Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Conservative plans for more school places delayed by Labour

During the general election campaign, Labour politicians seriously misjudged the public mood locally and nationally.  At their peril, they talked down the economic recovery.  They attacked measures to help ordinary and aspirational families and failed to admit they spent too much in the Blair/Brown years.  They also failed to offer a credible alternative to a successful Conservative-led government.
Locally, Labour are still churning out the same views that lost them the election, as demonstrated at the town hall last night.
At the 'ARG' committee, we debated what sort of new homes we should be building in Barnet. Labour seemed obsessed with one tenure: social rented.  Affordable homes are crucial in helping to meet housing need and Barnet council has overseen a net increase of 1,400 such homes.  But to focus solely on social rented simply ignores the aspirations of many residents to own their home as expressed in numerous housing surveys.  Barnet Conservatives understand this. Instead of trapping people in a social rented tenure, our regeneration schemes are introducing an element of shared ownership.  It's always been a good way of helping people take the step from renting to owning and it's needed more than ever before.
Barnet Labour and their 'radical left' friends have accused us of 'social cleansing', however when I look out of my window over what used to be the Stonegrove Estate, I see mixed, good quality housing and a mixed community. The ghetto of deprivation and decaying, depressing, unattractive architectural mistakes of the past are almost gone.  Labour talk of social cleansing yet they're blind to the irony of their recent proposal for 100% affordable housing on one development.  Would that proposal have brought about a mixed community?  I doubt it very much. 
Londoners need homes and Barnet, at least, is building them.  Surely, it should naturally follow that we need to build new schools?  Barnet is also doing well on this; we've set aside tens of £millions to expand existing schools and supported the founding of free schools and academies. 
Labour, of course, aren't pleased with this.  They falsely claim we're not providing the necessary infrastructure to support regeneration while wilfully delaying the building of a badly needed primary school in a Labour ward.

Last night, Labour councillors used a loophole to defer a 'land decision' so far into the future that the start of the next academic year will be missed. Over forty local children due to attend the Watling Park Academy are now in limbo.  The decision to build the school was made two years ago after going through the democratic process.  It was on this technical committee report that Labour have based their strange and poorly timed attack on a new free school.

I say it's strange because their reasons stretched to unenforceable covenants, wanting more time for debate and that ward councillors weren't present.  The covenant issue has been dealt with and is not a risk to a new school, all councillors know there's less time for debate when decisions are referred and surely one of the three Burnt Oak councillors could have attended the committee last night, if they really wanted to? 
Watching the Labour councillors, I could see their hearts weren't in these straw clutching objections.  It seemed they were under orders from the main objector, Andrew Dismore, who has a second home in close vicinity to the new school site.  Dismore is a hypocrite.  He's complained about 'lack of infrastucture' in the past, but when it comes to having a new school in his back yard he's suddenly anti-infrastructure.
Barnet Labour are a strange, out-of-touch group.  They simply don't get the needs and aspirations of Barnet residents and democracy here is all the worse for it.  Not only are they content to lose elections as a result of their policies and campaigns, they're willing to see the education of 40 children disturbed for reasons not fully apparent. Fortunately, they only have the power to delay, and its debatable as to whether they deserve that. Thank goodness they don't have the power to actually make decisions.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Good luck to Mike, Theresa and Matthew!

As we approach the last day of the general election campaign, I feel for all the parliamentary candidates up and down the country, some of whom I know quite well.  They’ll be tired after a long campaign yet will need to dig deep for an energy boost to take them through an arduous 15 hour polling day, not to mention the count (which could mean a full 24 hours on their feet).  They’ll be wondering, many anxiously, what the voters verdict will be.  Some will be wishing it was all over, some wondering if they’ve spent enough time doing this or that. 

On polling day, a sense of control that comes from running a campaign; making decisions, planning the diary, sending resources here and there, debating whether to respond to something or not, it all melts away.  Apart from the simple but physically demanding task of encouraging all your supporters to vote, there are no decisions left to make: you simply have to wait for the collective decision of the people.

It’s a tiring and nerve-wracking time for candidates and, while I feel for them, I’m missing having my name on the ballot paper this time round.  That’s because, despite all the above, it’s an exciting time spent meeting hundreds if not thousands of people, promoting a message you believe in, fighting for an outcome you really want and doing so with amazing, dedicated people from all walks of life. 

Having decided not to stand in this election, I’m still enjoying the buzz of the campaign but it’s different not fighting it as a candidate.  My experience as a PPC in 2010 was a positive one. I obviously wasn’t elected, I stood knowing what the odds of a Conservative winning in Islwyn were.  But it was a good campaign, achieving a respectable 9% swing to the Conservatives and improving our position from last to second place (despite Plaid Cymru spending a lot more money and having more activists).  It was an amazing experience and I learned a lot, but what struck me was the enormous pressure I felt as a candidate to ‘do well’ even when the odds were so stacked against me.  Volunteers were spending their free time to help in any way they could and I couldn’t let them down.  If I felt like that as a candidate, and one who had a low chance of winning, how do successful candidates feel when their constituents have sent them to the commons?  As it happens, I know someone who was in that position. 

In 2010, I also spent a lot of time helping Mike Freer in Finchley and Golders Green, then one of the most, if not the most, marginal seats in the country.  Mike had worked extremely hard, not just on the campaign, but during his time as a local councillor and council leader.  He was my ward colleague for four years and I saw up close how committed he was to get things done for Finchley and the borough.   Nothing changed when he was elected to Parliament, endorsed with a majority larger than Labour had ever achieved. 

Mike hasn’t let down his constituents and certainly deserves his reputation for being a hard working constituency MP.  Most people will have seen his mobile surgery on weekend mornings and he’s invited whole streets to meet him at Westminster to discuss any topic and have a look around Parliament.  Mike’s not afraid of meeting the public.  He’s approachable and has been a sensible, principled voice for Finchley and Golders Green on countless issues. 
Mike, Cllr Cornelius, Cllr Old, my wife and I painting at Norwood on Mitzvah Day
Mike’s an excellent MP but he’s also a down to earth, decent person.  His humble start in life has kept his feet on the ground and is probably why he relates so well to people of all backgrounds.  He’s worked hard to be an MP and works even harder for the people of Finchley and Golders Green. He’s lived up to the expectations of those who voted for him and those who campaigned for him. That, when added to the fact he’s supported a successful coalition government which turned the country around, means he deserves to be re-elected and continue the good work.

Of the three Barnet MPs, I’ve worked much more closely with Mike given the Finchley connection.  But I’ll also be thinking of Theresa Villiers and Matthew Offord over the next 48 hours and will be doing much more than just wishing them success. They’ve all done a cracking job for their constituents and I look forward to seeing them serve another term.  As for all the other candidates, soon it’ll be over and they’ll have their lives back.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Labour in disarray at the town hall

This statement from the Barnet Conservative Group demonstrates how Labour aren't able to conduct themselves properly at a council meeting, yet alone run the council:
Labour’s failed stunt leads them to storm out of Council meeting:
Labour councillors created chaos at last night’s council meeting, even temporarily storming out of the chamber, following their misunderstanding of the constitution and a failed attempt to force a snap vote on the future delivery model of Education and Skills services.
Shortly after Children’s Committee Chairman Cllr Reuben Thompstone rose to speak on the item, Labour realised that two Conservative members were not present in the chamber. At this point they interrupted the speech and attempted to move that the report – referred up to Full Council by Labour to allow for a ‘full debate’ – be put straight to the vote.
This was in breach of the council’s constitution, which does not allow such a request to be put during a speech. However, Labour members seized on the momentary delay as the Mayor sought advice from the Monitoring Officer and began to make all sorts of accusations of impropriety and partiality, working themselves up into a rage that led to them storming out of the chamber. Some members then entered the public gallery to continue to abuse the Mayor, who had acted in full accordance with the rules.
In the meantime the motion was passed.
Labour members did return to the meeting and, following a discussion with the Monitoring Officer during the break, Cllr Alison Moore issued a half-hearted apology, admitting that her Group had got it wrong.
Leader of the Council, Cllr Richard Cornelius, later said:
“This really was a childish episode from the Labour Group. They tried to be opportunistic, but showed that they do not understand the constitution.
“Is this how they think education policy should be decided – on the basis of who has nipped to the loo? I don’t think parents would be too pleased with their approach.
“They referred the item to Full Council, supposedly, to enable a full debate, but then tried to shut this debate down after a matter of seconds. Clearly they are referring items in the hope of pulling off the kind of stunt they attempted last night.
“The important thing is that the paper was passed. The recommendations were based on strong evidence and it is a shame that we didn’t have the opportunity to explain again in public why it is the right thing to do for young people in the borough.”
The report recommends that a full business case be produced for two joint-venture models for the Education and Skills Service. Work completed to date shows that these options are the only ones which ensure excellence in the service, a continued strong relationship between schools and the council, and can achieve the necessary savings targets. The models also received public support from a representative of primary school head teachers at the committee meeting earlier in the month.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Local Conservative competence vs Labour chaos

For years, the opinion polls have reported a significant Conservative lead over Labour when it comes to handling the economy. Unsurprisingly, the party that presided over the deepest recession in modern history, improper regulation of high risk investment banking and government spending massively outstripping revenue isn’t trusted with the economy.

Fortunately, we have a government which is sensible with public finance and, contrary to Labour’s mantra of misery, the UK economy is also the fastest growing in the developed world. The recovery is fragile given the state of other nations we trade with and the fact that Labour’s legacy, the bloated national deficit, still hangs over us.

The national Labour Party is struggling to come up with a policy which restores its reputation. But it has reluctantly accepted that austerity needs to continue.  That means cuts to public spending will go on no matter who’s in Downing Street next year.
Here in Barnet, the local Labour Party appear to have taken a 'deficit denial' stance, preferring instead the attractions of living in cloud cuckoo land where the council’s budget isn’t going to be reduced by £70million by 2020.  Somehow, in their naive minds, Barnet will escape austerity and it will all be OK as long as we stop spending on ‘consultants’, can ‘put up council tax’ and the old chestnut, ‘cut councillors allowances’.

Anyone with a maths GCSE can quickly work out that none of these measures will plug the very real £70million budget gap the council will have.  Most consultant spend is on the regeneration projects and is minuscule when compared with the overall cost of projects and social/economic benefits.  The increase in business rates, the council tax base and living standards of social tenants will be welcomed.

Historic spending on consultants on the outsourcing projects was also significantly outweighed by the savings made by the new contracts.  Again, Labour is in denial about those savings and all because they require a private company to help us make them.  Barnet Labour group’s 1970 mindset is: private = very bad, public sector = the only possible way a service can be delivered. 

The council uses consultants because we need the expertise and it will deliver long term savings.  Much of it is also from capital so diverting it will not permanently solve the cut to our revenue funding. 

Putting up council tax is also not an option, politically or practically.  A 1% increase equates to an extra £1.5million revenue and there is a requirement for a referendum if councils want an increase more than 2%.  Even a 5% increase would not go anywhere near to plugging the £70million gap.  Given that council tax was a ‘top three concern’ of residents a year ago, we all know what the results of a costly referendum would be.  Besides, the Conservatives retained control of the council pledging to freeze council tax for the next two years, so the referendum has, in effect, already been held.

Then we turn to councillors’ allowances from which we’ve already saved circa £90,000 via the new committee system.  If we completely scrapped allowances, which no other council is doing, it would not even scratch the surface of the £70million gap and would threaten the broad mix of councillors we have in the chamber today.

What about a combination of all these?  Well, if we put aside the fact they’re impractical and cutting consultant spend would put at risk some much needed transformation and regeneration schemes, we’d still have a huge budget gap that can only be addressed by changing council services.  On the subject of risk, its something council critics love to rant about but they also hate it when we spend the necessary money to address it.  They can’t have it both ways. 

There is no easy way to address such a large savings requirement.  If Labour does not know this deep down then they lack the necessary intelligence and ability to apply that intelligence to the real world.  If they do know it, it's telling they never come up with a credible alternative to what is proposed.  They oppose everything and propose nothing which is the luxury of opposition politics.  I can understand them playing politics but it's cruel to tell residents that the money is there to save certain services when it isn’t.  It’s irresponsible to suggest nothing needs to change or oppose a savings suggestion without putting another forward.
When you look at the proposals put forward by the council in a calm manner, they're sensible and have much less of an impact on services than what neighbouring Labour boroughs have done.  Brent shut half its library service despite receiving more funding per resident than Barnet.  Is Barnet proposing to shut half of its libraries?  No.  Could we?  Yes, but we don't  want to.  There would be a reduced level of service but that's all we can afford (Labour is still happy to spend money the taxpayer can't afford). There's one option where all libraries would remain open in some form or another which is generous when you consider less than 20% of people in Barnet borrow books from a council library.

Last night’s CELs committee was a classic example of Labour’s denial. If Labour don’t want to change the library service how else will they make savings?  Unsurprisingly, they didn’t address that matter.  On nursery schools, how will they fund an ongoing, unfair and unsustainable subsidy?  Silence.

I don’t expect residents to be fully aware of the council’s finances although the issue of fairness was obviously lost on one resident who shouted ‘where do Tory councillor’s send their children?’.  If I could have spoken to him I would have answered there is no subsidised nursery school where I live and this is the case for most in Barnet.  Perhaps then he would have realised he’s asking parents across the borough to pay for a service they themselves would not benefit from.  Would that have changed his mind or would his self-interested attitude prevailed?

I suspect many on the Labour side are relieved they’re not running the council as they would have had to move out of the very comfortable cloud cuckoo land and into reality. 

Reality isn’t easy and, in this age of hysteria, it involves being screamed at by all sorts and hearing about grossly dramatic and over the top 'consequences' of most proposals to save money. The genuinely affected and disappointed; the misinformed; the self interested; the politically motivated and those who find it therapeutic to scream at the council (they exist), they all want to shout councillors down.  Some will talk reasonably but all of these groups have one thing in common: they do not have to balance the council’s books.  Some just want to grab their bit of funding and run. 

Labour have chosen to run from the very real challenges of the council but thankfully we have a strong Conservative administration which will see through all the noise and, as its always done, do the right thing for the borough.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Welfare reform: making sure money goes to where it's needed

In the 1990s, my mother voluntarily ran a Saturday play scheme in a neighbouring village.  The National Children’s Home had previously resourced the scheme and when they withdrew she led efforts to keep it going.

I occasionally helped my mother out and was impressed by how much the children enjoyed attending and how my mother selflessly kept the scheme open.  I have several good memories of this period but one incident opened my eyes to a way of life not known to me and helped influence my views on the ineffective welfare state.

To attend a day trip organised by the scheme, each child needed a parental consent form.  One afternoon, a young brother and sister arrived but with no such form.  Their parents had sent them unwashed, wearing dirty clothes and with rumbling stomachs.

My mother went to their house to ask their parents to sign some forms.  They weren’t in but a neighbour told her where they’d be: the social club.  My mother went to the club and found them sat outside, well presented, enjoying the sun with pints of lager, crisps and cigarettes.  A professional and tactful woman, she simply asked for the forms to be signed and promptly left to feed their children and get the trip started.

I later found out the parents concerned were living entirely on benefits and their children were often in the state in which they arrived that afternoon.  I was saddened and annoyed that the parents looked after themselves with the benefits they received, but not their children.

Not all benefit claimants make the right choices with their money and this is why I’m so pleased to hear Iain Duncan Smith’s announcement about benefit ‘smart cards’.  Cash is too easy to spend recklessly and, for some, when it isn’t worked for its value is decreased and purpose blurred. Determined money wasters may find ways around any system, but at least the Government is making it more difficult.  Simply by existing, the cards make the statement that benefits are for essentials, not to fund a way of life and certainly not at the expense of a dependant’s welfare.

The main criticisms of such cards seem to revolve around stigma, however, this can be easily avoided by what the cards look like and how easy they are to use.  If it looks like a normal bank card I cannot see how it will prompt embarrassment at the shops.  A small proportion of a card user’s benefits may need to be available in cash for minor incidentals, birthday presents etc but that can be built in to the system.

Ultimately, stigma and ease of use criticisms are sideshows in a situation where conditions and responsibilities need to be outlined and complied with.  The greater good achieved is that children have food, soap and other essentials bought for them and taxpayers’ money is directed to those who need it.

Added to other reforms, in particular the new conditions for unemployment benefit and reducing the overall benefit cap further, this is a major step in the right direction. 

I’ve long supported benefit claimants having to do some ‘work for the dole’ and always thought the £26,000 cap was way too much, as is the proposed level of £23,000.  Many working households have to get by on less than that, why should those out of work be able to claim more?
Welfare reform is supported by the vast majority of the British public and even a majority of Labour supporters agree that benefits are too generous.

The Government’s much needed welfare reform is creating a fairer system, making work more attractive and, at the same time, is reducing the national deficit.  How can you argue against that?

Monday, 26 May 2014

Barnet bucks the trend

We like to buck the trend in this borough and last week we did just that.  Barnet is still blue, just.  The trend of Labour making a number of council gains across London did not extend this far, fortunately.

Labour were a couple of seats away from gaining control of Barnet but by my calculations we won significantly more votes across the borough as a whole.  In East Barnet, Brunswick Park, Hale and West Hendon, Labour's victories were by small margins.  For me, the scale of defeat is as important to analyse as defeat itself.  

For Labour to be confident of winning the general election, they should have won the above wards by much larger margins than they did.  These wins do not suggest to me that the voters concerned are wholly enthusiastic about Labour, which four years in to a Conservative-led government is not good news for them.  Conservative losses are not good news for us either.   However, there were positive results in addition to the fact we retained control.  We won two seats in Childs Hill for the first time in a generation and came just nine votes from winning all three.  In Mill Hill, we retained recently won seats with a convincing majority. 

That said, both parties will now be trying to work out what happened and formulate a strategy for the future. In so doing, it would be a big mistake to try and guess crude 'reasons' behind the result and base future strategy around them.

Voter motivation and election results are always difficult to interpret as any student of psephology or rational choice theory will know.  How many people voted on local issues?  How many used the ballot to send a message to the Government but will come back to us in a general election?  Of those who did, what was the message they wanted to send?  How many were primarily interested in the European debate given the coverage it has received?  How much did disproportionate turnout effect things?  Was it a case of one party simply being better at getting its support out than others?  Did Conservative supporters think their party would fare well and put more priority on their busy lives than voting (which is their democratic right)?  Did some Conservative supporting families go away on polling day to take an extended half term break as their schools were closed?  All of these things have an influence but the truth is nobody really knows.  

What we do know is that Local Government is going to have to make even more savings regardless of who is in Downing Street next year.  What we also know is that satisfaction with the council has increased significantly since 2010 and that the Conservatives have a record to be proud of in Barnet.  Yes, we have a majority of one but nonetheless we have been given a mandate to continue our good work.  

In continuing that work the council will need to talk with residents about the challenges ahead, the future of services and what is important to them.  The parties will be doing the same.  Perhaps then we may get an inkling of what happened in certain wards.  Over the next four years we will prove to residents who didn't vote for us this year that we have listened and are delivering for them a borough we can all be proud of. 

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Barnet Conservatives Propose Council Tax Cut

Barnet Council has frozen council tax for some time now yet it was a 'top three' concern for residents in the last perception survey (which 1600 randomly selected residents take part in).  There will be various reasons for this but the fact remains it's a concern that needs to be addressed. 
The opposition and socialists may argue it's because residents don't feel they're getting something for their council tax. However, the same survey suggests that this is not the case: 72% of residents felt the council was doing a good job, 55%  offering value for money and 60% improving their area.
So the question is, do we address this concern with more of the same i.e. freezing council tax again? 
My view is quite simple: no, we must do something different.  Something that will send a reassuring message to tax payers.  A message that says that at least one significant cost of running a household will not be going up and up.  Cutting council tax and committing to freeze it thereafter gives residents certainty in what are still uncertain times. 

Cutting Council Tax will put £1.5million

into the Barnet economy

Critics will argue it's ideological as if having ideology is a disorder that needs stamping out.  Thatcher would have never sorted this country out without ideology and there are some principles which will never go out of fashion: low taxes are one of them. 
The ill-informed will say cutting tax can only be done by raiding reserves.  How wrong they are.  A cut would be funded by the money Eric Pickles is giving Barnet to freeze council tax; because we had planned to freeze it without central government assistance (and prior to the announcement there would be any) the extra money can now be used to cut tax next year.  The freeze was being planned against the context of significant outsourcing savings and other efficiencies, but now these factors put us in a position to cut council tax instead of freezing it. 
To fund the ongoing impact of lower council tax revenue (approx £1.5m) there will need to be more savings made in the future but the savings are there to be made, as the last few years have shown.  Besides, we are a growing borough one of the benefits of which is an increase in the tax base that can in itself assist finances as well as create challenges.
The timing will be criticised too.  An election is looming!  Nonsense.  Only this year was concern over council tax established through the perception survey results.  Only this year will the One Barnet savings start coming through because the cost of some services will be cheaper than they were last year. 
The 'actual amount' discounted from bills will also be attacked: it's 'only pennies'.  Apparently we should only give tax payers some money back if it's in the hundreds.  Why?  Every little helps and the collective borough-wide figure of £1.5m going back into residents' pockets is not to be sniffed at.
Of course, not everyone will like the proposal.  Socialists, the usual anti-council brigade and those with an axe to grind will all condemn the idea but that's what I expected.  Let them - they've never really been in touch with the wider Barnet public anyway.
Cutting taxes is a conservative principle, why people are surprised when conservatives actually do it is beyond me.  We can't ignore genuine borough-wide concern and Barnet's Conservatives do not intend to do so.