The day we knew was coming finally arrived last Thursday at the Policy & Resources Committee of Basildon Council. Having ousted the Conservative Administration in May, we knew it was only a matter of time before the new Labour-led coalition now running Basildon Council came after the people of Billericay. Billericay residents are guilty of a heinous act of ‘thoughtcrime’ in the eyes of Coalition councillors, namely that they consistently support and vote for the Conservative Party.
Last week’s meeting of P&R featured an agenda item to pull funding for three Billericay projects – specifically £365,000 allocated for public realm improvements in Billericay High Street, £150,000 for renovations at Billericay Swimming Pool, and a measly £80,000 to remove the bottle banks from South Green Shops (near where I grew up) and expand the car park. All told, we are talking here about only a little over half a million pounds of investment in Billericay.
Billericay is a relatively affluent area. We do not need a lot. We do not pretend that we need a lot. But residents of Billericay pay their taxes just like everywhere else in the Borough and are entitled to see their town see its fair share of investment. Despite the unwelcome sobriquet ‘The Billericay Mafia’ having been bestowed upon the late Tory Administration, Billericay has probably seen less than £1 million spent on it over the last few years. Conversely, the Tories lavished millions on regeneration projects in Basildon Town Centre, in Pitsea, Wickford, Laindon, all over the Borough. We did that because we knew it was right, because we knew those areas needed investment and regeneration, because we knew the residents deserved it, and because the Conservative Group is the ONLY group on Basildon Council that actually represents the entire borough and has councillors in every part of the borough. These three projects represent the sum total that was placed in the last budget for investment in Billericay and now the divisive forces of Labour, UKIP, and the so-called ‘independents’ on the Council are seeking to take these investments away for no other reason than political spite. The Coalition claims that they are simply scrutinising spending ring hollow. If that is true, why are ongoing projects in Laindon or Basildon Town Centre not being looked at? No, this is all about putting the boot into Billericay.
These three projects were already budgeted for an allocated as part of the Budget voted on by Full Council. To scrap them is both petty vindictiveness against the Conservative Group and part of the Labour Party’s wider Corbynite politics of envy. Labour and and the largely left-wing councillors in UKIP hate Billericay because they perceive Billericians as ‘well-to-do’ and Tory-voting. They have no stake in Billericay because they have no seats there. They therefore seek to punish Billericay voters for the way they vote and for being ‘too rich’. It is disgusting and it is unnecessary but these are the only kind of politics understood by an intellectual minnow like Cllr Gavin Callaghan (Lab, Pitsea NW), the new ‘Chairman of Policy & Resources’ (effectively leader of the Council in all but name). He is the political equivalent of a yappy little junk yard terrier; an Internet troll made flesh and now terrorising the real world of Basildon politics. It does not need to be like this. This kind of revenge politics is a choice. The Tories never picked on places like Lee Chapel or Vange because they never vote Tory and we did not try to punish places like Pitsea or Laindon when we started losing seats there.
Tellingly, when the story was published by the Echo, neither ‘Chairman Mouth’ nor his deputy, Cllr Linda Allport-Hodge (UKIP, Langdon Hills), were prepared to comment to defend their bullying tactics. Councillor Allport-Hodge did eventually stick her head above the parapet in order to make some menacing remarks that made it quite clear that the agenda here is revenge for the closure of Pitsea Swimming Pool.
Unfortunately, I could not be at the meeting last Thursday as I was at a wedding but Billericay was well represented by my ward colleague Cllr David Dadds JP (Con, Billericay East) and Cllrs Phil Turner (Con, Billericay West) and Kevin Blake (Con, Burstead), all of whom argued passionately and forcefully to retain this funding for Billericay. If you are of a somewhat morbid disposition,
you can listen to the audio recording of the meeting here. In a nutshell, however, what happened was that we were treated to a whole load of guff from Councillors Callaghan and Allport-Hodge about possible alternative sources of funding and the need to scrutinise Council spending. It was strange, then, that the £0.5 million being kept back for Laindon (where UKIP have two seats) was not looked at, nor was any of the monies earmarked for Basildon Town Centre (represented by two Labour councillors). Only the projects in Billericay appear to be under scrutiny. Much was made of the £4m funding gap that needs to be filled but it seems the Coalition do not know the difference between capital and revenue. Cancelling these schemes will do nothing to address our £4m funding gap because these are one-off expenditures. The outgoing Tory Administration bequeathed the Coalition very healthy reserves of £21m and Councillor Callaghan wants to spend around £3m of that on moving the Felmores Bail Hostel out of his ward (and probably into Billericay!) even though that is not a statutory duty of our local authority. It is a political choice he is making in order to fulfill a stupid promise he made to his electors in Pitsea North-West.
Cllrs Turner and Blake moved an amendment to strike the recommendation from the report but this was defeated by Coalition councillors. After some very skillful argument from Councillor Dadds, however, he was successful in persuading the Committee to remove Billericay High Street and the £365K from the report. This was a major win for Billericay but it does mean that the other two projects, Billericay Swimming Pool and the South Green Shops car park, will now be referred to the Regeneration & Environment Committee to review. I sit on that committee – in fact I am the lead Conservative member – so Billericay residents can rest assured that I will be making the argument vigorously to retain this investment for Billericay.