This has been a tumultuous year for me – politically, professionally and personally – but also for Basildon Borough.
When I look back to the end of 2017 and where we were; Basildon Conservatives were in Opposition, having previously been in minority administration since Basildon Council fell into No Overall Control in 2014. We had been shunted out of office by an unholy alliance of Labour and UKIP, with the various ‘independents’ – led by Cllr Gavin Callaghan (Lab, Pitsea North-West), the most odious man in Basildon politics – who then set about wreaking class warfare and revenge politics against my town of Billericay. Almost their first act was to slash every penny of funding allocated to Billericay in the 2017/18 Budget and they then set about wasting taxpayers’ money on various pointless fripperies, vanity projects, little pet schemes and assorted boondoggles – most infamously of all, £400,000 on a council chamber for themselves. All we got to show for it was a 3% hike in the Council Tax.
In addition to continuing to serve on the busy Planning Committee, I was also honoured (and daunted) to be appointed to the Opposition frontbench as Spokesman on Regeneration and Environment. Sadly, this was the committee on which many of the investments in Billericay were brought forward for formal cancellation (or, in some cases, diversion to other areas) but, as all the committees were also hung like the Council itself due to rules around proportionality on committees, I was powerless. I had to sit back and watch the politics of spite being inflicted upon my town. I also had to cope with Labour’s incessant scaremongering about a ‘Tory plot’ to impose a ‘congestion charge’ on the A127 (a story that was always wholly without foundation).
Nationally, the picture was little better. We had a Conservative Government in Westminster who were struggling to get the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill through a hung Parliament, obstructed all the way by a Labour Opposition whose own position on Brexit was so vague and changeable as to defy description. It was a very febrile time.
The year started for me with a mixture of the surreal and the desolating. In early January, I was embroiled in a bizarre incident of misguided ‘Internet bullying’ at the hands of Councillor Callaghan over some cruel remarks he made about a picture of me, in a frankly weird affair the local press dubbed ‘Hatgate‘. It was easily the most silly and insane thing that has happened to me since I entered public life (at least until a few months later, when the former UKIP Deputy Mayor challenged me to a boxing match after a spat on Facebook but let’s not even go there). This rather odd but amusing online brouhaha went on for several days, which turned out to be fortunate distraction because, on the 6th January, my grandmother died.
Gran’s death, at the age of 86, was obviously personally devastating to me and my family, though tinged with a grotesque sense of relief, as she had lived with dementia for the preceding twelve years – mostly with good humour and stoicism but she had suffered horrendously over the last year. When Death came, it really was as a friend, though I knew I would miss her dreadfully (and indeed I have). I had already for many years been a Dementia Friend, an excellent scheme run by the Alzheimer’s Society, but I have since become a passionate advocate for it. It is a passion I share with my colleague, Cllr Jeff Henry (Con, Laindon Park). I was delighted when, in June, the Basildon Council Conservative Group agreed that the entire Group would sign up as Dementia Friends. Jeff and I followed this up in July with a motion to Full Council, which he moved and I seconded, to make Basildon Borough Council a dementia friendly organisation. The motion was passed and the Group hosted a Dementia Friends workshop in October. I would say of all the things I did in 2018, that gave me the most personal satisfaction and I cannot thank Jeff enough. He has really championed it.
Another big challenge this year has been illegal encampments in Billericay. The first was on 29th January, at Hannakins Farm. In October 2017, after years of lobbying, Parliament debated a change in the law and, shortly afterwards, the Government announced it would consult on the effectiveness of enforcement powers. I then moved a motion at Full Council in December of that year, calling for Basildon Council to respond to the consultation and endorse the so-called ‘Irish option‘ to make deliberate trespass a criminal offence. I also set up an e-petition.
The Basildon Borough Draft Local Plan continued to loom large over 2018. The Lab/UKIP Coalition held a farcical meeting of the Infrastructure, Growth and Development Committee at the Towngate Theatre, which had to be called off when over 300 residents were shut outside in the pouring rain. But they reconvened a few days later at the Sporting Village and passed a truly ugly baby of a plan. Although Conservative councillors managed to force a U-turn on the route of the proposed relief road through Frith Wood, it was a hollow victory. Even the Chairman, Linda Allport-Hodge herself, later said her plan would “ruin” the whole borough but it was duly published by the last Full Council and then we were into the 2018 Local Elections, with a great deal riding on it.
Local elections are always fraught, especially when you are the Deputy Chairman for Political and Campaigning for two Conservative associations (as I was at the time), but 2018 was particularly stressful for me, as I was up for re-election myself in Billericay East. Notwithstanding my own desire to be re-elected, Basildon Borough Conservatives were desperate to regain control of Basildon Council and try to arrest the damage that was being done by the Coalition. I was profoundly honoured to be re-selected to defend my seat by Billericay and District Conservative Association and we needed to win four more seats in order to take back control of the Council and, fortunately, after an extremely plucky campaign, we did just that. I was deeply humbled to be re-elected in Billericay East, along with other Conservative colleagues, and we also won seats in Laindon, Pitsea and Wickford and took back control of the Council. It was a stupendous victory, marred only by the decision of our then Leader, Cllr Phil Turner (Con, Billericay West), to stand down. Phil had led us through a difficult period to a stunning return to power but felt the time was right to stand aside. This pill was made slightly less bitter to swallow by the resignation, the day after Polling Day, of Gavin Callaghan.
The hard work started almost instantaneously. Less than a week after Polling Day, the newly enlarged Conservative Group on Basildon Council held their AGM and I was elected Chairman of the Group. Cllr Andrew Baggott (Con, Burstead) was elected as our new Leader and his first action as Leader-designate of Basildon Council was to write to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government requesting a meeting to discuss the Local Plan. UKIP were decimated in the local elections, halved in number to just five. Within days, one of them resigned, triggering a by-election. A further two broke away to form the ‘Nethermayne Independents’, leaving just two still sitting under the UKIP banner. Labour were now, once again, the main Opposition group, led now by Cllr Adele Brown (Lab, Fryerns). At the Council AGM on 24th May, Councillor Baggott was confirmed as Leader of the Council and my friend and ward colleague, Cllr David Dadds (Con, Billericay East) was elected Mayor of Basildon. But it was a big night for me also. I came off the Planning Committee, which was a major deprivation for me, as I had served on the Committee for four years and genuinely loved it. But I now joined the Administration frontbench as Chairman of Economic Development and Growth and ex officio a member of the senior Policy Oversight and Strategy Committee (as close as we can get to a ‘Cabinet’ whilst still operating within the wretched Committee System).
On the 31st, we had that meeting with the Housing Secretary, the Rt Hon James Brokenshire MP. He was sympathetic but in earnest that Basildon had to pass a Local Plan within the current time frame and that any slippage could lead to Government intervention and to Basildon being stripped of her planning powers. We knew the pressure would be on but, in June, we voted to rescind the publication of the Local Plan and make some moderate adjustments. Around this time, I was also placed in charge of the working group looking at the Council’s response to the Government consultation on enforcement powers and, gratifyingly, the Council did indeed ultimately endorse the ‘Irish option’. Our MPs are currently pushing for legislation to be introduced in due course. This became timely when Billericay suffered yet another Traveller incursion in July, this time at Sun Corner, later moving to Queen’s Park.
I threw myself into the work of my new portfolio, which apart from chairing meetings of the Economic Development and Growth Committee, has involved attending a lot of other meetings as well. I sit on the South Essex Active Travel Sponsoring Board and attend regular meetings of the Basildon Business Group (BBG), as well as meetings with Invest Essex, Opportunity South Essex and Highways England and attending various events, such as the Basildon Engineering Showcase, the Basildon Street Science Festival, the GoTrade high-level strategic meeting in Great Yarmouth in September and the Your Future 18 careers event, BBG Networking Dinner and the Basildon Business Expo in November and attended the Assembly of Council Leaders’ East of England Summit in Cambridge on behalf of Councillor Baggott. I will also be attending the Wider South East Summit at London City Hall in the New Year and we have a major investor event in London as well. So it has been very busy but also, from my perspective, very enriching and rewarding. I have visited local businesses and spoken to local entrepreneurs and have toured the industrial estates and commercial premises around the Borough and have been amazed at the vitality and innovation across Basildon. I relaunched the Pathways to Success Panel, looking at apprenticeships and training in the Borough, and I was also reappointed to the Board of Trustees of the Basildon and Thurrock Citizens’ Advice Bureau, so there really has been no time off for good behaviour.
We sought early on to fulfill our election promise by immediately revoking the parsimonious parking charges introduced by the Coalition in all council-owned car parks in the Borough, including the one in Billericay High Street. After working hard on the issue for over a year, I also successfully lobbied to have new CCTV installed in the High Street and, indeed, the new Conservative Administration has finally instituted a CCTV policy to try and rationalise what has been, up until now, a fairly fragmented and unreliable system of CCTV around the Borough. The Conservatives have also allocated a budget of £350,000 for a programme of public realm improvements to the Billericay Conservation Area.
Since my re-election, I have tried to support local groups. It was a pleasure to attend the Billericay Art Trail launch and see it grow, as it has every year. I was disappointed, however, that my new responsibilities meant it was only possible for me to attend one performance at the Billericay Community Cinema this year, when I gave a talk on Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. I enjoy giving my ‘resident film nerd’ talks and I hope I can do many more, particularly as the 2019 programme looks so good! I had a couple of very fruitful meetings with the emerging Billericay Tree Warden Group and I look forward to supporting their activities. It was also an honour to lay the wreath at the Billericay War Memorial on Remembrance Sunday on behalf of the Conservative Party (the second time I have done so and proudly wearing the medals my great-grandfather won in the First World War in his memory and in memory of all those who fought and died in the Great War, a hundred years ago).
I will say, quite frankly, that I had what I thought were a couple of very positive meetings with the Billericay Action Group (now merged with the Billericay and District Residents’ Association) but I fear we were necessarily at crossed purposes, insofar as their understanding of what we would be able to do with the Draft Local Plan was concerned. This is regrettable but unavoidable. We revised the housing allocation in south-west Billericay and saw to it that all the proposed Gypsy and Traveller pitches were removed, as well as resisting several Labour attempts to put thousands more houses in Billericay but, ultimately, we ran out of time. We received a letter from the Housing Secretary in August, advising that the Chief Planner would be ‘visiting’ Basildon’s Planning Department to offer ‘assistance’ and, in October, we simply had to publish our Draft Local Plan to the Regulation 19 consultation. We simply dare not leave it any longer, else risk having some faceless apparatchik from the Planning Inspectorate write a plan for us.
More generally, the new Administration has been at pains to listen to and engage with residents across the Borough. My colleague, Cllr Andy Barnes (Con, Laindon Park), as Chairman of Communities, has been holding ‘Together for Safer Communities’ meetings across the Borough to listen to residents’ concerns and the Leader, Councillor Baggott, has been holding ‘Meet the Leader’ events, where anyone can turn up and question him on anything they like. I have been doing regular ‘vlogs’ on my Facebook page since June and Basildon Conservatives now have a YouTube channel. My friend and colleague, Cllr Anthony Hedley (Con, Billericay West), as Chairman of Regeneration, has breathed new life into regen’ projects that had effectively stalled or withered on the vine under the Coalition. The relocation of Basildon Market to St Martin’s Square is now complete and, with the public realm works due for completion early in the New Year, that end of Basildon Town Centre should start to look really smart. My team are also opening The Advice Store – a one-stop-ship for advice on careers and skills – at the site of the old ‘Party Fiesta’ shop and the new college will be opening at the old Market site, bringing much needed footfall. Councillor Hedley is progressing the creation of a new state-of-the-art multiplex cinema at Freedom House in East Square, which will be run by Empire Cinemas, with cafes and restaurants. This will create a vibrant leisure offer in the heart of the Town Centre and bring the night-time economy it so desperately needs to address changes to retail habits.
Aside from regeneration, the Conservatives have also increased funding for additional street scene enforcement officers, to crackdown on fly-tipping and other environmental offences. There has also been investments in a number of community facilities around the Borough. Sempra Homes, the building company we founded before we left office, is continuing to deliver the first new generation of council houses in decades. We have secured over £500,000 in funding to tackle rough sleeping and we have improved the hot meals service at the George Hurd Centre. With Essex County Council, we are rolling out superfast broadband in the Borough. Our next big challenge for the New Year will be delivering a balanced budget.
Much has been achieved but there is much still to do and the political situation in Basildon remains fractious. We would like to work more positively with the Opposition. The overly partisan nature of Basildon politics is neither necessary or desirable. But Councillor Brown was gone by September and Gavin Callaghan is back. He, sadly, has no more genuine interest in a “kinder, gentler politics” than his own party leader, whom he so despises. Both are committed to a highly personalised, petty and vindictive form of political warfare. Nevertheless, the Conservatives locally will continue to pursue an agenda founded upon our positive vision for Basildon Borough and the faith we place in its people. Nationally, I remain optimistic as well. Obviously, I have so far studiously avoided the dreaded ‘B’ word in this blog, but the Withdrawal Act is now passed. One way or the other, I am confident we are leaving the European Union in accordance with the democratically expressed wishes of 17.4 million people, and I and my Economic Development Team at Basildon Council are working to ensure that the Borough will be able to weather the difficulties and seize the opportunities of Brexit positively.
The ongoing Brexit imbroglio sadly obscures what is an otherwise positive record nationally. Since returning to government in 2010, the Conservatives have presided over nothing less than an economic miracle. We now have the lowest unemployment of my lifetime (the lowest since 1975 in fact, seven years before I was born), with 2 million more people in work and a million more businesses created. We have seen the creation of 1,000 new jobs a day since 2010 and the deficit has been almost eradicated, now at its lowest level since before the financial crisis. Youth unemployment is down 44.2%. The number of first-time buyers is now at its highest since 2007. We are running a budget surplus for first time in sixteen years (£2 billion). That is how we have been able to put £20.5 billion more into the NHS and give hard-working staff a pay-rise. We have invested £400 million more in schools and seen the creation of thousands of new free schools, which has hugely improved literacy rates. The National Living Wage has been increased, whilst Income Tax has been cut, the State pension boosted and fuel duty frozen. We now have the fastest wage growth in over a decade (up 3.1%) and exports are at a record high (£616 billion). We have cut business rates for small shops by a third to support small businesses and, closer to home, Essex Highways received £2 million to tackle potholes. Essex Police’s funding was increased by £8.8 million and Essex County Council was awarded nearly £6 million for adult social care.
Like I say; lots done but lots still left to do. I am ready for whatever 2019 has to offer. Let’s get cracking.