This blog should start with an apology, as I realise it is my first one since November of last year. Happy belated New Year to you all and I hope you all had lovely Christmases. It means I did not write up the meeting of Full Council in December or January.
I am not sure why I didn’t write-up the December meeting, I think I just couldn’t find the time, but I will take this opportunity to make a few observations about those meetings. Firstly, at the December meeting it was announced by Cllr Phil Turner (Con, Billericay West), the Leader of the Council, that Basildon Council is to become a Living Wage employer, which I think is very welcome. He also announced that my friend and ward colleague, Cllr David Dadds (Con, Billericay East), has been appointed a Justice of the Peace. Councillor Dadds, who runs a firm of solicitors in Billericay High Street in our ward, has been awarded this accolade, which essentially makes him a magistrate. Congratulations must go to him. It was also announced, by Cllr Dr Richard Moore (Con, Burstead), Cabinet Member for Regeneration & Planning, that following much speculation about the new Morrison’s not opening in Pitsea Town Centre, while Morrison’s have now indeed taken a nationwide decision not to go ahead with new store openings, they have decided to sub-let the new Pitsea premises to The Range, one of the biggest home leisure chains in the UK. This is a great result for Pitsea, after much scaremongering by the Labour Group that the premises would remain vacant.
Councillor Moore made a further announcement regarding the Felmores bail hostel, something about which the Labour leader, Cllr Gavin Callaghan (Lab, Pitsea North-West), has been harassing the Administration for some time. Councillor Moore was able to reveal that it has since emerged that Councillor Callaghan was in fact written to by the then Prisons Minister advising that, contrary to the position of Councillor Callaghan, who alleged that the Ministry of Justice supported the relocation of the bail hostel, the MoJ in fact do not support that contention and wrote to Councillor Callaghan as far back as December 2014 to tell him as much, yet he has continued to allege otherwise and accused the Tory Administration on Basildon Council of blocking the move. The MoJ also confirmed that the sale of the present site would have to fund the new site and they would not be able to meet any shortfall. The Minister in fact requested that Councillor Callaghan share this information with other councillors but he neglected to do so. Nevertheless, Councillor Moore advised that he had asked the Chairman of the Overview & Scrutiny Commission to set up a meeting with the National Probation Service and also a Task & Finish group to carry on the relocation efforts (which he invited Councillor Callaghan to volunteer to chair). I shall keep you posted with developments on this.
Public Question Time on that occasion included a very good question from a Mr Gary Maylin, a Laindon resident, asking the Leader about housing in the Borough. It precipitated an interesting and, I think, underreported response from Councillor Turner, as to the largely unheralded achievements of the Administration with regard to the delivery of housing in Basildon. In particular, the setting up of Sempra Homes, the Council’s wholly-owned company, providing quality social housing across the Borough. It was good to hear the progress that Sempra are making and also the good work the Council has done in refurbishing our existing housing stock in the New Town, notably the regeneration of the Five Links Estate and Craylands. The Council has identified land for the delivery of 500 good quality Council homes. This is great news. I believe this Tory Administration is the first administration on Basildon Council to provide new social housing in over two decades.
Probably the most controversial item at that meeting was a motion by the Deputy Leader of the Council, Cllr Kevin Blake (Con, Burstead), regarding illegal encampments, seeking to petition the Government for stronger powers for local authorities to deal with legal encampments. The legal process for removing these illegal encampments is extremely lengthy and expensive. As Councillor Blake pointed out, the clean-up of just one site (which included cleaning up human excrement) cost the authority £700. There followed a pretty reasonable discussion about the challenges of dealing with illegal encampments, respecting the wishes of local residents in the settled community whilst balancing that with the needs of the Traveller community. There were many speakers in the debate: Cllrs Chris Jackman (Con, Wickford Park), David Harrison (WI, Wickford Park), Councillor Dadds, Cllr Terri Sargent (Con, Crouch), and each successive speaker stressed the need not to make generalisations about any particular group in society. Then the UKIP leader, Cllr Linda Allport-Hodge (U, Langdon Hills), got to her feet and made a speech that conflated, in one breath, eastern European immigration (apparently unaware that Romany gypsies and Romanians are not the same thing), the atrocities in Paris and even the 7/7 bombings in London! It prompted a furious response from other members of the Council.
Otherwise, the rest of the December meeting was fairly uncontroversial. There was some re-jiging of the seats on committees to reflect changes to the Council’s composition, following the splitting off of the three Wickford UKIP councillors to form their own group (the Wickford ‘Gang of Three’ originally formed the ‘Wickford UKIP Group’ but, despite forming their new group with the alleged acquiescence of the Basildon Group Leader, Councillor Allport-Hodge, they found themselves expelled by UKIP nationally, so are now the self-styled ‘Wickford Independents’ – shame, as I had just about succeeded in getting everyone to call them ‘Wookip’). Also, as a result of the shameful vote to remove Cllr Carole Morris (Con, Wickford North) as Chairman of the Planning Committee, we had a vote to elect a new chairman. This effectively brought to an end my reign of terror over that Committee. As vice-chairman, I have been exercising the duties of the chairmanship since Councillor Morris was removed in October. Councillor Callaghan nominated Planning Committee member Cllr Alan Bennett (Lab, Lee Chapel North), seconded by his deputy Cllr Byron Taylor (Lab, Vange). Cllr Peter Holliman (WI, Wickford North), Leader of the Wickford Independents, nominated Wickford Independent member of the Committee Cllr Alan Ball (WI, Wickford Castledon), seconded by Councillor Harrison. The Leader of the Council nominated Cllr Stephen Hillier (Con, Langdon Hills), seconded by Cllr Andrew Baggott (Con, Burstead). I hugely enjoyed my time chairing the Committee but it is a much more onerous responsibility than I had anticipated, which required me to go into the Council offices regularly to meet with planning officers and to go through planning applications. As a young man, working in London and only recently married, it was, perhaps, not quite my time yet. Councillor Hillier, as a former chairman of Planning, was eminently suitable and he had my vote. Having secured the necessary majority, he was duly elected Chairman.
We also had to vote for a new Vice-Chairman of the Joint Standards Committee. The Committee had recently been shrunk to just three members and, as the nominees had to already be sitting on the Committee and it is already chaired by a Tory, Cllr Stuart Allen (Con, Crouch), this matter was only of passing interest to us. Cllr David Sheppard (U, Fryerns) nominated Councillor Allport-Hodge, stating that UKIP had been given the vice-chairmanship as part of the Order Paper at the last Council AGM (it was previously held by Cllr Trevor Malsbury before Councillor Allport-Hodge replaced him on the Committee). He was seconded by Cllr Stephen Hodge (U, Nethermayne). Councillor Callaghan nominated Cllr Andrew Buxton (Lab, St Martin’s), seconded by Councillor Taylor. The Conservative Group did not vote, so Councillor Buxton was selected, rather to the chagrin of the UKIP Group, who felt entitled to the vice-chairmanship.
The Council received a mid-term review of the Members’ Remuneration Scheme from the Chairman of the Independent Remuneration Panel, the Ven David Lowman, Archdeacon of Chelmsford. The Archdeacon presented his report, the only really significant change in which was the introduction of a special responsibility allowance for scrutiny sub-committee chairman (who have largely taken on the roles previously filled by the old scrutiny committees before they were all rolled into the Overview & Scrutiny Commission). As the IRP is non-partisan and independent, Council traditionally accept any recommendations without debate but, nonetheless, Councillor Allport-Hodge stood up and made a speech, subtly bemoaning that she had not been paid an SRA when she was a Cabinet Member without Portfolio and she and her group abstained on the vote. I think most of us thought it was pretty tasteless to quibble over the recommendation of an independent body. The recommendation of the IRP was subsequently endorsed by both the current Chairman of Overview & Scrutiny, Councillor Baggott, and his predecessor, Councillor Dadds, and duly adopted.
We had the vote on the Basildon Community Safety Partnership report for 2015-18, which had been deferred to await a briefing from Essex Police on their plans. There was still some uncertainty in light of the announcement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Rt Hon George Osborne MP, and questions about how this would affect Essex Police and Labour tried to have the matter deferred again but members were satisfied that it was important to get the strategy in place and allow the scrutiny function of Council to keep it under review. We also voted on the Localised Council Tax Support Scheme and the Gambling Policy Statement.
There were two motions heard at the December meeting. Councillor Harrison moved a motion, seconded by Councillor Holliman, asking the O&S Commission, in conjunction with the Monitoring Officer, to review the Council’s Constitution. Councillor Baggott spoke on this motion and made it clear that the O&S Commission was up for the challenge and the motion was carried. There was just enough time remaining for Cllr Amanda Arnold (Con, Pitsea South-East) to move her motion urging an existing grammar school to create a new annexe in Basildon. In moving her motion, Councillor Arnold also made her maiden speech and spoke with great fluency and clarity in arguing in favour of bringing a grammar school to the Borough. I had written a speech in support of Councillor Arnold’s motion but we ran out of time before I was able to deliver it. Only her seconder, Councillor Sargent, and Councillor Allport-Hodge were able to speak before we hit the 11:30 guillotine. This prompted a furious response from the Council’s lone Green councillor, Cllr Phil Rackley (G, St Martin’s), a committed Marxist and fierce opponent of grammar schools. Despite his fulminations, the motion was put to the vote and I was very pleased to vote for it. The motion was passed. The other motions were either voted on without debate or deferred to the next meeting.
Just finally, on the January 2016 meeting of Full Council, I did attend the meeting purely to vote on Item 4, which was the election of a Chairman of the Licensing Committee (to replace Councillor Hillier following his election as Chairman of Planning in December). Councillor Hillier nominated as his successor, Cllr Carole Morris (his predecessor at Planning), and was seconded by Councillor Baggott. Councillor Holliman proposed Councillor Harrison, seconded by Councillor Ball, and Councillor Buxton proposed Cllr John Scarola (Lab, Laindon Park), seconded by Councillor Callaghan. On being put to the vote, I am pleased to say that Councillor Morris was elected, effectively ‘recycling’ her following her wholly unjust removal from Planning. I then left the meeting, as Item 5 was a vote on putting the Basildon Borough Draft Local Plan out to consultation and I have previously declared a non-pecuniary interest, as I have a close relative who owns land under consideration in the plan, so take no part in any debates or votes on the subject.