Last night was the first meeting of the new Regeneration & Environment Committee – one of the four new service committees brought in by the Labour-led Coalition under their new Committee System, which replaced the Leader and Cabinet model. It is chaired by Cllr Alan Ball (WI, Wickford Castledon).
The meeting was an embarrassing farce from start to finish. Filled with the worst kind of pork barrel politics. No sooner have the Coalition got their hands on the levers of power, already they are now tweaking the purse strings. They just cannot wait to spend your money and it has already started, with Cllr Gavin Callaghan (Lab, Pitsea North-West) using his role as Chairman of the Policy & Resources Committee to tuck into the healthy reserves, bequeathed to him by the late Tory Administration, like a ravenous, greedy piglet and handing out thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money to the four service committees to splurge on their personal pet projects. And splurge it they clearly are.
Last night, the Coalition voted through a splurge of £174,500 on extra Pride Teams. Of course, we all love the Pride Teams. You can never have too many of those! But this is a trap being set for the Conservatives because it is only for a two-year period (eg, long enough to take them into the next borough elections in 2018). Bearing in mind, the grass-cutting contract is for 5-7 years! Looking at this project in two years’ time and trying to assess whether it has provided value for money and ought to be continued, I doubt it will tell us very much. The Coalition also want to take on the Essex County Council rangers, which they were keen to stress would be ‘cost neutral’ because ECC will cover the cost but, on questioning, there was nothing in writing and they could not categorically guarantee that Essex would fund the rangers for the whole two years. It also entails taking on and potentially training at least two new members of staff and then potentially having to sack them in a couple of years’ time. You would never know we are supposed to be trying to save over £6 million to plug the Council’s funding gap. But the Coalition are not worried about that. They are not worried about anything beyond May 2018 at this point. Splurge!
What was noticeable by its absence from the splurge was any mention anywhere in the work programme for either Regen & Environment or, indeed, Policy & Resources, of Labour’s much-vaunted ‘Forgotten Estates’. This was a mantra oft bemoaned about by Councillor Callaghan and former councillor Aidan McGurran. Yet nowhere is it now mentioned. This rather confirms the position that it was always a political stick with which the Labour Pitsea councillors liked to whip the Tory Administration. If they really cared, why is it not among their boondoggles being bankrolled now?
Oh, one area that is not benefitting from Councillor Callaghan’s largesse is Planning Enforcement (see previous blog). In addition to the Coalition’s apparent relaxation on the Council’s approach to illegal encampments, we were treated to a game of smoke and mirrors with the enforcement budget. If any Coalition councillor tells you that they increased the enforcement budget by £600K, please be aware that it is ‘fake news’. Under the prudent management of the last Tory Administration, an accumulated sum of £2.2 million of unspent budget provision was carried forward from 2016/17. The £600K in the agenda, being billed as “additional resourcing” was taken directly from this £2.2m, a substantial amount of which needs to be kept in reserves for any possible Hovefields site clearance. But, as was pointed out at the meeting, officers can access any or all of that funding whenever they like, without any need for the Regen & Environment Committee to vote on it, as happened last night. That is what the funding was saved as a contingency for. Essentially, all the Coalition have done is move £600K of existing funding from one column on a spreadsheet to another but it explicitly billed in the Committee report as “additional funding”. The Council’s Monitoring Officer, who was present at the meeting, confirmed that it was the same pot of money and tried to make out that it was some kind of drafting error in the report! She and the officers seemed initially willing to remove that recommendation, so that instead of pretending to provide more money we were simply accepting the officer’s otherwise welcome report. This was refused by the chairman and, when forced reluctantly put to a vote, was voted down by Coalition members. So, no doubt you will receive a leaflet at some point saying they have put more money in enforcement. They have not. It is twaddle.
The final contentious matter discussed at the meeting really was the biggest farce of the night and that was an item on whether or not Basildon Council should participate on the Local Highways Panel (LHP). Every borough/district in Essex has an LHP and, as in the normal practice, Basildon was offered representation on the panel. They normally consist of four county councillors and four borough councillors but must match the political proportionality on ECC, which would mean three Tories and one Labour. Now, personally, I do not favour borough councillors sitting on the LHP because I tend to think it should be the nine democratically elected county members for the borough who have been elected to the Local Highways Authority that ought to sit and vote on the LHP (I am open to the idea of borough councillors being enabled to attend as observers but I would not favour county councillors being excluded to accommodate us). I did not get an opportunity to express an opinion one way or the other, however, as the vote was a total sham. This was because, unilaterally and entirely outside of any authority granted to him by dint of his position as Chairman of the Housing & Community Committee, Cllr Kerry Smith (Ind, Nethermayne), who is also county councillor for Westley Heights, took it upon himself to write to the Cabinet Member for Highways at ECC and refuse, on behalf of the entire borough council, the offer of borough representation on the LHP.
This is a disgraceful and outrageous abuse of his position by Councillor Smith, who has at least exposed all the ‘happy families’ nonsense we were fed when the Committee System was brought in for the pile of hogwash that it is. The whole point of the Committee System, we were told, was that it was supposed be more inclusive than the Cabinet System, and involve ALL forty-two members of the Council in decision-making. Yet Councillor Smith sent an e-mail stating, and I quote: “On behalf of this new administration which is now in charge of Basildon Borough Council, we will not be participating…”. What administration? We are not supposed to have an administration. We do not have a Leader of the Council or a deputy. We do not have a Cabinet. The Council is supposed to be governed by all forty-two councillors in committees. This was properly a matter for the Regen & Environment Committee to vote upon but instead Councillor Smith has executed a fait accompli because he is swanning around in his new-found role, full of his own crapulence, acting like he is a Cabinet Member, with all the executive authority that would have entailed. But he is NOT a Cabinet Member. He is just a jumped-up chairman of a committee! He goes on to say, in a separate email I have also had sight of, to state quite bluntly the real reason for his unilateral refusal. “I have spoken with the other three group leaders [NB: there are FOUR group leaders on Basildon Council!] of the new administration and we will not be sending any Conservatives. This is based on the fact that the Conservatives are now the opposition to the new administration”. So now we have a new administration AND an opposition. So much for us all working together under the Committee System. Councillor Smith has let the cat out of the bag. This is, and always has been, all about a coalition led by Councillor Callaghan – the leader of a group of just nine councillors – getting into bed with a group of ten and two separate groups of just two councillors each in order to form a ‘coalition of the losers’ to totally exclude a Conservative Group of NINETEEN democratically elected councillors; the largest group on the Council! I should just add, that right at the beginning of the agenda item, it was painfully obvious that Councillor Ball was aware that Councillor Smith had acted entirely outside his remit and without any authority whatsoever and that this committee was required to make a decision but tried to gloss over the fact that the whole thing was a farce because, in the meantime, ECC have already actioned Councillor Smith’s instructions and constituted the LHP without any participation from Basildon. Indeed, they had their first meeting last month, as Councillor Smith well knows because he now sits on it!
The only bright mark of the whole meeting was the final agenda item, which was to receive a report from the Regeneration Team on progress so far on the various regeneration projects started under the Conservatives all over the borough, including the Basildon Town Centre masterplan, public realm works in Billericay, the delivery of the new Laindon Centre, Pitsea Town Centre regeneration, and the delivery of the new health centre in Wickford (which, incidentally, was recently opened by His Worship the Mayor, brazenly, despite the fact he bitterly opposed it every step of the way). If the ‘new administration’ really had any guts or passion at all, this would have been the first item on the agenda, front and centre. Instead we spent about an hour discussing the work programme for the committee and the major regeneration projects going on all over the borough was relegated to about 20mins at half-past ten at night.
To say I have not been left filled with confidence would be a gross understatement.