Okey-dokey. So clearly I need to say a few words about the Draft Statement of Consultation on the Local Plan that was published last month, which has inevitably generated strong opinions, a certain level of indignation, as well as the customary rumourmongering and imputations of misconduct against councillors.
I shall start with a disclaimer. Firstly, I reiterate my previous declarations of interest that, under the probity code, I have a perceived conflict of interest due to a close relative owning land under consideration in the Local Plan. For this reason, I have not participated in any debates or votes concerning the Local Plan, nor do I attend any meetings where it is discussed. So I do beg the forbearance of residents, as I do not receive the same member briefings as other councillors. I am writing this blog purely for the purposes of providing information to my constituents and offering up my own personal viewpoint. I am a backbencher, so my views are my own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Basildon Council or the Conservative Administration.
OK, so now that is out of the way, I think the first thing I want to remind residents of is that this is a legally prescribed process. This is not something councillors are doing for the fun of it. Cllr Richard Moore (Con, Burstead), Cabinet Member for Planning, is just about the most harassed and put upon man in the whole Borough of Basildon. I can assure you it is a process that nobody is enjoying! Nobody really wants a Local Plan. Nobody is relishing the thankless task of putting one together, least of all Councillor Moore. Angry residents to the left of you, disgruntled developers and landowners to the right. I would not trade places with Richard Moore for all the tea in China. But the fact remains that Basildon Council is legally required to produce a Local Plan. This responsibility, therefore, falls to the Conservative Administration and that poor chump Richard.
To deal with the politics of this – Party political broadcast alert! – residents should be in no doubt whatsoever how very lucky they are that we have Richard Moore and a Tory Administration producing this plan. Firstly, nobody should be in any doubt the sleepless nights Councillor Moore has had over this, how passionately he cares about getting it right, or how minutely he has mastered this brief. The statutory process that the Council is required to follow is an intricate, befuddling minefield, clearly put together by some sadistic Sir Humphrey Appleby character in Whitehall with perverse glee but, somehow, Richard has managed to get to grips with it.
Secondly, the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Nobody should doubt for one second that if Basildon Labour were back in charge, we would be seeing considerably more development land being earmarked in Billericay. Labour have made no secret of the fact that they think Billericay is being let off lightly by the Tories in the current Draft Local Plan. Basildon UKIP have said much the same thing. Their priority is and always has been protecting West Basildon, where they have most of their seats. Over the last two years, UKIP have demonstrated time and again that they do not understand the statutory requirements and I am in no doubt that they would make a complete pig’s breakfast of the whole thing and produce an unsound plan or no plan at all. This would leave the whole Borough – including West Basildon! – vulnerable to speculative developers.
Both UKIP and Labour are parochially ‘Basildon-centric’ parties, because they only hold seats in Basildon New Town. Only the Tories hold seats in Basildon, Billericay and Wickford. Only the Tories have a stake in the whole Borough. Only the Tories have and will take meaningful steps to mitigate the impact on Billericay, as we are the only party that represents Billericay. But, as Tories, we have been absolutely clear throughout this process that Billericay cannot be immune from the requirement to meet the Borough’s housing needs. We are in a housing crisis and Billericay is a growing town itself and people born here are going to need places to live when they are older. Many of them, not unreasonably, will wish to live in their home town. That is why the Conservative Administration took the decision to prepare a Local Plan that spreads development across the whole borough. It would not have been fair to try and meet all of our objectively assessed development needs just in the New Town. Billericay and Wickford must do their share too. That is only fair.
The second point that I think needs to be made is that, in the public discourse surrounding the Local Plan, there seems to be some confused language. People talk in terms of ‘Basildon Council want to build all these houses’ and ‘just think what’s going to happen when the Council begin building’, etc. Let us be clear – the Council is not proposing to build anything (other than possibly a few relatively small projects through Sempra Homes). It is not the case that, if and when the Local Plan is eventually passed, the Council is instantly going to build tens of thousands of new homes and overwhelm our infrastructure overnight. That is not going to happen. The Local Plan is simply a blueprint designed to satisfy the Planning Inspectorate that Basildon Council, as the Local Planning Authority, has identified where development could be accommodated, sustainably, over the next 30 years or so. That does not mean that all the areas identified in the plan will be developed. Landowners and developers would still need to bring specific schemes forward and these would still need to go through the normal planning process, demonstrate their sustainability, address infrastructure concerns, and win approval by the Local Planning Authority in the usual way. Just because a particular area is identified in the Local Plan as having potential capacity for, say, 200 homes, does not mean that 200 homes will ever ultimately be built there.
There are a few specific points that have arisen in the various posts and comments I have seen online since the Draft Statement of Consultation was published. Firstly, the allegation that the Council have simply “ignored” the responses to the consultation. This is simply not true. The Statement of Consultation was released in draft form specifically because of the high number of comments received, requiring additional processing time. In total, 3,805 individuals made a total of 21,636 comments. Additionally, a number of comments were received that were ‘inadmissible’ by virtue of being ‘inappropriate’ (directed at Travellers, immigrants, etc) and Royal Town Planning Institute guidelines recommend that we give such people an opportunity to ‘modify’ their comments to make them acceptable. 45% of responses came from residents of Billericay, so none of your councillors are in any doubt about the strength of feeling in Billericay! Issues raised by residents are all addressed in the Draft Statement of Consultation, which I urge residents to read (see link above), but it is important to recognise that this was a consultation, not a referendum. The Local Plan process was never going to stop just because 80% of residents do not like it. A majority of councillors don’t like it either! Councillor Moore is the author of it and even he doesn’t like it! But we are obliged to produce one. Not producing a Local Plan is simply not an option.
There has been a general allegation that, in ignoring the comments from residents, the Council has gone on to propose ‘even more houses!’ Specifically, it has been alleged that the number of houses in H20-23 in the plan is being doubled, that three new strategic sites are being put up in Great Burstead and South Green, and that the Council is bringing the Outwood Farm Road site back into play. This is not the case. Points 7.77 and 7.78 deal specifically with H20-23 in south-west Billericay and point 7.80 deals with Great Burstead and South Green. If you read the document, it makes clear that a number of developers/landowners made representations to the consultation advocating larger allocations (1,920 homes compared to 970 set out in the current Draft Local Plan in south-west Billericay and a further 500 homes around Great Burstead and South Green). Obviously, developers and landowners with a beneficial interest in land in these areas have an interest in having their land included in the Local Plan and the consultation process requires Basildon Council to investigate these suggestions. All the Council is doing, as set out under Actions 3 and 28, is preparing site specific appraisals and a high level development framework to see if what they are suggesting is feasible and deliverable. Action 3 also covers Outwood Farm Road. The Outwood Farm Road site, which is in my Billericay East ward, was already ruled out once before and I very much hope it will be ruled out again but I have to accept that the Council is required to do the necessary investigations and follow the evidence base for the Publication Local Plan, which will be submitted to the Planning Inspectorate. The Council has to demonstrate to the Inspectorate that it has addressed all comments and suggestions submitted through the consultation. There seems to be an assumption though that if a developer/landowner has advocated for a particular site that it will automatically be included in the Publication Local Plan. There is a great deal of work to be done before then and no guarantee that just because a developer/landowner wants their land in the plan that it will ultimately end up in there.
I was asked the other day what the next port of call is for residents. Again, there is an assumption that this is all now a done deal that will be steamrollered through. Not so. Towards the end of this year, the Council will put together the Publication Local Plan. This will replace the Draft Local Plan and become, essentially, the final draft to be submitted to the Planning Inspectorate for the examination in public. This will give residents another opportunity to comment and make their views known directly to the Planning Inspector. The examination in public will be the final forensic examination of the Basildon Borough Local Plan. If the Borough of Basildon does not have a Local Plan in place, it will cause the Council to lose control as the Local Planning Authority and, if that happens, speculative developers will be able to cherry pick land to develop all over the Borough.
So if you are wondering to yourselves, why would Tory councillors do this? Why would they risk the wrath of their electorates in this way? Why would they deliberately do something so unpopular? The answer is that the stakes are literally that high. We know nobody ever wants development in their area but we really cannot afford to fudge this decision. It is simply too important to be worried about re-election or our popularity, etc. Because if we get this wrong, it could spell disaster. We have to produce a plan we are confident will be judged sound by the inspector. Points 7.21-4 deal specifically with housing growth and green belt implications. I recognise that a lot of residents think we should retain all the Green Belt and use it as a mitigating factor for not meeting all our housing need. The strong advice councillors have received – both from our own planning officers and from professional external consultants – is that this approach would be judged unsound by the inspector.
I will not have a vote on it but I do feel for colleagues who may have to put their hands up and vote for a plan many of them may have reservations about but sometimes in politics you are required to do the hard thing and face the consequences. I just hope residents will pay some regard to the difficulties their elected representatives face when having to choose between doing what their electorate wants and doing what their electorate needs. If only that were always the same thing!
I start with my customary apology. I have not had time to blog for a while and I never got around to writing up the July meeting of Full Council but I want to write up the meeting of Full Council held Thursday night.
The evening started with tributes being paid to Olympic medallist and Freeman of the Borough Max Whitlock. It is always somewhat jarring to see the UKIP Group joining in with this, given that they abstained on granting him the Freedom of the Borough – allegedly because their leader, Cllr Linda Allport-Hodge (UKIP, Langdon Hills), was bitter that her own nominee was rejected – but it is great to see Max’s Olympic achievements being recognised.
PQT and MQT
Public Question Time was a humdrum affair, with a question about allotments from a lady in Wickford and the now customary two questions about the Local Plan from the ubiquitous Roland Lazarus directed at Cllr Richard Moore (Con, Burstead), our long-suffering Cabinet Member for Planning. Member Question Time consisted of, amongst others, Labour leader Cllr Gavin Callaghan (Lab, Pitsea North-West) asking the Cabinet Member for Environment & Community, Cllr Terri Sargent (Con, Crouch), a couple of questions that he knew full well ought to be directed at Essex County Council, plus an inevitable question about ‘Brexit’. Cllr David Burton-Sampson (Lab, St Martin’s) asked a question of the Cabinet Member for Resources, my ward colleague Cllr Stuart Sullivan (Con, Billericay East), worrying in its economic illiteracy – not least because Councillor Burton-Sampson is the vice-chairman of the Audit & Risk Committee. There was then much mirth as Cllr Alan Ball (WI, Wickford Castledon) asked a question about the rather pithy “Don’t be a tosser” anti-litter campaign advertisements.
The first item of business on the agenda was to adopt the revised Gambling Act (2003) Statement of Licensing Policy. Cllr Allan Davies (Lab, Fryerns) raised quite a reasonable point about ATMs being permitted in betting shops. It produced an interesting debate. I for one have always abhorred gambling. I am even reticent about participating in sweepstakes at work. Even charity raffles give me pause. Such objections are, however, strictly a matter of my own personal morality and, as a libertarian at heart, I have to concede that it is my personal choice not to gamble but, in a free society, mature adults are at liberty to do so, should they so choose.
There would clearly be a strong business case for placing an ATM machine inside a betting shop and it would be useful for gamblers, whom we have to assume are mature, responsible adults, and entitled to the convenience of such a service. I understood Councillor Davies’ scruples about the possible effect that such provision could have upon anyone with a gambling addiction. He posited that a gambling addict, exhausted of cash funds, would simply go home. I find this, however, implausible. Any serious gambling addict is not going to be so easily thwarted and is quite capable of walking down the road to the nearest cashpoint and returning to the betting shop. Nowadays, of course, the hardened gambler can also just as easily gamble at home online. I know this all too well – having worked in credit card collections in a previous life and seen all too many over-limit credit card statements with online gambling transactions for frightening amounts. In any case, as Councillor Moore pointed out, this is a matter of Central Government policy. So I voted to adopt the policy. Councillor Davies and Labour abstained. I still hate gambling but I have to recognise that it is a perfectly legal activity.
We then moved onto the extremely pedestrian Treasury Management Annual Report and Prudential Indicators (exactly as sexy as it sounds), during which our officers and Councillor Sullivan – the Iron Chancellor of Basildon – were quite rightly lionised for their sound management of the Borough’s finances. There was another interesting intervention from Councillor Burton-Sampson, attacking the Administration for borrowing too much. I must say, I did find it fascinating to hear a socialist criticising the Tories for taking advantage of historic low interest rates in order to fund capital investment, particularly when said socialists have opposed every penny the Administration has ever tried to cut, has entreated us to spend more, and would undoubtedly tax and spend and borrow to their little hearts’ content should they ever again obtain power in Basildon.
The next item should have been the tediously straightforward consideration of a report by the Monitoring Officer, Lorraine Browne, into the arrangements for the Joint Standards Committee. The Monitoring Officer’s report ensures that our arrangements meet national legislation and included a recommendation to reappoint the four independent persons who currently sit on the Committee. This should have been a simple formality but then, extraordinarily, the Deputy Mayor, Cllr Stephen Ward (UKIP, Pitsea South-East) – Chairman of the Joint Standards Committee no less! – moved an extraordinary amendment to the report, altering the Monitoring Officer’s recommendation to reappoint the four independent persons in favour of sacking them and appointing four new people!
I cannot stress enough how utterly bizarre and unacceptable this amendment was!
I must begin this blog with my customary apology for the length of time it has taken to write it. A number of people have complained that I have not yet written up the Full Council meeting of 7th July, well over a week ago, including no less a figure than Cllr David Harrison (WI, Wickford Park), the Mayor of Basildon. I did not realise that I had such an august readership (he has clearly forgiven, or did not notice the ‘Mayor Muttley’ crack from a previous blog). Anyway, the write-up of Full Council is going to have to wait and give way to national politics. What a week in politics this has been!
Personally, I have never known a more fast-moving and unpredictable period in British politics and, I have to confess, for a political anorak like myself, it is hugely exciting. It all seemed to start with the EU referendum result. I already outlined my own position on the EU and I why I felt we should leave but, if I am being completely honest, I thought it likely that ‘Remain’ would win a narrow victory over ‘Leave’. That certainly seemed to be the perceived wisdom and the consensus of the polls. But, not for the first time, my perception and the pollsters’ consensus proved to be wholly wrong.
As I said on my Facebook page the morning the result was announced, I felt like I had “awoken to a brave new world”. I was, and remain, incredibly proud of the British people for standing up to the scare stories, threats and intimidation, and choosing instead to believe in themselves and vote for freedom and democracy. It was a great day for this country. But, while the doomsayers of the Remain camp were, I believe, hysterically exaggerating the risks of leaving the EU (not to mention downplaying or totally ignoring the very real risks of staying in such a fundamentally doomed organisation), they were not entirely wrong and, naturally, leaving the EU does present the UK with as many challenges as it does opportunities. The burden of negotiating the risks and capitalising on the rewards falls to the Conservative Party – as the current part of government – and, boy, is it an exciting time to be a Tory!
One almost immediate consequence of Brexit was the resignation of the then Prime Minister, David Cameron. As I said on Facebook, I was never a diehard ‘Cameroon’ and I was less than enamoured by his conduct of the referendum campaign but I thought he handled his resignation with tremendous dignity. I think he could have stayed on, had he really wanted to. I knew a number of people on the Leave side, even some really hardline ‘Brexiters’, who would have been satisfied to let Mr Cameron implement the result. I even spoke to two Tory MPs, both fanatical Brexiteers and neither of them Cameroon loyalists, who were satisfied Mr Cameron was an honourable man who would honour the result either way. I largely agreed, I have to say, but I can see why, ultimately, he felt his position was untenable.
This then triggered the first Tory Party leadership election in over a decade, about which I have already blogged and explained the reason why I decided to back the leadership bid of Andrea Leadom, the MP for South Northamptonshire. As I said very candidly in my blog, I was firmly in the #AnyoneButMay camp, primarily because I felt the new PM ought to be a Brexiter and because I have not be an undiluted fan of Mrs May’s long tenure at the Home Office. Nevertheless, what was hard to ignore was Mrs May’s clear and overwhelming support from the vast majority of MPs. She enjoyed the firm backing of a whopping 60% of the Parliamentary Conservative Party and, in the end, Mrs Leadsom decided that, under the circumstances, it made no sense to subject the country to a nine-week leadership race and she very valiantly withdrew from the leadership election. It was the right choice and enabled the Conservative Party to appoint a new leader immediately. This was clearly in the national interest and was very much to Mrs Leadsom’s credit. Mrs May was duly named as the new Leader of the Conservative & Unionist Party in short order.
From this point, things moved very quickly. Mr Cameron held his last Cabinet meeting on Wednesday 13th July, followed by an unusually playful final session of PMQs in the House of Commons, during which Mr Cameron was in stunning form and reminded us all of what a great Commons performer we are losing (most notable was his delicious exchange with Ken Clarke and, of course, his final valedictory address), and then he and his wife, Samantha, and their three children, Nancy, Elwen and Florence, made an emotional farewell from outside Downing Street before driving to Buckingham Palace for tea with the Queen, during which Mr Cameron formally resigned as Her Majesty’s Prime Minister. It is worth pointing out that there was, at this point, a brief window during which there was no Prime Minister and Her Majesty was nominally in charge. Despite the enormous attractiveness of the idea of leaving things that way, I am pleased that Mrs May eventually made her own way to Buckingham Palace, where the Queen asked her to form a new administration. With that, Theresa May returned to Downing Street as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, First Lord of the Treasury and Minister for the Civil Service, the thirteenth Prime Minister of Her Majesty’s reign, the ninth Conservative, and the second woman.
I do think that the Conservative Party, in stark contrast to the bloodletting of the Blair-Brown years, deserve considerable credit for a smooth transition of power and also for delivering the second female PM in our history. It is worth noting that the Tories have done this without need of quotas, all-women shortlists, or patronising pink buses. Meanwhile, those useless Trots in the Labour Party are no nearer to electing a leader who is not a white, middle-aged man than they ever have been. So bully for us! Mrs May made her first speech as Prime Minister outside Number 10, flanked by her husband Philip. It was a bravura performance, in which she reiterated the Tories’ sound economic management, our steadfast belief in the Union between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but most importantly, she made a strident reaffirmation of the One Nation commitment to social justice. Crucially, she also made it abundantly clear ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and I was greatly hearted by her statement “I know because we’re Great Britain that we will rise to the challenge. As we leave the European Union, we will forge a bold new positive role for ourselves in the world”. I emerge from this whole process hugely confident that we have selected a strong and capable leader to take our country forward and I am tremendously proud to be a Conservative.
Mrs May is, as I type this, putting the finishing touches to her Cabinet reshuffle, which has been so comprehensive and fascinating that I think I shall write a separate blog just on that but I would like to end this blog with a few words of reflection about the outgoing Prime Minister. As I said earlier in this blog, I am not a natural Cameroon. Anyone who knows me knowns that I am far from a ‘Tory moderniser’ and my politics lie somewhat to the right of Mr Cameron’s. “DC”, as he tends to be known within the Tory Party, had been Prime Minister for the last six years and Leader of the Conservative Party for eleven. I did not vote for him in the 2005 leadership election (I supported David Davis) but I long recognised that he was, in retrospect, the right man for the time. I can still remember saying to someone, all those years ago, that David Cameron – who was merely Shadow Education Secretary under Michael Howard (now Lord Howard of Lympne) at the time and had not even formally thrown his hat into the ring for the leadership – would be the most important political figure in British politics for the next decade. He scoffed at me and said that Cameron was just another flashy PR man. Like I say, I ultimately ended up voting for the other guy but I could tell even then that this man was destined for greatness. He had already made a name for himself under Lord Howard and I suspected he would be a senior figure under Mr Davis. In the end, my interlocutor was quite wrong and even I had underestimate the meteoric speed with which DC would make an impact.
Although I did not vote for him and I have not always shared his politics or agreed with his policies, DC did succeed in making the Tory Party electable again. It is impossible to understate what a stupendous feat that was. I remember it well. The Tory Party in 2005 was in a pretty parlous state. We had ceased to be the natural party of government, having lost three elections in a row, and our treasured reputation as the custodians of economic probity was still in tatters following the European Exchange Rate Mechanism débâbcle of 1992. I remember it particularly because I joined the Party while at university and, by 2005, our support was confined to the blue rinse brigade and a few eccentric diehards like me. The Tories were the third party among students, behind the Lib Dems, and seen by many – in Theresa May’s words – as “the nasty party”.
He failed to win an overall majority at the General Election of 2010 but when that election produced a hung parliament, he formed the first peacetime coalition government since the 1930s. One of his first successes, in my opinion, was his style of leadership and his approach to government, which differed so significantly from the spin and obsessive control-freakery of the Blair-Brown years. He picked a talented team (including, in fairness, a number of very capable Liberal Democrat ministers) and, by and large, allowed them to get on with it. Michael Gove was able to surge ahead with education reform, massively increasing academies and introducing free schools (150 by 2015), without Downing Street trying to pull the strings. Likewise, Iain Duncan Smith was able to pursue welfare reform, which have reduced the proportion of workless households to the lowest levels in nearly twenty years. But it would be quite wrong to dismiss Mr Cameron’s famously ‘chillaxed’ style to disinterest, laziness, or weakness. Good leadership is the art of wise delegation and, in this, DC showed remarkable deftness. Secondly, I think his greatest legacy will be the jobs miracle this country has seen over the last six years. Despite the dire predictions of the neo-Keynesians, he obstinately pushed ahead with the axing of over 400,000 public sector jobs and, sure enough, six private sector jobs have been created for every public sector job he cut. Wisely, he deregulated business when other European countries were increasing the regulatory burden on their businesses. He cut spurious employment tribunals, cut National Insurance bills for small businesses, cut Corporation Tax, and created incentives for companies to hire staff. As a consequence, he helped create 31.6 million new jobs! More than at any other point in British history. Mr Cameron is leaving office with the employment rate at the highest it has ever been (74%). Not to mention the fact that he took a country from economic crisis to fastest growth rate among the G8. Income inequality has also been cut during DC’s time in office thanks to the tax cuts he focused on the low-paid and because of the welfare reforms that have encouraged people to escape poverty through honest work.
In some respects, it is these very achievements that have made David Cameron the victim of his own success. The UK’s prosperity became a magnet for the world’s mobile workers, creating the immigration problem that, arguably, created the conditions for Brexit – the momentous vote that has ultimately proved to be his undoing. But we must be thankful to DC for that as well. For, even though he ended up backing the wrong side, David Cameron promised a referendum on Europe and he delivered one. All those of us who have campaigned all our adult lives for the UK to leave the EU and have now seen that dream become a reality cannot escape the fact that it happened because David Cameron delivered the referendum. For that, I shall always be tremendously grateful to him. I only wish he had picked the right side, for I do believe that he is instinctively Eurosceptic. Regardless, he was an exemplary leader of our Party and a fantastic Prime Minister of our country. He achieved much during his time in office, for too much for me to mention it all here, but they are things for which all Tories may be justly proud and he deserves our respect and gratitude.
I used my last blog to explain why I had taken the decision to vote Leave in the EU referendum on 23rd June and I just want to start this one by saying how delighted I was by the result. I always tend to treat voting in a rather theatrical manner but for this one I really pulled out all the stops. I got dolled up for the occasion in a blue suit with a white shirt and red tie and handkerchief (the national colours), wearing my Union Flag cufflinks, and took along my own Parker fountain pen to vote with. This pen is now a treasured possession, as I used it to help set this country free.
I stayed up watching the results come in on tenterhooks. It was amazing how the body language changed in the BBC studio once the results for Newcastle and Sunderland were announced. I stayed up long enough to see a whopping 69% of Basildon Borough residents vote to leave the EU (on a turnout of 74%). I have never been more proud to call this borough home!
I fell asleep at some point in the wee small hours and by the time I woke up again around 5:30am, it was all over. It felt like awaking in a new world. I have to be honest, my gut reaction on seeing the result was “Oh sh**! What have we done?” But then I calmed down and realised that, to our great credit, and despite all the scare stories, threats and intimidation, half-truths, and character assassinations, the great British people believed in themselves and voted for freedom and democracy and to re-join the community of nations as a fully-fledged independent country. I do, however, have the humility to acknowledge there are difficulties ahead and a large part of the burden of dealing with those difficulties is going to fall upon my party, the Conservative Party.
As the current party of government, we Tories now have an important job to do to steer us through this exciting new phase in our history. The most important first step in that process is going to be selecting a leader to man the helm as we do that. I should say from the outset that I was saddened by the resignation of the Prime Minister, David Cameron. I have not always been a devout ‘Cameroon’ by any means and I was certainly far from happy with his conduct of the referendum campaign, but none of that can detract from his enormous contribution to my party and to our country over the eleven years he has been our leader and his six years as Prime Minister, not least in delivering the referendum in the first place. He conducted himself with great dignity in accepting the verdict of the British people and, while I think he could potentially have stayed on, I can see why he decided to go and I personally wish him well. He has been a great leader of my party and a fantastic Prime Minister and has achieved much during his time in office for which all Tories may be justly proud.
Since the announcement that there will be a leadership election, I have naturally been asked by many people who I shall be supporting as the next Conservative Party leader and, ipso facto, the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. This is a hugely important decision and may well be the first time any party, in choosing its leader, has effectively been asked to directly select a Prime Minister. Obviously, whenever the Conservative Party chooses a leader, we do so on the basis that we are hoping they will become Prime Minister but this time the person will be picking up the baton and going straight into the job to see out the rest of the Tory Party mandate received at the 2015 General Election, so it is a pretty awesome responsibility and it is important we pick the right person.
I have asked myself if it is really worth me publicly throwing my nominal weight behind any candidate at this time. I am not a Member of Parliament and will not have a vote until the Parliamentary Party have whittled the five current candidates down to just two. Even before nominations had closed and the Chairman of the 1922 Committee announced the candidates, many friends and colleagues (including a number of MPs) had announced their backing for former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson MP (Con, Uxbridge & South Ruislip). This, in retrospect, was rather silly considering Mr Johnson had not yet formally declared his candidacy and, indeed, subsequently withdrew from the race. So I am conscious that I could well give my backing now to a candidate who does not end up in the final two. That will be a matter for MPs to decide but, as many MPs have yet to declare their support for one of the candidates and are presumably still making up their minds, I think it does behove those of us who are councillors and activists to pin our colours to the mast and give the Parliamentary Party a steer.
So, for those not aware, the five candidates for the Conservative Party leadership are the Rt Hon Stephen Crabb MP (Con, Preseli Pembrokeshire), currently Welsh Secretary; the Rt Hon Dr Liam Fox MP (Con, North Somerset), former Defence Secretary; the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP (Con, Surrey Heath), currently Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary and former Education Secretary; Mrs Andrea Leadsom MP (Con, South Northamptonshire), current Energy Minister; and the Rt Hon Theresa May MP (Con, Maidenhead), currently Home Secretary. I think we should be pleased, from the outset, at such a hugely impressive field of candidates.
According to the pollsters and pundits, Mrs May is currently the frontrunner but I can tell you all that I am firmly in the #AnyoneButMay camp. First off, she was a timid Remainer and, as far as I am concerned, anyone who backed Remain in the referendum need not apply. I am convinced that the next Prime Minister needs to be a Brexiter and I think that is vindicated by the fact that Mr Cameron felt the need to resign in the first place because he knew it would be an absurdity for someone who opposed leaving the EU to go to Brussels to try and negotiate the terms of our departure, so electing another Remainer would be self-defeating. So I effectively discount Mr Crabb for this same reason (though he has a compelling backstory (£) having been raised by a single mum on a council estate in Wales).
The Conservative Party is a very broad church and contains many disparate schools of thought, many of which overlap, but I am fairly firmly in the libertarian wing of the Party and Mrs May is very profoundly not in that wing. As Home Secretary (the longest-serving in modern times), I have qualms with many aspects of Mrs May’s record, notably things like the Data Retention Investigatory Powers Act, which was an act so illiberal it was later ruled illegal by the High Court, and her decision to opt into the European Arrest Warrant. These are things that would have made even Lord Blunkett blush during his own draconian term of office under the late Labour Government. That is not to say that Mrs May could not be an extremely capable and impressive leader of our Party but she and I hail from very different wings of Tory political philosophy and in the most important question facing our country for a generation she essentially went to ground and hid. Now, some might say the fact she kept her head down and stayed out of the referendum displays shrewdness but I think it belies a degree of political cowardice, so she would be my last choice for leader on that basis.
I want to say a word or two about Dr Fox, not least because my good friend Emily Barley, founder of Conservatives for Liberty, has made such a spirited and impressive case for his candidature. In many respects, Dr Fox is the best fit for me personally and ticks many of my boxes. However, he is the only veteran of the 2005 leadership election standing this time, so is already a ‘loser’ in my eyes, and I just cannot get away from the Adam Werritty stuff. Dr Fox was a senior Cabinet minister holding an extremely sensitive portfolio (Defence) and he essentially allowed this dubious character unprecedented access to the MoD. I believe Dr Fox has many admirable qualities and it could be time to bring him back into government to redeem himself but the Werritty incident showed a serious lapse in judgement and I do not think it would be appropriate to install him as Prime Minister. I would like to see him return to the Cabinet though, as he is an important political thinker and we need his kind of thinking at the heart of government.
So that leaves me torn between Mr Gove and the relatively unknown figure of Mrs Leadsom. I should start off by saying that I am a huge personal admirer of Mr Gove, I thought he was an excellent, radical, reforming Education Secretary, and I have tremendous respect for his piercing intellect. I have to say, I also think he deserves a special vote of thanks for sparing us all the prospect of a Boris premiership! The former Mayor is a great character and popular with the public but I do not believe he has the substance to be Prime Minister of this country. His procrastination over whether to throw his hat in the ring for the leadership, mirrored his earlier lack of haste in declaring himself for Leave, which displays a degree of political calculation I find uninspiring. This is in stark contrast to Mr Gove, who was one of the earliest senior politicians to declare for Leave. That said, I suspect the manner in which Mr Gove is perceived to have ‘knifed’ Mr Johnson in the back will ultimately work against him. Mr Gove may have saved us from Boris but, in so doing, scuppered his own chances.
This rather bitter personal clash between the two leading Brexit campaigners is clearly very unfortunate. Throughout all this, I have been watching Mrs Leadsom very carefully. Andrea Leadsom is a name few outside the Westminster bubble will have heard of but I have heard her name mentioned approvingly as ‘one to watch’ for a couple of years now. Friends of mine, people I respect, who work in Westminster, including one who works directly for Mrs Leadsom, are glowing in their praise for her personal warmth, intellectual prowess, and campaigning zeal. One cannot even dismiss my friend’s effusive praise as simple employee bias – he hero worships Mrs Leadsom in a manner more akin to an acolyte than an employee. Notably, she has won the backing of our own local MP for Basildon & Billericay, John Baron (once he had decided not to throw his own hat in the ring!).
Mrs Leadsom did emerge as a serious force during the EU referendum campaign and she was extremely impressive in the televised debates and turned a lot of heads. Her parliamentary experience is limited but that is not necessarily a bad thing. She has real world experience in business and, crucially, is a ‘true believer’ in Brexit. From listening to her and speaking to friends and colleagues who know her better, I have been reassured that she has the passion and drive to deliver on the opportunities of Brexit. She has a firm understanding of the financial markets and, although arguably less experienced in parliamentary affairs than the rest of her rivals, necessarily brings less ‘baggage’ to the table than the other candidates. I am therefore, for what it is worth, throwing my meagre weight behind Andrea Leadsom to be the next Leader of the Conservative & Unionist Party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
I very much hope that she will make it to the final two and be put to a vote of the whole Party and I look forward to seeing her performance in the leadership campaign. I think she is going to impress a lot of people! She certainly impresses me.
I have thought long and hard about the momentous decision that faces our nation on Thursday. Not particularly about how I am going to vote, for I have known that with a fair degree of certainty for well over a decade. Rather, I have agonised over whether or not I wanted to blog on the subject of my decision.
In part at least, I suppose my reticence has been down to the fact that, ultimately, my vote will be but one of many and you will all have your own vote too, so why should it matter to any of you how I vote? But, as a councillor, I have – perhaps inevitably – had a lot of people approach me to ask my opinion. Mostly, I suspect this is because many people feel ill equipped to make such an important decision and many have reported to me that they do not feel in possession of sufficient facts and reliable information and are asking me my opinion precisely because I am involved in politics and they assume I will be able to offer some insight.
This leads me to the other reason I have been reluctant to weigh heavily into the debate. I feel sure we can all agree, the tone struck by each of the two EU referendum campaigns has been universally diabolical. Your point of view may lead you to feel that one side has been worse than the other but neither side has exactly covered themselves in glory, in fact they have both behaved atrociously for the most part, producing more heat than light. The debate has been characterised by claim versus counter-claim, misinformation, some outright lies, and self-interested propaganda, with each side impugning the motivations of the other. It has been pretty unedifying and I have not really wanted to get too involved. I was approached about being a campaign organiser for the constituency but I declined. I already knew how I was going to vote, so I was content to let people make up their own minds without any input from me. But I feel I must now, finally, publicly set out my position.
There is no doubt whatever that the referendum on our membership of the European Union is the single most vitally important decision all of us, as electors, will be asked to make in our lifetimes. Some of you may have been around forty years ago for the 1975 referendum on membership of the what was then called the ‘European Economic Community’ but for a lot of us, including me, this is the first time we have ever been directly consulted on our relationship with Europe and now, thanks to a manifesto commitment delivered by the Conservative Party, we will all finally get to have our say. Special thanks should go, at this point, to our local MP, John Baron, for the central role he played in leading the parliamentary campaign to secure the referendum.
Given what is at stake in this referendum, and how long I have waited for it, I would have expected to be at the epicentre of it. Although I have not always felt a particularly trenchant animus against the EU, it would be fair to say that I am a lifelong Eurosceptic. As a libertarian by inclination, I tend toward a healthy scepticism of all big state apparatus – and they scarcely come much bigger or more statist than the Brussels bureaucracy. I started off life, as a young university student studying politics in the early 2000s, as a relatively mild critic of the EU but one who was, nevertheless, broadly favouring our continued membership. As the years have rolled by, I have become progressively more and more despairing of EU institutions. I have become appalled by the rampant corruption, insatiable avarice, colossal waste, incompetence, protectionism, megalomaniacal levels of interference, shocking arrogance, and imperious disregard for even a pretence of democratic accountability displayed by the various organs of the monolithic EU behemoth. By the time I graduated in 2003, I had pretty much made up my mind that, if I ever got the chance, I would undoubtedly vote to leave the EU.
Now, that being said, I would probably have been open to the idea of voting to remain if the Prime Minister’s renegotiation had yielded a deal that showed Brussels was prepared to consider seriously the case for meaningful reform of the way the EU works. What the Prime Minister came back with, however, was a derisory fig leaf, which paid lip service to reform but really made it clear that the EU is utterly intransigent. It was not worth the paper it was printed on. There is, therefore, no such thing as a ‘qualified’ vote to remain in this referendum. Any vote to stay in the EU, no matter how narrow, will be interpreted in Brussels as wholesale endorsement and as a signal of Britain’s ultimate acceptance of the entire EU project – and the Five Presidents Report makes the ultimate mission for full monetary and political union absolutely clear. Anyone who imagines that we can vote to remain in the EU and then reform it from within is wilfully ignoring the experience of the last twenty-five years. If Brussels were not prepared to make any serious concessions even with the threat of a referendum and potential Brexit looming, they will certainly never agree to anything once we have voted to stay in the EU. At that point, Brussels will know that the British have no bottle. The Prime Minister’s renegotiation was the last chance for the EU to change for the better and they fudged it. We simply cannot ignore such immovability.
I have a lot of sympathy for those people who feel there has been a lack of impartial information on what will happen if we leave. This situation was certainly not helped by the fact that the Prime Minister spent £9m of our money on a scaremongering propaganda sheet for the Stronger In campaign. Of course, the simple fact is that there is not a great deal of information about what will and will not happen because nobody has ever left the EU before. This has caused Stronger In to try and characterise Brexit as “a leap in the dark” but I refuse to subscribe to ‘Project Fear’. Fundamentally, I believe in Britain. I believe we CAN and WILL carve out a bigger, brighter future for ourselves if we vote Leave and take back control. I am absolutely firm in my conviction that a United Kingdom outside of the EU can and will be successful and economically prosperous – because, frankly, if we cannot do it, then no-one can.
The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a leading member of both the G8 and the G20, has one of the largest militaries in the world, we have the best universities, our citizens have won more Nobel Prizes than any other European country, not to mention a long and distinguished history as one of the greatest maritime trading nations in the history of the world. I really resent the way the Stronger In campaign has talked this country down. Do not misunderstand me, I think both campaigns have been pretty shoddy and the standard of debate in this referendum has been little short of abysmal. Both sides have descended into hyperbole and there have been arguments, both for and against leaving, that have been unworthy of civilised debate. All the stuff about immigration, funding for the NHS, arguing the toss over figures, etc, etc, culminating in the disgraceful way that both campaigns seemed incapable of resisting the urge to politicise the dreadful murder of Jo Cox MP, has left me cold. All the aforementioned matters are really just dissembling and distractions. The main issue for me – and the reason I shall vote Leave – is sovereignty. It is a question of whether or not Britain really is a fully-fledged democracy.
Britain is the home of democracy. We invented it (OK, the Greeks have some claim but we perfected it). We are the greatest bastion of liberty on the face of the earth, the home of Magna Carta, of Habeas Corpus, of the right to trial by jury, and we transported the principles of pluralistic representative parliamentary democracy around the world. The English poet John Milton once said “Consider what Nation it is whereof ye are, and whereof ye are the governors: a Nation not slow and dull, but of quick, ingenious, and piercing spirit, acute to invent, suttle and sinewy to discours, not beneath the reach of any point the highest that humane capacity can soar to.” How can a nation such as ours tolerate a wholly unaccountable, unelected, foreign power determining the laws that govern us? How can a people as proud and free as the British accept a morass of pettifogging directives from an organisation as fundamentally corrupt as the EU? This is an outdated organisation, that tries to standardise and regulate when it should be encouraging diversity and innovation. How can we barter away our liberties in exchange for membership of a protectionist cartel, which was created economic misery for some of the poorest people in Europe? This is an organisation that has foisted the Euro and economic harmonisation on people who are now, as a consequence, suffering mass unemployment, and crippling austerity, imposed upon them by a technocratic elite they did not elect and have no power to remove. Why would the British want to be a member of such a sclerotic racket? I for one cannot tolerate it one moment longer and am counting down the hours to Thursday.
Finally, although ‘Project Fear’ has tried to frame this debate in such a way that Brexit is the option that incurs all the risk, it is worth remember that there are significant risks in staying in the EU. We do not know for certain what will happen if we leave the EU but, given our inherent national strengths and mercantile tradition (not to mention the fact we run a trade deficit with Europe), we have good reason to place our faith in Britain and embrace our destiny outside the EU with confidence. The Remain side do not want to talk about the risks of staying in the failing EU. They do not know themselves with any certainly what will happen if we stay in. I would invite you all to take a long, cold, hard look at the way the EU is going – failing economically, basket case economies needing massive bailouts, rampant unemployment, particularly youth unemployment (over 50% in some places). In a decade’s time, 90% of global demand will come from outside the EU. Why would we want to keep ourselves shackled to the diminishing market of Europe when there is a big wide world out there for us to trade with?
Being a Brexiteer is not to be a ‘little Englander’ but to be an internationalist. I want the UK to re-emerge into the world as a fully sovereign nation state and to once again be a properly active member of the community of nations, trading all around the world. That is, I believe, the British destiny. We do not need to be just another star on somebody else’s flag. Sir Winston Churchill once said, that “If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea”. I have thought very hard about it and I am choosing the open sea. This is a great country. I believe we can do this. I believe the EU has had its day. Insular regional trading blocs looked like the future once but are irrelevant now, in the globalised world in which we all live. The time has come for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to embrace the rest of the world. It is not about immigration, it is not about how much money we send to the EU, or what they did to the UK fishing industry, it is not about racism, or an EU army, it is not even really about the economy or any of the minutiae the two camps have spent the last few weeks arguing about so bitterly. It is a simple question. Do we want to be a free and sovereign people? We will never be asked this question again and we should have the confidence to answer boldly and proudly.
When you go to the polls on Thursday to cast your vote in the most important question of our lifetimes, I would just ask you to take a pause, think, and then remember what Nation it is whereof ye are.
As usual, I must apologise for the length of time it has taken me to write up the Annual Meeting of Basildon Council, which took place on Thursday 26th May, just over a week ago. It does sometimes take me a while to find the time to sit down and put pen to paper (or, rather, tap it all out on my laptop) but I think it is important that residents get my perspective on what takes place at these meetings and hopefully people gain some insight into what is going on.
As it turned out, this was a hugely momentous meeting, being the first of the new municipal year following the recent Local Elections. Those who read my last blog will recall those elections resulted in the Conservative and Labour breaking even on 18 and 9 seats respectively and UKIP gained three, bringing their total up to 10 and overtaking Labour as the main Opposition group. In addition, we have 3 Wickford Independents and 2 ‘Independence from Europe’ (these latter two groups both being breakaways from UKIP). That blog ended with a note about the Tories’ AGM, which was held on Monday 9th May. Cllrs Phil Turner (Con, Billericay West) and Kevin Blake (Con, Burstead) were re-elected Leader and Deputy Leader of the Group unopposed. Yours truly, incidentally, was elected Deputy Chairman of the Group at that meeting. We also agreed that Cllr Don Morris (Con, Wickford Castledon) would go forward as our nominee for Mayor but, subsequent to that meeting, Don told Group he had come to a view that, unless absolutely unavoidable, the Mayor should change each year. His predecessor, Alderman Mo Larkin, did the job for five years running and he felt we should try to establish a precedent. It was subsequently decided that Cllr Stephen Hillier (Con, Langdon Hills) would go forward as our mayoral candidate.
Before I even get to what actually happened at the meeting, it goes without saying the machinations began behind the scenes long before. With Councillor Turner at the helm, the Tories went about the business of trying to secure a continuation of our minority administration, which has governed the Borough since 2014. The Tories have been in power since 2003 but governing a hung council is a very different order of business. For starters, getting an Order Paper passed (ie, actually forming an administration) without a majority requires either a formal coalition with one or more opposition parties to gain an overall majority or forming a minority administration with what is called a ‘Confidence and Supply Agreement’. This means you strike an agreement with the Opposition to pass your budget and support you in any vote of no confidence but all other policy areas are up for grabs. Basildon Tories have always opposed formal coalitions but have done confidence and supply in the past. That is essentially the agreement we struck with UKIP in 2014 (also giving them the Deputy Mayor and two seats in Cabinet without portfolio) and, after the Local Elections in 2015, we came to a similar accommodation with the Wickford Independents and the Independence from EU Group. This enabled the Tories to provide Basildon with consistent governance and prudent financial management.
It became evident early on that something was afoot. We heard rumours the UKIP and Labour leaders, Cllrs Linda Allport-Hodge (UKIP, Langdon Hills) and Gavin Callaghan (Lab, Pitsea North-West), were plotting a deal to carve up the chairmanships of committees and the mayoralty amongst themselves, leaving us only with the Cabinet. Voting as one block, UKIP and Labour have 19 votes to our 18. We were reasonably confident we could command the support of the two Independence members, as their demands are reasonable. For the last two years, we have allowed Cllr Kerry Smith (IE, Nethermayne) to chair the Audit & Risk Committee and afforded him a seat on Planning. That would take our vote up to 20, so it would all rest on the three Wickford Independents and which side they fell on.
To be frank, the demands of the Wickford Independents (or the ‘Wookies’, as I call them) were outrageous. Their leader, Cllr David Harrison (WI, Wickford Park), demanded the mayoralty, the chairmanship of both Planning and Licensing, seats in Cabinet, you name it. It was an old-fashioned shakedown from a group of just three, who only fielded a candidate in one ward at the elections and lost that. But this is the problem with hung councils (and hung parliaments); they give wholly disproportionate influence to fringe parties. To be honest, the earliest source of the rumoured UKIP-Lab alliance was Councillor Harrison and I initially suspected he was feeding us scare stories to try and bolster his bargaining position. It was incomprehensible to me UKIP and Labour could do a deal with one another, when they spent most of last year voting against one another and heckling each other across the chamber. What would UKIP voters make of a deal being done with socialists? Even more so, how would Councillor Callaghan explain to his voters, particularly the Momentum crowd and all those £3 Corbynistas that have now infiltrated his party, that he had given the ‘Kippers – people he and his group have spent the last two years denouncing as ‘fascists’ – a foothold on power. I was not buying it. It came as a total shock then when the Leader came to a Group Meeting and informed us talks with the Opposition had proved futile and the UKIP-Lab coalition (what was quickly dubbed “The Unholy Alliance”) was a reality. This was made clear when Councillor Callaghan published a letter in the local press clearly stating – with breathless arrogance – his intention to seize control of the committees with UKIP. It also became apparent they had bought off the Wookies, with Councillor Harrison going in as Mayor. That took their vote to twenty-two to our twenty. So, it is safe to say, we went into the Annual Meeting with a degree of resignation.
The meeting started with Mayor Morris welcoming back all the returned and new members. The UKIP Group were a man down – astonishingly, Cllr Jose Carrion (U, Pitsea South-East) was absent for his first meeting as an elected councillor. Maddeningly, even though they were a man down, they still had the numbers and we knew the Unholy Alliance would outvote us, by a single vote, all evening. Mayor Morris announced he had raised around £4,000 during his mayoral year and then very graciously confirmed his decision not to seek a further term in office and called for nominations. As expected, Cllr Peter Holliman (WI, Wickford North) nominated Councillor Harrison, seconded by Councillor Callaghan – the first confirmation of the deal between the Wookies and the Unholy Alliance. Councillor Blake nominated Councillor Hillier, seconded by Cllr Chris Jackman (Con, Wickford Park), but the Unholy Alliance with their single vote majority installed Councillor Harrison and Mayor Morris handed over the chain of office and returned to the backbenches with a round of applause. Mayor Harrison begins his mayoral year, ironically, almost thirty years to the day after he became Chairman of the former Basildon District Council, back when he was a Labour councillor.
We were joined on the backbenches shortly thereafter by our outgoing Deputy Mayor, Cllr Danny Lawrence (Con, Billericay West). We initially voted at Group to resubmit him as DM but he had said before the meeting if it was clear we were not going to win he would just as soon not be put forward and let the new DM, whomever that may be, go in unopposed. Councillor Allport-Hodge nominated Cllr Stephen Ward (U, Pitsea South-East), seconded by Cllr Frank Ferguson (U, Lee Chapel North). I have to say, Councillor Allport-Hodge really is a frightful windbag. The established custom in these things is that you simply stand up, give your nomination, and sit back down but, no, she spent several minutes extolling Councillor Ward’s virtues, wholly unnecessarily. Councillor Ward has a military background and served in the police and is clearly a fairly decent chap but you get the feeling Councillor Allport-Hodge just likes the sound of her own voice (she’s the only one who does!). Anyway, Councillor Ward was duly elected Deputy Mayor and the mayoralty was officially lost to the Tories for the first time since the inception of that office in 2010. At least it might stop Councillor Ward turning up to Full Council meetings in jeans and a T-shirt!
We then rattled through the Minutes and a number of announcements, including a minute’s silence in honour of the late Bill Archibald, a Labour Essex County Councillor for Laindon Park & Fryerns and previously a long-serving Basildon borough councillor. He served as Chairman of ECC in 1996 and was twice Chairman of Basildon District Council in the 1970s. When I was first elected to BBC in 2013, Mr Archibald was still a Labour councillor for Fryerns but lost his seat to UKIP in 2014, so I did not really know him. But he was elected back onto ECC in 2013 and remained a county councillor until his death in April at the age of 84, which is pretty impressive. Councillor Turner also used the Announcements agenda item to talk about the purchase of Freedom House (or ‘Turner Towers’, as some of us are mischievously calling it). I will not dwell on this development too much for the purposes of this blog but you can read about it in the Echo here.
We moved deftly from that announcement to the election of the Leader of the Council and, in what was to prove to be our only major success of the evening, Councillor Turner was re-elected Leader of Basildon Council unopposed, having led the Council since 2014, taking over at a time when we had just become a hung council. He has since led a minority Tory Administration with great deftness. I was pleased to see him back at the helm, notwithstanding the challenges ahead of us. I cannot think of anyone better to lead us through these troubled waters.
We then moved on to the establishment of Council committees and allocation of seats and this was where the true horror of the Unholy Alliance unfolded before our eyes. As we knew the arithmetic was against us, we determined not to waste time moving our own Order Paper when it had no chance of being passed and decided instead to see what the Opposition would do. As expected, Councillor Allport-Hodge got to her feet and treated us to her usual waffle. First, we got the customary sanctimonious guff about the voters’ ‘decision’ to return a Council in No Overall Control. She then whinged because our Leader, quite rightly, refused to accept any vice-chairmanships as part of their stitch-up. UKIP and Labour may be prepared to try and sell everyone the idea that two opposition parties leapfrogging each other in second and third place somehow gives them a mandate to swipe hold of all the Committees but we on the Tory benches were certainly not prepared to give their power-grab tacit legitimacy by accepting vice-chairs. I supported that position, even though I knew it would cost me my own vice-chairmanship of the Planning Committee. The Order Paper was seconded, as expected, by Councillor Callaghan, who treated us to a similar barrage of platitudinous drivel about the wisdom and sagacity of our far-sighted electorate in delivering a hung council.
Before we go any further, let us deal with this misty-eyed rhetoric about the ‘electorate’s decision’ to return a council in No Overall Control. It puts me in mind of something the late Quentin Crisp once said about politics. He said: “Politics is the art of making the inevitable seem like the product of wise choice”. Cllrs Allport-Hodge and Callaghan trying to pretend the electorate made a conscious choice to deliver a hung council is just facile. The idea every voter in the Borough met up at a Holiday Inn and proceeded to calmly discuss the merits of putting the Council in No Overall Control and agree some kind of ‘compact’ to bring this about, in other words that this was all part of some stratagem by residents, is frankly an insult to everyone’s intelligence. We are dealing here with a situation produced by electoral arithmetic arising from the fact the Council is elected by thirds and nothing more. It is a situation, incidentally, that exemplifies precisely why nobody with any sense would ever choose a hung council (or a hung parliament for that matter) because it produces grubby, underhand deals and compromises, such as the one we saw acted out at the Annual Meeting.
Nobody voted for a UKIP-Lab coalition to carve up the committees but that is what we got. It also awarded an inordinate amount of leverage to the tiny three-member Wookies, who now hold the balance of power and are able to use it to wield wholly disproportionate influence. Under the Unholy Alliance, they now hold the Mayor, the chair of Licensing, and the vice-chair of Planning. This is a party that scored a 3% share of the vote in the Borough, won no seats, and yet we are supposed to believe this Order Paper, to use Councillor Callaghan’s rather florid phrase, “more perfectly reflects the will of residents”? Please, spare me.
We should call this shady deal exactly what it is – a confection. It is a cynical device, enabling UKIP and Labour to form a coalition in all but name. They dare not formally take administration because they could not possibly cobble one together. One can only imagine the gore and bloodletting that would ensue if their respective leaders were forced to jostle for the position of Leader of the Council. It would be like a scene from the film 300! So this fudged contrivance is their get-out clause. Indeed, in honour of his erstwhile ally, Councillor Smith nicknamed It “The Allsorts-Fudge Coalition”. But, be in no doubt, a coalition is what we now have.
We have a nominal Tory Administration but one that will be frustrated at every turn in the Council chamber. We saw early evidence of this when my colleague Cllr Andrew Baggott (Con, Burstead), lately Chairman of the Overview & Scrutiny Commission, moved a very sensible amendment to correct an anomaly in the Order Paper, whereby an existing Working Group on the Constitution, which was being chaired by the Chairman of Overview & Scrutiny, was now to be chaired by the Mayor. This was clearly anomalous, as the Mayor is the person responsible for upholding the Constitution and commands a casting vote at Full Council, so it is clearly not very transparent to have the Mayor leading such a working group. It was also pointed out by Councillor Baggott that the Working Group had been set up as a result of a motion passed at Full Council, which mandated the O&S Commission to look at the Constitution. It should be stressed that Councillor Baggott was not acting here out of self-interest, as he was not going to be the Chairman of O&S under the new Order Paper. In fact, what was pretty clear to most of us was that Mayor Harrison had a hand in the Order Paper himself, as he had pushed for the Constitution Working Group and clearly wanted to lead it, which is why the Order Paper changed it from the Chairman of O&S to the Mayor, in anticipation that he would be Mayor. The Order Paper also proposed that rather than reform of the Constitution going through O&S and being presented in a report to Cabinet before coming to Full Council, this new Working Group should be able to propose piecemeal amendments to the Constitution direct through a motion at Full Council, thus sidestepping at least two tiers of the scrutiny process. Councillor Baggott set out a very cogent case for why the Order Paper should be amended to restore the status quo but it was, nevertheless, voted down by the Unholy Alliance.
Incidentally, if anyone has a chance to listen to the audio recording of the meeting – I always listen back afterwards – you will hear why some of us have already nicknamed the new Mayor as “Mutley”. He finds himself very amusing!
Not to be dissuaded by that defeat, we had one more attempt at bringing the Council back from the brink. M’learned ward colleague, Cllr David Dadds (Con, Billericay East), moved a second amendment to the Order Paper. Essentially, it sought to make two major changes. It took the position that, on balance, we could accept that we were not going to retain control of the committees but would rather they were chaired by Labour than UKIP, with the exception of Planning. We therefore proposed to replace all the UKIP chairmen with Labour ones and replace the Labour chairman of Planning with a Wickford Independent.
This was the really extraordinary thing – one which, if I were a UKIP voter, I think I would find unfathomable. The UKIP-sponsored Order Paper made Cllr Adele Brown (Lab, Fryerns) the new Chairman of the Planning Committee. Now, I have great personal regard for Councillor Brown. She and I have served alongside one another on Planning for two years and I like her a great deal – I confessed this as my dark secret. She is a principled and conscientious councillor. However, she has always been totally upfront about her disdain for Green Belt planning considerations and her wish to see more social housing even in Green Belt areas, and her support for Travellers and her desire to see the Borough provide more Gypsy and Traveller pitches. She has also expressed opposition to enforcement against illegal Traveller sites, such as Dale Farm. So, clearly we could not accept a Labour chair of Planning and we sought to substitute Councillor Brown with Cllr Alan Ball (WI, Wickford Castledon), as he was identified as the vice-chair in the Order Paper and we did straight swaps with all the others too. With the exception of Planning, the Conservatives were of the view we would rather have Labour running them than ‘Kippers. I certainly do not share many political positions with socialists but I can at least acknowledge that Labour are a responsible party of government. UKIP, on the other hand, are unprincipled and disruptive populists, who have thwarted and held up every item of business during the time they have had a presence on Basildon Council.
The subsequent debate on the Dadds Amendment revealed what was very clearly not just a done deal but a pact, signed and sealed, between Cllrs Allport-Hodge, Callaghan and Harrison. The Mayor ran the meeting like a tyrant, pulling several members up for allegedly “not speaking to the amendment” (this included any attempt to make even passing reference to the document we were actually amending) and allowed Councillor Callaghan to get away with calling Councillor Smith of the Independence Group a “racist and fascist” and, despite calls from several members for the remark to be withdrawn, Mayor Harrison refused to compel Councillor Callaghan to do so. In the end, the Dadds Amendment was voted down and the Order Paper was passed. As well as establishing the Mayor’s dodgy unconstitutional Working Group on the Constitution and putting Labour in charge of Planning, it also established three entirely new scrutiny committees – Regeneration & Environment, Housing & Growth, and Infrastructure & Community, to be headed by Cllrs Ball, Allport-Hodge, and Callaghan respectively – and at significant additional cost to the Council, running into tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money. Two of these are both tasked with looking into the Local Plan, so that will now be dragged into the quagmire. I suspect we shall now increasingly see much of the Council’s important business held up in these pointless vanity committees.
Later, when it came to vote on the timetable of meetings – which under normal circumstances would be a mere formality at this stage – Councillor Allport-Hodge, seconded by her deputy Cllr Mark Ellis (U, Laindon Park), moved an amendment that decided to move two dates for Full Council, seemingly on a whim and with no explanation offered (reading between the lines, I reckon one or more of her guys are on holidays or something like that). This may sound like a minor thing but the scheduling of meetings for the municipal year is always a somewhat fraught exercise and it is, frankly, typical of UKIP’s cavalier attitude that they would just lob a random spanner in the works without any thought to other members or, indeed, our hard-working officers, who have to jiggle everything around. But the Unholy Alliance were unmoved. Cllr Stuart Sullivan (Con, Billericay East) pointed out that one of the proposed move dates for Full Council clashed with a Cabinet meeting but the reaction of our new Mayor was to simply instruct the Leader to move the Cabinet meeting, even though the timetable was published some time ago and it was incumbent on members to come back ages ago and moving thing around at this point has a knock-on effect for other meetings. But, no, it was just voted through by the Allsorts-Fudge Coalition with nary a thought for anyone else.
With that, the Leader stood up to make his statement – effectively a ‘State of the Borough’ address – and, as a testimony to what the Administration is up against, the Echo ceased broadcasting their live feed of the meeting and did not cover any of his speech. Nevertheless, Councillor Turner reiterated the Administration’s commitment to increasing and improving housing in the Borough through policies like the Decent Homes programme and the housing allocations policy that requires a Basildon connexion. There is also our wondrous wholly-owned house-building company, Sempra Homes, which is building a new generation of council homes – delivered by a Tory Administration! He also spoke about the importance of getting an approved Local Plan adopted and recommitted the Administration to its ambitious regeneration programmes, citing the successful Pitsea and Wickford regenerations and outlining the need to bring regeneration to Basildon Town Centre (and the purchase of Freedom House will pay a large role in enabling the Council to do this, not to mention the £30m investment that the new market and college campus will bring). Crucially, from my point of view, he also promised a fair share of investment for Billericay. He also wants to get things moving in Laindon and is confident that Swan Housing will bring forward plans. Basildon is the most thriving borough in Essex but the Tories are not content with that. We want to be the most thriving borough in the whole country! That is what we will now go forward and strive to achieve. Cllr Turner acknowledged that there are going to be challenges, not least financial challenges, but the Tories are determined to do their part to face those challenges for the residents.
Well, that is all she wrote. It is 3:30am on Friday 6th May and I have just got back from the Count after what was a mixed night for the Conservatives. Heaven only knows why I am typing this up now but it is all swimming around in my head. Ultimately, the Tories won six of the fourteen seats that were up for grabs (Billericay East, Billericay West, Burstead, Crouch, Langdon Hills, and Wickford North), which was all of the seats we were defending, and secured 37% of the popular vote. Labour did better than expected, winning five seats. They retained their seats in Fryerns, Pitsea North-West, St Martin’s, and Vange and also gained Lee Chapel North from UKIP. Overall, Labour secured 27% of the vote. UKIP, meanwhile, netted three seats, taking Laindon Park and Pitsea South-East from Labour and Nethermayne from the Liberal Democrats but, as mentioned, they also lost Lee Chapel North. They were the only party to increase their number, however. Tories and Labour broke even.
The loss of Phil Rackley brings to an end his lengthy political career on Basildon Council (mostly as a Labour councillor) and also removed the only Green councillor on the Council. Likewise, the failure of Ben Williams to retain Nethermayne for the Lib Dems means that there are now no Lib Dems on the Council. This also necessarily brings to an end the existence of the Lib Dem/Green Group on Basildon Council.
The new composition of the Council is 18 Conservatives, 10 UKIP, 9 Labour, 3 Wickford Independents, and 2 Independence from EU. This means that, whilst the Tories remain the largest party, the Council is still in No Overall Control. The detailed breakdown of results is as follows.
Billericay East – Con HOLD
- SULLIVAN, Stuart (Conservative) 1,716 (60%) ELECTED*
- McCAFFERY, Susan (UKIP) 616 (22%)
- REID, Patricia (Labour) 523 (18%)
As predicted, there were no big surprises in my own ward, where my ward colleague Stuart Sullivan was successfully re-elected with a majority of 1,100 votes. This is only seven votes more than Stuart won when he was last re-elected in 2012 but represents a considerable improvement on more recent Tory showings in Billericay East, most notably the election in 2014 of some drongo named Schrader, who only secured a measly 51% of the vote.
Billericay West – Con HOLD
- TURNER, Philip (Conservative) 1,865 (66%) ELECTED*
- FERGUSON, Jack (Labour) 538 (19%)
- HAMMANS, Cliff (UKIP) 442 (16%)
Again, no political earthquakes in neighbouring West ward and our dear Leader, Phil Turner, was re-elected with an absolutely stonking majority of 1,327 votes (increasing his share of the vote from 2012 by 9 points), the biggest majority of the night. Perhaps the only really surprising result in Billericay West was that the UKIP candidate, Mr Hammans, came last. Clearly the Labour candidate, Mr Ferguson, was the main beneficiary of the absence of a Lib Dem candidate here.
Burstead – Con HOLD
- MOORE, Richard (Conservative) 1,717 (62%) ELECTED*
- PIPER, Kevin (UKIP) 620 (23%)
- KIRKMAN, David (Labour) 416 (15%)
Richard Moore was comfortably re-elected with a majority of 1,097 (a slight decrease on his 2012 score).
Crouch – Con HOLD
- ALLEN, Stuart (Conservative) 959 (54%) ELECTED*
- PETCHEY, Richard (UKIP) 480 (27%)
- MUYLDERS, Sally (Labour) 326 (18%)
Stuart Allen was re-elected with a majority of 479, which although slightly down on his previous score the last time he was re-elected in 2012, is a considerable improvement on the most recent 2014 result.
Fryerns – Lab HOLD
- BROWN, Adele (Labour) 983 (44%) ELECTED*
- WAINE, Rhyan (UKIP) 771 (35%)
- LOW, Tony (Conservative) 462 (21%)
Labour Deputy Leader Adele Brown was re-elected to this traditionally staunch Labour seat in the Basildon New Town with a majority of 212. Although this is substantially down from the majority she was defending from 2012, it was a significant improvement on the 34% vote share achieved by her ward colleague, Allan Davies, last year. Her victory marks a restoration of the fortunes of the Labour Party in this ward, following the shock loss of the seat to UKIP in 2014. I was privately quite relieved at this result. None of us expected Tony Low to win (including Tony) but there was a clear threat from UKIP and I would have been sorry to see Adele go, as she and I get on quite well and have always enjoyed a playful relationship with each other on the Planning Committee. So I was pleased she won. Tony put in a reasonable showing but down 9 points from last time, so it does not look like the Tories will be making a political breakthrough here any time soon. But we shall keep plugging away!
Laindon Park – UKIP GAIN from Lab
- GREEN, Hazel (UKIP) 902 (38%) ELECTED*
- MAYLIN, Gary (Conservative) 668 (28%)
- BLANEY, Lewis (Labour) 647 (27%)
- RACKLEY, Phil (Green) 113 (5%)
- RICHARDS, Alan (Liberal Democrat) 75 (3%)
I cannot lie; this one was a kick in the teeth. This seat had been vacated by Labour’s John Scarola, so was nominally being defended by Labour. The seat was won for the Tories last year by Cllr Andy Barnes last year, so we had very high hopes of winning this one and our candidate, Gary Maylin, fought a campaign unlike anything I have ever seen. We delivered five leaflets, had two Cabinet-level ministerial visits to the ward, knocked on doors, and generally threw everything but the kitchen sink at it. We felt very optimistic (using the hashtag #ItsMaylinTime throughout the campaign) and it is bitterly disappointing that ‘Gazza’ finished 234 votes behind Miss Green (down 7 points since Andy won the seat last year). Gary seriously deserved to win and, having introduced himself to the voters of Laindon Park this time, I sincerely hope he will go back and try again. As previously mentioned, this vote also brings to an end the decades-long political career of die-hard socialist Phil Rackley, who, after a political odyssey that saw him abandon the Labour Group of which he had formerly been Deputy Leader, sit for some time as ‘Independent Labour’, finally saw him become the Council’s first and only Green councillor. This will have been a bruising loss for Labour, who now have no seats in Laindon and have come third here for the second year running. Mr Richards was one of only four Lib Dems contesting seats in the Borough this year and, as can be seen, his presence on the ballot paper seems to have been entirely negligible.
Langdon Hills – Con HOLD
- HILLIER, Stephen (Conservative) 942 (39%) ELECTED*
- GIBBS, Philip (UKIP) 940 (39%)
- HARRISON, Alex (Labour) 344 (14%)
- GRANT, Liz (Liberal Democrat) 84 (4%)
- DRUMMOND, John (Green) 83 (3%)
This was easily the most nail-biting result of the whole night, taking us way past 2am as we awaited the result of the latest recount. After so many I lost count (some said there had been four, some said as many as six – doubtless it’ll be one of those results that goes down in Basildon folklore), Steve Hillier eventually emerged as the victor by just two votes! The runner-up, Dr Gibbs, certainly put in a brave showing after an occasionally bitter campaign (in which, I did feel personally, Steve’s position and voting record on Dunton Garden Suburb and the Local Plan were somewhat willfully misrepresented). Needless to say, this is a considerable drop in support since Steve was last re-elected in 2012 with a majority of 228 and a 43% share of the vote, so the message has been heard loud and clear and the Tories recognise that we have a degree of ‘making up’ to do with the residents of Langdon Hills. Honourable hat-tip to the Green candidate, Mr Drummond, for having easily the best facial hair of the entire campaign.
Lee Chapel North – Lab GAIN from UKIP
- GORDON, Andrew (Labour) 1,003 (45%) ELECTED*
- JAMES, John (UKIP) 814 (37%)
- YATES, Stephen (Conservative) 363 (16%)
- ZWENGUNDE, Clarence (Independent) 26 (1%)
This result represented UKIP’s only nominal loss of the evening, as Mr James failed to retain the seat vacated last year by the resignation of former UKIP councillor Trevor Malsbury. The result sees the return to the Council of young Andrew Gordon, previously Labour Councillor for Nethermayne (2011-15). Mr Gordon now has a majority of 189, which is still not quite back to the levels his aunt, former Labour leader Lynda Gordon, achieved when she was re-elected to the seat for the last time in 2012 (when she had a majority of 689 and 54% of the vote) but it is an improvement on the score his ward colleague Alan Bennett achieved last year (up 8 points) and reinstates Lee Chapel North’s former position as the safest Labour seat on the Council (following its dramatic loss to UKIP in 2014). Our candidate, Steve Yates, put in a respectable showing, though down 6 points from when my wife stood here last year, showing that (as with Fryerns) a political breakthrough here continues to elude the Tories.
Nethermayne – UKIP GAIN from Lib Dem
- FELLOWES, Derrick (UKIP) 733 (27%) ELECTED*
- HERBING, Graham (Labour) 567 (21%)
- WILLIAMS, Ben (Liberal Democrat) 495 (18%)
- ALLEN, Chris (Conservative) 428 (16%)
- KETTLE, Pauline (Independent) 412 (15%)
- HALL, Dean (Green) 54 (2%)
In another rather disappointing result, the victory of UKIP’s Derrick Fellowes here brought to an end both the long-standing family association between the Williamses and Nethermayne Ward and also means there are now no Liberal Democrats remaining on Basildon Council. Mr Fellowes romped home with a majority of 166 over Labour runner-up Mr Herbing. Ben Williams’ name recognition was enough to secure him third place and push our candidate, Chris Allen, into fourth. This is a bitter pill, considering we came within 26 votes of winning the seat last year and Chris worked the ward like a Trojan. We are down a massive 13 points since then. This may be due to a number of factors. Last year, it was a General Election year, so turnout was far higher. The Lib Dem candidate was not a Williams and came fourth. Also, on that occasion, the Independent candidate, Mrs Kettle, only secured 176 votes (3% of the popular vote). This year she is up a massive 12 points! This is an unusually impressive result for an Independent candidate and is probably reflective of the fact that Mrs Kettle is in fact the placeman of Independence from EU councillor and former UKIP leader Kerry Smith, who fields a candidate here essentially to wind up his erstwhile colleagues in the UKIP Group. Labour’s fortunes in this ward have not revived. Indeed, they are down 6 points since Andrew Gordon lost the seat last year. So it would seem that Williams the Younger and Mrs Kettle between them took a significant number of votes from us. All told, the fact that this seat has now been won by UKIP for the last three years running means I think we can now safely call this the first official ‘UKIP stronghold’ in Basildon Borough. It may be too early to call it a ‘safe seat’, as such, but I do find it depressing that this was once thought to be a notionally winnable three-way marginal between us, the Lib Dems and Labour but it would appear that the ‘Kippers have well and truly dug their claws in here.
Pitsea North-West – Lab HOLD
- CALLAGHAN, Gavin (Labour) 955 (44%) ELECTED*
- REGAN, Michelle (UKIP) 720 (33%)
- BLAKE, Ann (Conservative) 480 (22%)
Somewhat to my surprise (and mild disappointment), the Labour Leader Gavin Callaghan held on to this seat with a very respectable majority of 235. Whether Little Callaghan was deliberately ratcheting down expectations, I don’t know, but certainly everyone I spoke to over the last month or so told me that Callaghan has pretty much conceded that he had lost his seat. But instead he has romped home and apparently reversed the deleterious decline in the Labour vote in the North-West Ward, which saw them lose the seat the last two years in a row to UKIP. The campaign was marked by particularly bitter exchanges between Cllr Callaghan and his ‘Kipper opponent Miss Regan, whom the former accused of having ‘far-Right links’. The result represents a complete reversal of fortunes for Labour in this ward, with an 11-point increase in their share of the vote from last time. Miss Regan, meanwhile, oversaw a 2-point drop in UKIP’s share of the vote. Our vote was also down, as Mr Callaghan seems to have benefitted from taking votes from us and the non-existent Lib Dems.
Pitsea South-East – UKIP GAIN from Lab
- CARRION, Jose (UKIP) 811 (36%) ELECTED*
- ADENIRAN, Kayode (Labour) 791 (35%)
- DWYER, Ian (Conservative) 668 (29%)
In another bruising defeat in this seat – which Labour were nominally defending following the decision of Aidan McGurran not to seek re-election but which we had high hopes of winning ourselves, following Amanda Arnold’s victory last year – the seat was won by UKIP’s Jose Carrion by just 20 votes over Labour. Our candidate, Ian Dwyer, came a very disappointing third with a 6-point drop on what Amanda achieved last year. The result represented a mild improvement on Labour’s last showing, with a 5-point lift in their share of the vote but not enough to secure retention of the seat.
St Martin’s – Lab HOLD
- BURTON-SAMPSON, David (Labour) 688 (47%) ELECTED*
- ALLPORT, Leslie (UKIP) 450 (30%)
- HENRY, Jeff (Conservative) 341 (23%)
This was a nominal Labour hold, as although the incumbent councillor, Phil Rackley, was a Green, he had actually been elected in 2012 for Labour and only defected later to the Greens, having quit Labour after being ousted as Deputy Leader. David Burton-Sampson has retained the seat for Labour with a majority of 238, making it absolutely clear that this New Town seat remains effectively safe as houses for Labour. Although not in any sense an unexpected result, it was still a melancholy one for us, as our candidate Jeff Henry (#JeffWeCan) really captured the hearts of all of us with his plucky and determined campaign. Jeff was not just a paper candidate, standing in an unwinnable Opposition seat as a favour to the Party or as ‘sufferance’ or ‘time-served’ in hope of gaining selection in a more favourable ward. Jeff purposefully and deliberately sought out the candidacy for St Martin’s because he was adamant that the Tories should be actively fighting for the hearts and minds of the New Town. His campaign in St Martin’s energised local activists and we poured into the ward to the battle cry of “Jeff We Can!” Jeff is one of the heartiest campaigners I have ever come across and I really hope he will continue to work for this ward and articulate the Conservative vision for the New Town. Although his share of the vote was slightly down on last year during the General Election, it is considerably up on what was achieved in 2012, the last time before the GE that this two-member seat was fought. Jeff, We Still Can!
Vange – Lab HOLD
- BLOCK, Kayte (Labour) 616 (41%) ELECTED*
- LATCHFORD, Terry (UKIP) 557 (37%)
- RAINFORD, Tamara (Conservative) 321 (21%)
Kayte Block successfully held this seat for Labour following the retirement of former leader Byron Taylor, albeit on a significantly reduced majority of just 59 votes (although her share of the vote was up on what Melissa McGeorge achieved last year, by 5 points). No great surprises here.
Wickford North – Con HOLD
- MORRIS, Carole (Conservative)* 1,186 (41%)
- BROCKMAN, Eunice (Wickford Independent) 1,112 (39%)
- McGURRAN, Dolores (Labour) 375 (13%)
- RADLEY, David (Liberal Democrat) 210 (7%)
This seat nearly gave us another scare but ultimately Carole Morris narrowly retained her seat, albeit by just 74 votes. Mrs Brockman did rather well thanks to the clear run she was given by the somewhat suspicious disqualification of the would-be UKIP candidate’s nomination paper owing to the mysterious disappearance of the man needed to sign off on her permission to use the UKIP logo. I gather that person, incidentally, was Essex County Councillor for Wickford Crouch, Nigel Le Gresley. Cllr Le Gresley was also formerly a borough councillor for Wickford Castledon and a close associate of Cllrs Holliman, Harrison and Ball but lost his seat before they broke away from the Basildon UKIP Group and formed the Wickford Independents. Cllr Le Gresley remains a UKIP councillor on ECC but where his true loyalties lie in Wickford, one can only speculate. In any case, he was apparently uncontactable when UKIP’s Anne-Marie Waters tried to get in touch with him to get her nomination paper signed off. I am sure it was an unfortunate inconvenience. Of course, it is entirely possible that the fact Miss Waters was quietly removed from UKIP’s list for the London Assembly due to her unsavoury links to some pretty nasty anti-Muslim groups may also have been a factor.
So, all in all, it was not a disastrous night for the Tories when one considers that the backdrop is a ‘mid-term’ Tory Government, and if one factors in the proximity of the EU Referendum as well. It could have been much worse. Many parties suffer losses in local elections when they are in government but, both here in Basildon Borough and around the country nationally, we have actually stood firm and held our ground. We have also had a blinding result in Scotland! Nonetheless, it was deeply disappointing not to gain in those target seats here in Basildon, where our candidates and activists worked so hard, especially those seats that we won during the General Election year but failed to win this year. It certainly was not for wont of trying and I salute the campaigns fought across the Borough by Tory candidates seeking election to Basildon Council.
Labour will have been hugely relieved by their performance, despite dire predictions. They have, however, once again been relegated to the position of the third party of Basildon politics.
This election marks, definitively, the status of the Liberal Democrats as an entirely negligible force in Basildon. The three Green candidates also failed to make any impact.
But there is no getting away from the fact that the night’s big winners were UKIP, netting three seats and retaking the mantle as the official Opposition on Basildon Council. It is just worth pointing out, however, that even with their three gains, they are still down by two on what they had in 2014.
The next step now will be for the Conservative Group to hold their AGM and elect a Leader and Deputy Leader and select our candidate for Mayor. With the Council remaining in No Overall Control, it will then be at the upcoming Basildon Council Annual Meeting that we will see who will actually get to form an administration. I shall, of course, keep you posted, dear readers.
Firstly, an apology. I never wrote up the last meeting of Full Council, which I think is a first. I decided to wait for the audio recording to go on the website, as it makes it much easier for me to do the write-up but, low and behold, the Council’s audio-recording system failed again and, by the time I found out, it hardly seemed worth the bother trying to write it up from memory. Now we have more pressing matters at hand – for, once again, elections are upon us.
We have fourteen seats on Basildon Borough Council up for grabs to determine who will take charge of the council, which has been hung since 2014. The Council is presently led by a minority Tory Administration and we are hoping to take the Council out of No Overall Control. There are 42 seats on Basildon Council, of which currently 18 are Conservative, 9 Labour, 7 UKIP, 3 Wickford Independents, 2 Independence from EU, 1 Liberal Democrat, 1 Green (these latter two sit together in a single group called ‘the Lib Dem-Green Group’), and 1 vacancy arising from the resignation, earlier in the year, of Trevor Malsbury (U, Lee Chapel North). The magic number here is 23 – this is the number of seats a party needs to command a majority on the Council. So, for the Tories, we will need to retain all our current seats and win four more to be able to form a majority administration. Here are the runners and riders locally.
- McCAFFERY, Susan (UKIP)
- REID, Patricia (Labour)
- SULLIVAN, Stuart (Conservative)*
I am not expecting any big surprises in my own ward, where my ward colleague Stuart Sullivan is seeking re-election. Stuart is currently the Cabinet Member for Resources, whose firm and steady stewardship of the Borough’s finances has earned him the sobriquet “The Iron Chancellor of Basildon” (mainly from me). Mrs Reid – wife of long-serving Labour election agent Malcolm Reid – has been the perennial Labour candidate here since time immemorial. This year also sees the return of Miss McCaffery, until recently the lone ‘Kipper on Billericay Town Council. She had always previously stood in Billericay East but the last couple of years has stood in the West Ward instead. She recently decided not to stand for re-election to BTC. Stuart was last re-elected to Basildon Council in 2012 with 58% of the vote and a majority of 1,093. For the first time in memory, as a sad marker of that party’s decline, there is no Lib Dem candidate in Billericay East.
- FERGUSON, Jack (Labour)
- HAMMANS, Cliff (UKIP)
- TURNER, Philip (Conservative)*
Likewise, I doubt we will see any political earthquakes in neighbouring West ward, where our glorious Leader, Phil Turner, is seeking re-election. Phil has been Leader of Basildon Council since 2014, having previously served as Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Housing. Mr Ferguson is a first-time candidate for Labour, whereas Mr Hammans stood unsuccessfully for UKIP in Fryerns last year and Crouch the year before that. Phil is defending a majority of 1,074 (57% share of the vote in 2012). As with East, there is no Lib Dem candidate.
- KIRKMAN, David (Labour)
- MOORE, Richard (Conservative)*
- PIPER, Kevin (UKIP)
Dr Richard Moore is seeking re-election and is currently Cabinet Member for Regeneration & Planning. Mr Kirkman, son of former Labour council leader Paul Kirkman and himself a former councillor for Fryerns, is standing here for Labour for the second year running. Mr Piper is a first-time candidate for UKIP. Richard is defending a majority of 1,121 (63%). There is no Lib Dem candidate here either.
- ALLEN, Stuart (Conservative)*
- MUYLDERS, Sally (Labour)
- PETCHEY, Richard (UKIP)
Stuart Allen is seeking re-election and is currently Chairman of the Joint Standards Committee. He is also Chairman of the Conservative Group (a sort of presiding officer at Group meetings). Miss Muylders is another first-time candidate for Labour, as is Mr Petchey standing for UKIP. Stuart is defending a majority of 582 (61%) in this two-member ward but it is worth noting that when his Tory ward colleague Terri Sargent was re-elected in 2014, it was with a significantly reduced majority, so we are taking nothing for granted in Crouch. In common with all the Billericay seats, there is no Lib Dem candidate.
- BROWN, Adele (Labour)*
- LOW, Tony (Conservative)
- WAINE, Rhyan (UKIP)
Adele Brown, currently Deputy Leader of the Labour Group, is defending this traditionally staunch Labour seat in Basildon New Town. She recently made her maiden speech at Full Council, after four years as a councillor, which was a source of some mirth to those of us who are accustomed to her penchant for interrupting other people’s speeches but, having served alongside her on the Planning Committee for the last couple of years, I will be the first to admit that she is an extremely hard-working, intelligent politician and (truth be told) I like her a great deal. But we are in the business of competitive politics and our candidate Tony Low will be seeking to give her a run for her money. She will not have much to worry about, as her Labour ward colleague Allan Davies was comfortably returned last year but that was a General Election year and in 2014 UKIP’s David Sheppard won the seat from the late Labour stalwart Bill Archibald. As with so many of their candidates this year, Mr Waine is a first-time candidate. Councillor Brown is defending a majority of 698 (55%), which she won in 2012.
- BLANEY, Lewis (Labour)
- GREEN, Hazel (UKIP)
- MAYLIN, Gary (Conservative)
- RACKLEY, Phil (Green)
- RICHARDS, Alan (Liberal Democrat)
Labour’s John Scarola took this seat in 2012, when he unseated Tory incumbent Frank Tomlin, but Councillor Scarola has chosen not to seek re-election. First-time candidate Mr Blaney will be seeking to retain the seat for Labour and defend their 176-vote majority. Gary Maylin, meanwhile, will be seeking to repeat last year’s success, when Andy Barnes successfully retained the seat for the Tories. On that occasion, UKIP came second and Miss Green, another first-time candidate, will be hoping to make a breakthrough but she will have her work cut out for her, as Gary (also fighting his first election) has proven to be a prodigious and formidable candidate. Phil Rackley is a sitting councillor in St Martin’s Ward, where he was elected for Labour in 2012. Shortly thereafter, he had a falling out with the Labour Group, of which he had hitherto been Deputy Leader, and after a period sitting as ‘Independent Labour’, he has latterly sat as our lone Green councillor. Councillor Rackley has chosen not to seek re-election in St Martin’s but to chance his arm instead in Laindon Park, where he lives, as one of only three Green candidates in this election. Finally, we also have a Lib Dem! Mr Richards is standing for the beleaguered party here, having stood last year in Billericay West and the year before in Langdon Hills.
- DRUMMOND, John (Green)
- GIBBS, Philip (UKIP)
- GRANT, Liz (Liberal Democrat)
- HARRISON, Alex (Labour)
- HILLIER, Stephen (Conservative)*
Steve Hillier is seeking re-election and is currently Chairman of the Planning Committee, on which I have the pleasure to serve. As a two-member ward, there were no elections in Langdon Hills last year but in 2014, Steve’s wife Sandra lost her seat to UKIP’s Linda Allport-Hodge (now Leader of the UKIP Group). Hoping to repeat her success will be Dr Gibbs, another first-time candidate but a man with a not inconsiderable profile locally as a campaigner against Dunton Garden Suburb. Also standing will be first-time candidates Mr Harrison for Labour and Mr Drummond for the Greens, along with Mrs Grant, a Lib Dem veteran of local elections going back to at least 2010, who stood in St Martin’s last year. Steve will be defending his 228 majority (43%) from 2012.
Lee Chapel North
- GORDON, Andrew (Labour)
- JAMES, Arthur John (UKIP)
- YATES, Stephen (Conservative)
- ZWENGUNDE, Clarence (Independent)
Oddly, not for the first time, Lee Chapel North is the subject of a councillor resignation (in 2014, this was the seat from which former Labour leader Lynda Gordon resigned). Trevor Malsbury, who won the seat for UKIP that year by a very slim margin, resigned from the Council last year. He would have been up for re-election this year anyway and previous candidate Mr James is seeking to retain the seat for UKIP. This seat was, however, comfortably retained by Labour’s Alan Bennett last year and Mr Gordon, Labour Councillor for Nethermayne from 2011 to 2015 (and a nephew of Lynda Gordon), is seeking to make a comeback in this customary Labour stronghold. Our candidate, Steve Yates, will seek to throw a spanner in the works. We also have a wildcard in the form of Independent candidate, Clarence Zwengunde, about whom I’m afraid I know absolutely nothing. Mrs Gordon, as I say, if she hadn’t resigned, would have been defending a majority of 689 (54%) when she was re-elected (she was the Leader of the Labour Group) and Mr Malsbury, if he hadn’t also since resigned, would have been defending a majority of just 2!
- ALLEN, Chris (Conservative)
- FELLOWES, Derrick (UKIP)
- HALL, Dean (Green)
- HERBING, Graham (Labour)
- KETTLE, Pauline (Independent)
- WILLIAMS, Ben (Liberal Democrat)
Geoff Williams MBE is the incumbent Lib Dem councillor in this previously staunch Liberal fortress. ‘Uncle Geoff’, as he’s affectionately known, is also the longest-serving councillor on Basildon Council (some 30 odd years, I gather) but is standing down, having retired with his wife Linda to Cornwall. Nethermayne is not just a traditional Lib Dem stronghold, it was at one point effectively the personal fiefdom of the Williams family – with all three seats being held by Geoff, Linda, and their son, Ben. Williams the Younger vacated his seat in 2010 shortly after the formation of the Coalition Government following the hung parliament at the 2010 General Election, when he went to work for Nick Clegg. Mrs Williams lost her seat to UKIP in 2014 and with Williams the Elder standing down, it falls to Mr Williams Jnr. to seek to maintain the family’s honour in Nethermayne. He will have a tough task in what has become a rather marginal seat. Although a Lib Dem colleague, Phil Jenkins, retained the seat in the 2010 bye-election, he lost it to Labour’s Andrew Gordon the following year. Following Mrs Williams’ defeat in 2014, Mr Gordon himself lost his seat last year to UKIP’s Stephen Hodge (husband of Linda Allport-Hodge). Mr Fellowes – like his colleague in Langdon Hills, Dr Philip Gibbs – is a prominent anti-development campaigner and also a first-time UKIP candidate (though not, interestingly, a first-time candidate, as he stood as an Independent in Langdon Hills in 2002) and will be seeking to repeat past UKIP successes, whilst Mr Herbing (also a first-timer) will be hoping to revive Labour’s fortunes. Last year, the Conservative candidate came within a little over 20 votes of winning, so our candidate Chris Allen (also a first-time candidate) will be seeking to go that extra mile. Mr Hall makes the final of our three new Green candidates. Also standing for the second time is Independent candidate Miss Kettle, who is affiliated to former UKIP leader Kerry Smith, who now sits on the Council as a party of two with his mother, Pitsea North-West councillor Imelda Clancy, calling themselves ‘Independence from the EU’. Mr Williams Jnr. will be defending his father’s majority of 321 (36%), which he won in 2012 when the Tory candidate was some prize plonker named Schrader, who came a dismal fourth (I wonder whatever happened to that drongo!).
- BLAKE, Jacqueline Ann (Conservative)
- CALLAGHAN, Gavin (Labour)*
- REGAN, Michelle (UKIP)
The incumbent Labour councillor defending this seat is none other than Little Gavin Callaghan, Leader of the Labour Group. He is pretty vulnerable here, as UKIP took the seat in both 2014 and 2015 and, from what I have heard, Councillor Callaghan has pretty much conceded that he is likely to lose his seat to UKIP’s Miss Regan, a first time candidate for the party. Our candidate, former Pitsea councillor Ann Blake, is seeking to upset the apple cart by making a comeback. Councillor Callaghan is defending a majority 368 (49%) but last year his former ward colleague, Keith Bobbin, lost the seat to UKIP’s Gary Canham, who won a majority of 120. I do not think it is any secret to regular readers that Councillor Callaghan is not my favourite person, who even if this is won by Miss Regan rather than my preferred choice of Mrs Blake, would be one UKIP gain I’d personally cheer to the rafters. As with the Billericay wards, there are no Lib Dem candidates in either of the two Pitsea wards.
- ADENIRAN, Olukayode (Labour)
- CARRION, Jose (UKIP)
- DWYER, Ian (Conservative)
Mr Adeniran, another new face, is defending this seat for Labour, as the sitting councillor, Aidan McGurran, is standing down. I always found Councillor McGurran personable enough in my dealings with him when he served on the Planning Committee but I can honestly say that in the three years I have been on the Council I can scarcely recall an occasion when he opened his mouth and I agreed with a single word that came out. He was often a tedious, foul-mouthed, blowhard at Council meetings as well and, whilst I wish him well, sincerity does not permit me to try and pretend he’ll be missed. Amanda Arnold held this seat for the Tories last year, so we have high hopes that our candidate Ian Dwyer will also win it. Looking to sneak through the middle will be Mr Carrion for UKIP, who stood here last year as well and came second. Mr Adeniran will be defending Councillor McGurran’s slim majority of just 9 votes but when Amanda won the seat for us last year, she achieved a majority of 204 (36%). As previously mentioned, there is no Lib Dem candidate.
- ALLPORT, Leslie (UKIP)
- BURTON-SAMPSON, David (Labour)
- HENRY, Jeff (Conservative)
The current incumbent is the Council’s lone Green councillor, Phil Rackley, who has chosen to contest Laindon Park Ward instead of St Martin’s. Councillor Rackley won the seat for Labour in 2012, however, so Mr Burton-Sampson will nominally be defending the seat. Having twice failed to get elected in Pitsea South-East, when there was probably an expectation on his part that he would win (in 2014 Pitsea SE was won by UKIP as part of their near-total sweep of the board that year and, last year, Amanda Arnold retained the seat for the Tories as part of the general shock surge in Tory support that saw us win an absolute majority at the General Election). Clearly frustrated in his attempts in Pitsea and disinclined to go for ‘third time’s a charm’, he has switched to St Martin’s, which on the face of it is a safe Labour seat. Andrew Buxton retained the seat last year with a majority of 438 (42%) but I will keep my fingers crossed that the ‘Curse of Burton-Sampson’ strikes again, as I would absolutely love Jeff Henry to win. He’s a great guy and is fighting a vigorous campaign in a ward that is close to my heart, as I stood there myself in my first ever election back in 2011 (when I got absolutely trounced by Pat Rackley). When UKIP stood here last year it was a bit of an innovation, as there had never been a UKIP candidate in St Martin’s before but they didn’t make much of an impact. Although their candidate, Andrew Morris, did come second. Mr Allport (whom I gather is the father of UKIP Group Leader Linda Allport-Hodge) is a first-time candidate and will clearly hope to improve on this. Again, there is no Lib Dem. Mr Burton-Sampson will be hoping to replicate Councillor Rackley’s 501 majority and 58% of the vote.
- BLOCK, Kayte (Labour)
- LATCHFORD, Terry (UKIP)
- RAINFORD, Tamara (Conservative)
Again, the Labour incumbent, former Leader of the Labour Group Byron Taylor, has decided not to seek re-election, so his seat will be defended by first-timer Miss Block. When Melissa McGeorge took the seat for Labour last year, she secured a majority of 153 votes over her UKIP rival. This year’s contender, Mr Latchford (first timer), will be seeking to make the breakthrough. This is not a particularly likely seat for a Tory to win, though Luke Mackenzie did represent the seat from 2008 to 2012 and the very lovely Tamara Rainford will be hoping to repeat that feat. Miss Block is nominally defending Councillor Taylor’s 2012 majority of 599 (59%). Although Councillor McGeorge was elected on a substantially reduced majority, this area is likely to remain Labour barring a miracle.
- BROCKMAN, Eunice (Wickford Independent)
- McGURRAN, Dolores (Labour)
- MORRIS, Carole (Conservative)*
- RADLEY, David (Liberal Democrat)
Carole Morris is the incumbent councillor defending the only Wickford seat up this year (there are no elections in either Wickford Castledon or Wickford Park). She is currently Chairman of the Licensing Committee and wife of His Worship the Mayor of Basildon, Cllr Don Morris (so technically our Mayoress). This seat, along with all the Wickford seats, was dramatically lost to UKIP in 2014 – a loss made all the more traumatic by the fact that it was our then leader, Tony Ball, who lost it. All three Wickford seats returned Tories last year during the local elections that coincided with the General Election. In something of a twist, Mrs Brockman, who stood for UKIP last year, is standing this year as a Wickford Independent. She does not want to create an ‘Independent Republic of Wickford’, as the name might imply (at least I don’t think she does), and she is distinct from an actual ‘Independent’, as she is a member of a group of people, albeit a group who pride themselves on ‘not being a political party’ but who have recently applied to the Electoral Commission for registration…as a political party. Anyway, the Wickford Independents came about as a result of the sitting Wickford members of the UKIP Group breaking away – for a variety of baffling reasons, making it clear that the actual reason was that they simply could not stand one another – and briefly formed ‘Wickford UKIP’ (or ‘Wookip’, as I started calling them). This led to them being expelled by UKIP nationally, so they became the Wickford Independents (though I still sometimes refer to them as ‘the Wookies’). In a further twist, there will be no UKIP candidate in Wickford North, as their would-be candidate Anne-Marie Waters failed to submit a valid nomination paper and was disqualified. Conversely, there will be a Lib Dem candidate, Mr Radley, both a first time candidate and the first time the Lib Dems have fielded any candidates in Wickford for some years. Mrs McGurran (wife of outgoing Pitsea councillor Aidan McGurran) will be standing for Labour, also as a first time candidate.
Last year, I finished off with some interesting factoids about the candidates, the first of which was the number of husband and wife teams we had standing last year, of which there were three. This year we have none. This is more unusual than it sounds. We also don’t have as many spouses of sitting councillors standing as normal. Last year there were six (including my own). This year there is only one: Mrs Blake, wife of Deputy Leader of the Council Kevin Blake (Mrs S didn’t fancy it this year); two if you include Mrs McGurran (though her husband is standing down). Two candidates are the sons of former councillors: David Kirkman, Labour candidate in Burstead, is the son of former Paul Kirkman, a former Labour Leader of the Council; and Ben Williams is directly seeking to succeed his own father in Nethermayne. Andrew Gordon, the Labour candidate in Lee Chapel North, is a nephew of former Labour Chairman of the Council, Lynda Gordon. Messrs Kirkman, Williams and Gordon are also the only three ex-councillors seeking to re-join the Council this year. Last year there were eight former councillors on the ballot, so this again is unusual.
We have no less than 21 candidates who are standing for election for the first time. Without looking back at past elections I cannot be sure but that feels like a lot. I don’t know if it’s a record but local politics is usually quite ‘incestuous’ (if that’s the right word), so I’m quite surprised by all the new faces, none of whom – on the face of it – seem to have any familial connexion to existing councillors, with the exception of Leslie Allport in St Martin’s, who is the father of UKIP leader Linda Allport-Hodge. This may be the first time the parent of a sitting councillor has stood as a candidate.
There are also five retiring councillors this year – Cllrs John Scarola (Lab, Laindon Park), Geoff Williams MBE (Lib Dem, Nethermayne), Aidan McGurran (Lab, Pitsea South-East), and Byron Taylor (Lab, Vange), and of course Trevor Malsbury (UKIP, Lee Chapel North), who has already resigned from the Council. The retirement of Councillor Williams brings to an end his more than three decades of service on Basildon Council, for which he was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire by Her Majesty the Queen last year.
Only the Tories and Labour are fielding candidates in all fourteen seats. UKIP are contesting thirteen but have no candidate in Wickford North. The Lib Dems are fielding just four candidates – in Laindon Park, Langdon Hills, Nethermayne and Wickford North – which is only one more than the Greens, who are contesting elections in Basildon for the first time that I can remember – in Laindon Park, Langdon Hills and Nethermayne. We also have two ‘Independents’ (one in Lee Chapel North and another in Nethermayne) and one ‘Wickford Independent’ in Wickford North.
Earlier this month I took part in elections to the Council of Governors of Basildon & Thurrock University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, the body that runs Basildon Hospital. Those of you who are members of the Trust (and, if you aren’t then you should consider joining – anyone can join their local NHS trust and take an interest in their hospital) and received ballot papers will have noted that I was not on the ballot.
For the past three years, I have been proud to serve as a Public Governor, representing the Basildon constituency on the Council of Governors, holding the Board of Directors to account, representing the interests of the local community, and acting as an ambassador for the Trust. The role of the governors is so important. As a Foundation Trust, BTUH remains part of the NHS, providing NHS services based on need and not on ability to pay. But, as a Foundation Trust, BTUH is more independent and accountable to the communities it serves. This means that instead of being run directly by the Department for Health, BTUH is accountable to local people through the membership arrangement. Being a Member of the Trust gives you a voice in the decision process of the Trust. The Trust’s independence allows it to make changes to services in a more responsive and less bureaucratic way.
It has been an astonishing period of transition for the Trust. Just a few short months after I became a governor, Sir Bruce Keogh published his report. As I had, by that time, recently been elected as a Conservative councillor for Billericay East, I was immediately tweeted by Cllr Gavin Callaghan (Lab, Pitsea North-West) asking me if I would resign, despite only having been in post for three months! This gave me an early taster of the level of political discourse I could expect from Gavin Callaghan but also the significant reputational challenges the Hospital would face.
As I said in my blog back in July 2013, the Keogh Report acknowledged that BTUH was undergoing a significant transformation in its management and governance structure and that there had been a change in culture across the Trust, dedicated to seeing improvements. I have seen that change take place, under the auspices of Clare Panniker, the Chief Executive appointed in 2012. Things could hardly have been bleaker at that time, when a survey showed that half the staff at the hospital would not recommend it to their friends or family. Being placed in special measures was a huge blow, as the necessary changes were all well underway (Sir Bruce acknowledged as much at the time). Morale was improving, staff were raising concerns and were actively being listened to.
I am happy to say that BTUH carried on down that path and, during my term as a governor, I have seen the regulators all endorse that transformation, saying they would be happy for their friends or family to be treated at Basildon Hospital. This culminated in the CQC awarding Basildon Hospital a “good” rating, as I reported in my blog last August. Our maternity care was the first in the country to be rated “outstanding”. Prof Sir Michael Richards, the new Chief Inspector of Hospitals, recommended to Monitor, the regulator of foundation trusts, that BTUH should be the first to be taken out of special measures.
The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has praised the turnaround at Basildon Hospital in Parliament. Although there will always be more to be done – and if you shine a light on any NHS Trust in the country looking for problems, you can be sure you will find them – I truly believe we have good cause to be proud of our hospital. I know it is easy to read anecdotal evidence online, of stories where somebody has had a bad experience, but Basildon Hospital is now in the top quartile of hospitals in this country. It has now had two consecutive ‘good’ ratings from the regulators and the Cardiothoracic Centre at Basildon is state of the art. But, of course, I am biased – my wife works there as a nurse.
I hugely enjoyed my time as a governor. I have decided not to seek a second term, as my personal circumstances have changed dramatically since I took up the position in April 2013. Back then, I was only working part-time and was engaged in what I was quietly confident would be an unsuccessful election campaign for Essex County Council. I had, therefore, anticipated being a far more active governor than I have been. Then, in June of that year, I stood successfully in the Billericay East bye-election and became your local councillor on Basildon Council. I also got a full-time job in London later that year. It has been increasingly difficult to juggle these roles, so I have decided the time is right to stand aside as a governor. I am tremendously proud of what the Trust has achieved over the past few years, although my own contribution was almost entirely negligible. Much credit must go to Clare Panniker and her marvellous team, our hardworking Board of Directors, my fellow governors, but more than anyone, the lion’s share of the praise must go to the unstinting dedication and tirelessness of all the amazing staff at Basildon Hospital.
As a Conservative – even one who is married to a nurse – people tend to make certain assumptions about your attitude to the NHS. They tend to bang on about Clement Attlee, Aneurin Bevan and the creation of the NHS by the post-war Labour Government in 1948 (completely obscuring the fact that the Conservative Party also had the creation of an NHS in its 1945 manifesto). Like the vast majority of Conservatives, I am fully committed to an NHS free and available at the point of use, based on need and not on the ability to pay. Whether I think the precise set-up and current structures of the NHS, essentially unreformed since the ‘40s, is the most effective way to keep our NHS sustainable into the future and ensure that we are delivering good patient outcomes is, of course, another question (but probably one for another blog). Throughout my time as a governor, I have tried to be a critical friend to the Trust. I am proud of what BTUH has achieved and I am sure the Hospital will continue to improve.
I am deeply indebted to everyone at the Secretariat, who support the work of the Council of Governors, and I wish my successors and those governors who have been reappointed all the very best for the future.
There has been a lot of adverse comment, both on social media and elsewhere, regarding the recent cut to Employment Support Allowance (ESA) – much of it in the form of tedious memes about Tory MPs’ expenses claims (which now pass through an independent authority and, when looked into, usually account for paying staff). But such details are irrelevant. All that matters is feeding into a narrative that obscures the actual issues and instead focusses on the public’s ongoing resentment towards MPs. But what is the issue here?
The issue here, just to remind everyone, is the Government’s aim to reduce the disability employment gap and, more generally, reform our bloated Welfare State. This Government have made good progress, by and large, in rationalising our country’s frankly cockamamie benefits system and helping many groups into work over the last few decades – with lone parent benefit claims around half their peak and unemployment claims a fraction of their ’80s and ’90s levels. Job outcomes for people with health conditions or disabilities have been the key failure of welfare policy in recent years. When ESA was introduced by the late Labour Government back in 2008, the then Work & Pensions Secretary, John Hutton, predicted there would be a million fewer claimants within a decade. Instead, the number has barely changed: from 2.6 million then to 2.5 million today. It has been a complete failure.
The hope is that Universal Credit (UC) will move us away from a situation, which Iain Duncan Smith has described, quite rightly, as “too many sick and disabled people languishing in a life without work, when work is actually possible for them.” However, whilst UC will improve work incentives and simplify the application process in some ways, in others it runs the risk of simply replicating the problems of the old system. You still have an expensive, stressful separate benefit gateway for disabled people called the ‘Work Capability Assessment’. This policy is an oxymoron, being about neither work, capability, nor a true assessment of anything. Rather, it is an unnecessarily confrontational encounter whereby claimants are required to satisfy some faceless apparatchik that they are indeed ‘sick enough’ to claim the higher rates of ESA. The medical assessments, it seems to me, bear little relationship to identifying a positive outcome to assist a claimant who wants to get back into work to do so.
Add to this the practically non-existent conditions that need to be fulfilled to continue receiving the benefit, and little access to any meaningful form of employment support, it is hardly surprising that even out of those claimants deemed able to carry out activities to help them move towards work – the so-called Work Related Activity Group (or ‘WRAG’) – only about 1% them actually manage to get off benefits and into work. That is shameful. Reforming this system is, as they say, an absolute ‘no-brainer’, both in order to ensure the Welfare State is sustainable and affordable into the future and also that claims are legitimate and the benefits paid out are actually ensuring that people with disabilities gain from the social, health and wellbeing, and financial advantages of work wherever possible.
The Government (though facing stiff opposition in the House of Lords, where it does not command a majority) has already gone some way towards reducing the financial incentives to claim one benefit over another by reducing the WRAG rate to that of Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA). It is very easy for the Opposition to paint every cut in welfare as just another ‘callous attack on the poor and disabled’ (because we’re all ‘Tory scum’, dontcha’ know, and just hate poor and disabled people) but this Government is attempting root and branch reform of the Welfare State, which Labour turned into a catastrophic quagmire of misplaced entitlement and benefit dependency. I have yet to hear Labour articulate what they would do. I think the Government must go further to fulfil our manifesto pledge to halve the disability employment gap. Personally, I would like to see a single out-of-work benefit for everyone regardless of health condition – a true ‘Universal Credit’ – that would allow any barriers to work for a claimant to be diagnosed separately from consideration of which out-of-work benefit they are eligible for. Reducing the rate to that of JSA would also release funds that could better be deployed to provide additional support to the most severely disabled through the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and increase investment in employment support programmes. We clearly need earlier, more comprehensive interventions that will allow the development of effective, personalised treatment plans to address a claimant’s health problems.
If people can work, then they should work. Not because they ‘owe it to society’, not because of some draconian notion of ‘civic duty’, but for their own wellbeing and to enable everyone in our society, including our disabled citizens, to take advantage of the restorative power and self-respect that comes from an honest day’s work.