefing taking place that night and decided that I ought to go along. Glad I did because there was an interesting and good natured discussion of the councils budget for public protection, transport and waste.

Budget briefings are always tricky for the opposition because at the end of the day the Conservative cabinet are the ones who will direct officers’ work and shape their thinking day-in day-out. Conservative Leaders like to taunt us that we don’t come up with any alternatives, but at the end of the day the council’s senior management team can only draw up a fully-costed robust budget based on the priorities that are set them. If Councillor Holdcroft thinks that the six Labour councillors can do this by ourselves, I’d question why he needs a cabinet of eight and all that expensive officer time!

I believe that opposition councillors can and should engage and offer constructive suggestions about the council budget. However, I don’t think there’s not much point in pretending that it won’t, when all is said and done, be a Conservative budget.

Still, I do hope that my Labour colleagues and I will be in a position to craft a budget that better reflects the needs of the town sooner rather than later. I was able to offer a few (I hope) constructive suggestions about how we could provide services more efficiently. Attending the budget briefing greatly clarified my thinking about how I would cope with the awful budget cuts inflicted on the council were I to find myself as Leader of the Council.

Unfortunately the budget meeting meant that I didn’t get along to watch the YMCA Question Time event that sounded very interesting.

Friday

9:00 – Full day of work

Echo rang to get my reaction to David Amess’s latest expenses scandal. I don’t much care for personality based campaigning, but it’s difficult to avoid it in the case of David Amess. How you can support austerity politics whilst being so extravagant with taxpayers’ money is really beyond me.

13:00 – Queensway

Visited the Queensway flats where we’ve succeeded in getting South Essex Homes to put CCTV in the lifts. All three ward councillors have been calling for this for some time. A year after a spate of serious crimes, I called for a public meeting to bring together agencies to work together urgently to improve things in these flats. Since then I’ve had meetings with officers at the civic centre to monitor progress. There have been a lot of suggestions put forward as to how we could improve safety in the area, but CCTV was one that was clearly affordable and proportionate. This will not be a magic bullet of course. I continue to think that tower blocks are fundamentally unsuitable places for young families, but hopefully this will go some way to making people feel safer in the short term.

Saturday

10:00 – Surgery

Labour councillors take it in turns to do a weekly surgery on a Saturday morning at 268 Sutton Road. It’s very handy for residents to know they can see a councillor on any given week. I often visit the office even when it’s not my turn because it’s a good way of keeping on top of things.

12:00 – Marching…

After the surgery, I set out to take part in the TUC march against the government’s austerity policies. Having seen and spoke to people during the course of the week who are affected by this government’s cruel cuts, not to mention the cuts in services that Southend Council will be more I’m more determined than ever to pursue all legal and democratic means to get rid of this of this awful government.

Sunday

Meant to be a day of rest. However I ended up delivering some newsletters for several hours. Got a message on Facebook to say my quote about David Amess has made it into the Sunday Mirror.

Posted by: iangilbert | October 19, 2012

Who needs a house?

Unfortunately I couldn’t make it along to the last night’s YMCA question time event, so have to rely on reports from people who were there.

I’m told that Councillor Courtenay staunchly defended the Conservatives’ proposal to cut housing benefit from the under 25s. This is not surprising, since Councillor Courtenay was one of only two councillors to break the cross-party consensus protesting at the effect of the housing benefit cap in driving people on low incomes out of central London (and by extension, putting more pressure on housing and services in places like Southend). It should be stressed that we are not just talking about the unemployed when it comes to housing benefit, we are talking about the increasingly large number of people who are in work, but can’t find enough hours or high enough pay to make ends meet. If I seem too much of a bleeding-heart lefty when it comes to this issue, it’s worth remembering that Tory favourite Boris Johnson called the policy ‘Kosovo-style cleansing’ of the poor from London.

Councillor Courtenay at least deserves some credit for defending his party’s position. I can’t remember the last time one of our MPs broke their silence to defend what they themselves are voting for in parliament, and the vast majority of the Conservative group on the council seem very reluctant to do so.

I wonder though what Councillor Courtenay makes of the latest news surrounding his colleague David Amess. It is unfortunate timing that today the press have picked up on the fact that Mr Amess is claiming expenses on a second home in London, costing taxpayers £1,570 a month. Whether or not an MP needs a second home while living this close to London is a moot point. I have sympathy with the fact that your presence can be required in Westminster till very late at night. I know that my colleague Angela Smith felt that she couldn’t function as a minister without a (very small and modest) flat in London. However, in Mr Amess’s case, he apparently already owns a flat in London that would serve him perfectly well.

Expenses should be claimed for things that you really can’t do your job properly without. David Amess could easily function as an MP without his taxpayer-funded second (or should that be third?) home. This misuse of taxpayers’ money would be bad enough at any time. To do it whilst enacting policies that are forcing people from their only home is despicable.

 

Posted by: iangilbert | September 3, 2012

Central Library

I note that there is another petition being circulated to save the Central Library building. My colleague Mike Royston attempted to get the building placed on the ‘local list’ of buildings meriting conservation, but was sadly unsuccessful.

I’m fully supportive of the building being preserved and remaining in public hands. Aesthetics are a matter of opinion but I believe that it’s an interesting building that would be excellent for public exhibitions and displays.

People in the comments section of the Echo newspaper ask why if the current Library is so good, why does the council need to build a new library on the site of Farringdon car park. It’s a question I get asked a lot, because on the face of it it does seem silly to spend so much money on a library when the council is having to make deep cuts.

The reason is of course that by sharing running costs of the town’s main library with the University of Essex we can make significant revenue savings whilst providing the same or better service. One thing that people need to understand about local government finance is that we cannot spend capital funds on revenue expenditure. The money being spend on the Library is a big capital outlay, but we cannot use that money to support continuing services. It’s not that we don’t want to, or haven’t thought of it, we legally cannot do so.

That said, if we can use capital funding in a way that reduces future expenditure needs or generates a future revenue income, then we should do so. Quite frankly the council needs to do just about anything to get us through the tough years ahead whilst maintaining essential services.

As well as being good value for money in the long term, the new library project also cements our partnership with the university of Essex, which is one of the relatively few bright spots in terms of inward investment and opportunity in Southend in these difficult times.

But that of course does leave us with the current Central Library building. I have heard a few ideas being floated for the possible uses of the Library, and I’m pleased to say that they are all of a public nature and to the best of my knowledge the council has no intention of selling-off or demolishing the building. I will be the first to object if they do.

Posted by: iangilbert | August 29, 2012

A red line

So the march of workfare continues. Boris Johnson will force young people to do 13 weeks unpaid work if they don’t want to starve.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/aug/28/boris-johnson-unpaid-work-young-people

Contrary to the stereotype of the left, I have no time for people who genuinely have the chance to do proper work and do not take it. We cannot build a society on that basis.

However, to be worth the name ‘work’, it should be paid the minimum wage at least. This is an absolute red line issue for me.

Nothing makes me angrier than seeing companies who turn in massive profits, who’s board are paid obscene amounts, taking advantage of free (effectively taxpayer-subsidised) labour. The idea of making people work for free is very dangerous. It creates a section of society who actually have a vested interest in high unemployment. If we get used to a society where people can be expected to work for free we are on a very slippery slope.

We need to draw a thick line between volunteering which should be, as the name suggests, voluntary; and work which pays a wage.

Posted by: iangilbert | August 21, 2012

The holidays are almost over

Although I won’t get a proper holiday this year, for the past few weeks I’ve been taking it easy. The lull in the council’s decision-making process means that for once I’ve had whole weeks clear of meetings, I’ve still been visiting the council surgery and dealing with some phone-calls from residents but mostly my evenings have been my own. Sadly I haven’t managed to do half the things I planned with my quiet time!

However, this lull is nearly over. Tonight brings a shadow-portfolio briefing for support services (because there are only six Labour councillors and eight portfolios I cover support services as well as being group leader) then there is a meeting of the Chelmsford Avenue area Community Circle. Looking ahead to the autumn, the council will be faced will a whole load of difficult and contentious decisions, such as what we do about the cut in council tax benefit and the future of South Essex Homes.

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