A brain dump for Colchester – 10 ways to change the council

So, Colchester has again elected a mish-mash of Lib Dems and Labour councillors to run the town hall. And after fighting my fifth election in as many years – and getting soundly thrashed into the bargain – I’m looking forward to a summer of paid work, tending to the allotment and tinkering with my Triumph.

But before I go, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned from my year as a councillor and chuck a few ideas for Colchester’s future into the ring. I don’t know who will be sitting round the cabinet table next week, but if it’s you please feel free to help yourself.

1. Change the way Colchester houses people

Colchester currently prides itself on providing social housing via Colchester Borough Homes. In recent years this pride has been most noticeably expressed by building new council houses. But because the council sells more houses per year via Right to Buy than it can ever build, this will never solve the housing shortage.

If the council wants to do the best for its tenants, it needs to change its housing policy to extract the greatest benefit from central government rules. As things currently stand, if Colchester Borough Homes sells a house at a subsidised price, it has to give money to central government. If a housing association similarly sells a house under Right to Buy, government pays back the difference between the house’s subsidised price and its full market value.

When you also realise that housing associations can borrow money to improve their housing stock, and Colchester Borough Homes cannot, it surely makes sense to transfer CBC’s housing stock to one or more housing associations. That way the borough doesn’t lose money by selling off houses and it can access loans to improve their quality.

It doesn’t matter who owns the housing stock if tenants get the best deal. My dad, for example, lives in a former council owned house in Northamptonshure that is now managed by a housing association called Spire Homes. He says that these days repairs are made much quicker and residents are listened to much better. That sounds like a win / win situation to me.

Oh, and mix up where new houses get built. Put them across the borough rather than creating future ghettoes.

2. Get serious about shared services

One resident complained to me about some overgrown and litter strewn hedges near her home. To get the problem solved, I had to first get the borough council to litter pick the hedges and then get the county council to cut them back. It was impossible to get one council to do both jobs, so solving the problem took needless extra time and money.

It’s a simple example of not using joined-up thinking to benefit residents, but it is one of many. Similarly, Colchester needs to look at where neighbouring councils have facilities, people and expertise that can help the borough (and vice versa).

Take wheelie bins as an example. As things currently stand, it looks like we’re going to get the damned things whether we like them or not. However, if it turns out that people in central Colchester don’t want them but people in the rural parts of the borough do, I doubt the council will want to upgrade its fleet of refuse vehicles to serve only one part of the borough. In this case, why not work with Braintree (which has wheelie bins and the right kit) so they service the rural wards? It would give residents more choice for less investment.

Similarly, are there areas where we can share people and expertise within planning, marketing, parks and other areas? It’s time to start talking to our neighbours and collaborating in the best interests of residents, even if the council feels it is not necessarily acting in its own interests.

3. Depoliticise planning

The recent debacle over Tollgate Village and the Northern Gateway has destroyed residents’ faith in the planning system.

Whether or not the planning committee was rigged for the second Tollgate meeting, the fact is that people believe it was. That destroys the credibility of the decision it made.

As a first step, it should become policy that any decision that comes back to the committee because of the DROP procedure must be assessed by the same councillors who made the original decision. If councillors are unavailable the date of meeting should be changed to one when they are able to sit.

4. Give communities a say on the New Homes Bonus

Mile End has been right royally screwed over by becoming the location of thousands of houses, yet has little or no access to the millions of pounds raised by the council from the New Homes Bonus. The same is happening in Stanway and other parts of the borough. So we don’t have the money we need for community facilities or better infrastructure. This money needs to be removed from the core budget and communities affected by development must be given a say in how it is spent. Wychavon District Council is the exemplar in this respect – we should follow its example.

5. Remove all perceived bias from consultations

When the council consulted on moving the market from Culver Street to the High Street, the company that conducted the consultation also specialised in managing markets. That just looks terrible. All consultations should be conducted by companies with no potential interest in what happens after the consultation has taken place.

6. Be open

When Jason Cobb submitted a Freedom of Information request to find out how much the Council had spent on hauling me in front of the Governance Committee, it claimed it didn’t know because it couldn’t quantify how much time had been spent on the matter by officers including the Monitoring Officer / Head of Legal Services. Yet at the same time it charges Leisure World a ‘Fixed fee based on time recording data’.

It’s patently clear the Council didn’t answer the request because it was embarrassed by the answer – not because it didn’t know the answer.

To help restore the Council’s reputation for transparency, I suggest that all unanswered Freedom of Information requests over the last three years are independently assessed and the requested information released where appropriate.

7. Stop ignoring the expertise that’s already in Colchester

It’s crazy that the council (or our two councils to be more precise) made its plans for the Creative Business Centre without any meaningful input from, for example, the Creative Co-op – which is behind the massively successful Waiting Room and the original Queen Street space for creative people. It’s just one example where the Council ignores grassroots expertise that can help it deliver much better ideas, plans, projects and places. Get out there and talk to people who really know their stuff – and listen.

8. Push local tendering much harder

So many Council tenders go to businesses outside the borough, not because we don’t have the expertise on our doorstep, but because the tenders aren’t promoted widely enough locally. Try and make tenders ‘local by default’ – it helps local businesses and keeps the money in our economy.

9. Stop doing things in the same way as they were done in 1953

When you become a councillor, you get paper copies of all agendas and documents put in your pigeon hole. If you don’t pick them up, the council sends out an officer to deliver them in a sealed bag to your home.

It’s an abysmal waste of time and money. Abolish hard copy council papers and get them to councillors electronically. If they contain confidential information, password protect the pdfs.

10. Change the risk-averse culture in the council

There’s a seriously strong culture of being risk averse within the council. Even the simplest decision seems to get pushed up a chain of command, then is often referred to councillors (who tend to block it if it happens to put an opponent in even a faintly positive light). Not taking risks means not reaping unexpected rewards. Officers should be encouraged to be more independent, and to take risks without fear of getting landed with the blame.

Anyway, I could go on and on and on (town centre, parking, senior officers controlling the council rather than councillors, shifting individual focus from picking up litter to changing the borough, not grandstanding in the chamber on national issues you can’t change and instead focusing on local ones you can, etc etc etc).

But it’s a sunny day, I’ve got an allotment to tend and a sense of rediscovered freedom. There’s more than a little joy to be had for speaking your mind without worrying someone will stitch you up for it…

How the Lib Dems built over Mile End

Long before I came to Colchester in 2009, the huge amount of house building in Mile End has been a major point of controversy. We now have many thousands of houses, with very little in the way of community facilities to support them. This is, in my view, storing up massive problems for the future. 

But how did it happen in the first place? In recent weeks, I’ve been doing some research and following the trail of decisions made by Colchester Borough Council about development in Mile End.

The late Local Plan

Let’s go back to 1995, when the Lib Dems had been running Colchester Council since the 1980s. At the time, the senior planning committee was known as the Planning and Transportation Committee. It was chaired by George Williams, Lib Dem councillor for Dedham. Its subordinate committee – the Development Control Subcommittee – was chaired by Lib Dem Cllr David Goss (father of current Mile End councillor, Martin Goss). This subcommittee took all applications that weren’t delegated to officers, so it had first crack at all major applications. 

By default, Cllrs Williams and Goss were also members of the Local Plan Panel, then working to produce the (very late) 1995 Local Plan.  The other members were the group spokesmen of the two committees, but because Conservative Cllr Chris Garnett was group spokesman on both committees, he couldn’t occupy both places on the Panel. The other place was filled by Cllr Christopher Arnold.

The Panel met in private with all its recommendations going to the Planning and Transportation Committee for debate and approval.

NHS involvement

In 1995 Mile End ward included all of Highwoods too.  The essence of the 1995 Local Plan for Mile End was the new NAR road and junction, which would release surplus NHS land for housing and give CBC access to its own land at Cuckoo Farm South. The planning application itself didn’t come from the Council, but from the NHS – possibly to make it more palatable to residents. It simply succeeded in making them much angrier.

The Conservatives, with the help of Bernard Jenkin (then the MP for Colchester North), managed to get the planning applications for the road, the junction and the housing called in.

It made no difference. In May 1997, the Government changed; and by the end of that year the road and housing gained permission from John Prescott. The health authority then withdrew the junction application which it did not need to get access to its land.

In essence, all the building in Mile End was planned by the Lib Dems when they had overall control of the Council, and it was ultimately granted permission by a Labour Secretary of State. Negotiating the Section 106 agreement took years as did finding developers for the land.  The reserved matters applications came through in 2001 when Lib Dem Ray Gamble was chairing the Planning Committee. The NAR eventually opened in July 2003, creating access to the housing sites.  Conservatives were not to take control of Cabinet for another nine months. 

North Colchester Growth Area

Now let’s forward a few years. In 2012 Colchester Borough Council was asked to adopt the North Colchester Growth Area Supplementary Planning Document (SPD), covering the land west of Nayland Road.  The Lib Dems were again the largest group on the council and the Conservatives had been the official opposition since 2008, so they were not in a position to force anything on anyone.  Indeed, as far as planning policy for Mile End was concerned, they hadn’t been since the 1980s. The SPD was adopted.

So there you have it. When you look at the many houses being built in Mile End without the community facilities to match them, you’ll know why. It’s because the Lib Dems wanted it that way – whatever they might want you to believe.

My ‘arrogant’ upbringing – some facts for Cllr Jo Hayes

Here’s an eye-opener for you. According to Lib Dem Councillor Jo Hayes, a likely reason that I voted down her town-centre throttling motion on traffic emissions may well have been my ‘upbringing’.

She may be surprised to learn that I read her motion in detail and decided it would contribute to the decay of our town centre if brought into force. A number of her colleagues agreed, which is why the motion fell.

But I am mystified why she thinks my ‘upbringing’ has anything to do with it. I know nothing of her own upbringing, and nor would I assume it was the driving force behind her terrible motion. As she is so fond of saying on Twitter ‘you are entitled to you own opinion, not your own facts.’

Cllr Hayes seems reluctant to explain what she meant. So I thought I’d provide her with a few facts about my upbringing. Then perhaps she’ll be able to tell me why they make me arrogant. Continue reading

Colchester’s Lib Dems help themselves to more public cash

Last night at Colchester Borough Council’s full council meeting, I spoke against proposals that would:

  1. Give the nominal Lib Dem leader a 107% pay rise
  2. Give over £2,000 of public money to any political group of just two people
  3. Give Group Leaders money for compliance rather than opposition
  4. Encourage councillors to split Group Leader roles from Cabinet roles to maximise the amount of public money they could claim.

The current Lib/Lab/Independent administration all voted for the proposals. They all stand to gain, particularly the Liberals and the Stanway and Highwoods Independents (who may well have only two councillors next May). The Conservative Group opposed them.

This is what I said (and what I wanted to say after the bell rang about 2/3 of the way through…)


 

Firstly I would like to thank the members of the Independent Remuneration Panel for what is largely a balanced and fair report.

In the current economic climate, most private sector employees are lucky not to get a pay cut, never mind a pay rise. The public sector is making do with 1%. And I can tell you from experience how tough it is out there for the self employed.

Against this backdrop, I welcome the report’s recommendation not to increase the basic allowance for Colchester Borough Councillors. However, it does concern me that we currently receive a higher basic allowance than all the other district councils in Essex. I therefore hope it remains frozen for some time to come.

I also welcome the general restraint the report has taken in regard to the Special Responsibility Allowances or SRAs. In some councils the very lax regulations governing SRAs have seen obscene situations arise where the majority of council members claim them. For example, in 2013, 51 of 57 Tameside councillors benefited from one SRA or another. No long ago, 32 of 50 Newham councillors were in the same luck position.

We not only owe a duty to Colchester residents to cut the cost of politics – incidentally a flagship Lib Dem policy in the run up to the 2010 General Election – we would also be wise to be seen to cut the cost of politics.

For this reason, I welcome the report’s intention to regularise the SRAs paid to political group leaders. It was impossible to justify why the leader of the Labour group should qualify for a £7,098 SRA for leading 9 councillors while the leader of the Conservative opposition should receive less than £800 more for leading 27 councillors.

In effect, a local council tax payer would surely wonder why a Labour councillor costs nearly £789 to lead while a Conservative costs only £292.

While I have major doubts about the £2,000 base sum the report recommends for a political group leader, I approve of setting a sum payable for each member of £220. If the final amount paid out under the new scheme doesn’t substantially differ from the current one, it is at least fairer and more transparent – and also more justifiable to the Colchester taxpayer.

That said, I do have major concerns with other aspects of the report’s recommendations for the SRAs paid to political group leaders.

Firstly, I believe the plan to award a £2,000 lump sum to the nominal leader of any political group of two members or more is ripe for abuse.

To give a hypothetical example, if after May’s elections, one group ends up with two councillors in Ward A and two councillors in Ward B, it would surely be tempting for that group to split into two groups. That way the nominal leader of each group of two people could both claim an SRA of £2,000 plus £440. In other words, the taxpayer would be forking out £4,880 instead of £2,880 — a loss of £2,000.

If, on the other hand, this hypothetical group retained only two councillors after May, one would immediately qualify for a £2,440 ‘leader’s’ allowance. The average Colchester resident would be rightly disgusted that they had to pay that sum for one person to apparently ‘lead’ another.

For this reason I strongly oppose the definition of a group for SRA purposes as being two people. I would suggest as a bare minimum 6 people, or enough councillors for two wards. Failing that, I would reject the £2,000 base SRA and move to a sum based exclusively on the number of representatives in any group. That would be both transparent and fair.

My next concern is centred around an extremely revealing change in terminology made in the report. The SRAs for ‘Main Opposition Leader’ and ‘Other Opposition Leader’ are being merged into the much simpler category of ‘Group Leader’s SRA’.

Here I believe the Council needs to address what these SRAs will actually achieve for the taxpayer.

Certainly there is an important democratic function in providing strong opposition. Indeed, this principle is enshrined in the Local Government (Members’ Allowances) (England) Regulations 2003.

These regulations cover SRAs in detail. Firstly, it may interest the Council to know that providing an SRA scheme is completely optional. However, where an SRA scheme does exist, there is only one payment that must be made — and that is to at least one members who does not belong to the controlling group. In other words the payment is to facilitate effective opposition.

Nowhere in the regulations does it say that every leader or nominal leader of every political group should get any extra cash.

In this context we need to remember that the council is currently administered by a coalition of three groups — the Lib Dems, Labour and Independents. The SRAs paid to the leaders of these three groups do not buy the taxpayer opposition — they simply reward compliance. The payments may be legal, but they are shameful. They are morally wrong and offer no benefit to the people we represent.

My final point concerns the anomaly where the nominal leader of the Lib Dem Grop is not the leader of the Council. To the ordinary person on the street this simply looks like a fiction that allows one person to get the Council Leader’s SRA and other the Group Leader’s SRA — if both posts were held by one person they would get only one extra payment. The same situation applies to the Highwoods & Stanway Independents — the Group Leader takes an SRA, and another takes a Portfolio Holder SRA.

So, in conclusion, I support freezing the basic rate allowance and the attempt to regularise the currently unfair Opposition Leader SRAs. But if we allow the recommendations in this report to stand, the proposals for Group Leader SRAS will leave the system wide open to abuse and provide poor value for residents who don’t have the power to vote themselves extra income.

These proposals mush either be sent back to the drawing board or affected councillors must think very carefully before accepting one more penny of public money.

My kind of Toryism – a party for misfits

When my grandfather approached his 80th birthday, he asked about 20 of his former pupils at Stamford School to write about their time there. He collected their responses together in a book, which he then deposited in the school archive.

What was remarkable about this book was the fact that most of its contributors were considered – or considered themselves to be – ‘misfits’ when they were at school.

And that’s what made it such compelling reading.

First, they pulled no punches about a school system that, Continue reading

A lot of hot air about low emissions

When you don’t get your own way, what better idea than to blame the people you hate?

That’s been the game of Lib Dem Councillor Jo Hayes over the last few days. She’s smarting over the defeat of her Clean Air motion during the last full Colchester Borough Council meeting and it has made her bitter.

It’s a slightly tricky story to unpick, so let’s start with the result.

Seventeen councillors voted for Cllr Hayes’ motion. Twenty-one voted against. The Conservative Group, including me, voted against it. As indeed did some Cllr Hayes’ Lib Dem colleagues, including Cllr Martin Goss and Cllr Barrie Cook, while others such as Cllr Dominic Graham abstained.

In other words, Cllr Hayes’ motion failed because she did not have the backing of her own party.

Rather than accept the result graciously, Cllr Hayes decided to lance the boil of her disappointment by painting the vote as some sort of evil Tory conspiracy.  Continue reading

Any problems? A better way to conduct Colchester Council meetings

This morning I posted about last night’s Colchester Borough Council meeting, which took over four hours to (mostly) debate national issues it hasn’t got a hope of changing or influencing.

The reason? Because a sizeable number of councillors like to treat it as a party political playground – a sort of pretend Parliament for pre-schoolers. And sure enough, when you get exchanges like this, the temptation to stick one over on the other side is almost irresistible.

I wouldn’t mind so much if council meetings weren’t dominated by national issues. And I wouldn’t mind so much if even straightforward local issues weren’t so often the subject of partisan punch ups. Again, as Jason from the Colchester Chronicle put it.

Yes, a cycle path became the focus of accusations about political skulduggery.

But – and happily this is a very positive but – once the Punch & Judy bit was over, something much more useful happened.

Councillors from three different parties all shared information about the cycle path and promised to help each other get the issue sorted. 

And that’s got me thinking. Why don’t we have a section in Full Council called ‘Any problems?’

All we would have to do is put aside 30 minutes for councillors to share any problems they have in their wards, and ask others of all political allegiances for advice or help. There’s a lot of experience across that chamber, plus there are people who also sit in the County Council who have extra information and and useful contacts. It would be collaborative, helpful, and constructive.

And more to the point, it would be for the good of the Borough.

Far more so than arguing about whether national policy is bad for Colchester. Because national policy is rarely made with Colchester in mind.

By contrast, what we do in the council chamber should.

Any problems, anyone?

Going through the motions – a reflection on Colchester Borough Council meetings

Last night I took part in a full council meeting that lasted for well over four hours – and even then we failed to get through the agenda. 

Great news, you might say. A chamber full of elected representatives making a real difference for the people of Colchester.

Nope.

In fact, we spent most of our time debating things that the council is Continue reading

#Daphnegate – What I said at the Governance Committee

I’m my party’s local spokesman on Open Government and Transparency, so I thought it only fair to publish what I said at tonight’s Governance Committee – which voted unanimously that I had not breached the Councillors’ Code of Conduct.

I may have mixed up a few sentences and I clarified a few other things (like why I put a full stop before a tweet to reach a wider audience), but you will be able to check them against the recording of the meeting in due course (something that I campaigned for before I was elected as a councillor). But before you read on, pause a moment and give thanks to people like Kristin who help those in difficulty – she is an incredible barrister, and a kind hearted and true one. 

(Note, all the papers relating to #Daphnegate are here. Live tweets from the Gazette here).

Firstly, I would like to say that I recognise the language I used in my tweet was offensive and I genuinely regret using it. I stand by the apology I tweeted as soon as the Monitoring Officer recommended I did so on 15th September. My original tweet was sent in a personal, not an official capacity, and it was intended as a criticism of the North East Parking Partnership as a whole, not of any individual officer.

I would also like to draw this committee’s attention to a second tweet I posted on 16th September at 8.48am, before I knew the matter was to be referred to this committee. Responding to a Twitter account holder who goes under the name Colchester Views, I tweeted:

.@Colchesterviews I’d love to say it was the car who got me into trouble, but it was all my own silly fault. Apologies to all concerned :-)

My intention was to emphasise my apology of the day before and reach the widest possible audience. In this way, I hoped to draw a line under the matter.

However, I would like to emphasise I was unaware that the complaint had been made by my fellow Mile End ward councillor Dominic Graham until nine days after it had been made – and four days after my apology had been rejected and the complaint had been referred to this committee. I didn’t receive a copy of the original complaint until 10 days after it had been made.

Had I known that the complaint had been made by Cllr Graham, I would have reached out to him personally to try and resolve the matter in that way. In the event, I was unable to make the apology he expected because I did not know who had complained or the exact nature of their complaint.

As a result, I felt the situation was spiralling out of control, so I engaged Kristin Heimark, a barrister with Standards Board experience to give me independent advice.

As you can see from the submission she has written, the Council has a Code of Conduct but, because legal precedent shows I was acting in a personal capacity, I have not breached it. I would also refer committee members to the circulated Tribunal papers of Hull City Council and John Fareham, which deals with a comparable case – the Tribunal found he also was acting in a personal capacity and overturned the sanctions against him.

From what I have learned from the legal background of this case is that sanctions would be likely to be overturned if the matter progressed to Tribunal. I believe the legal advice I have received is of benefit to the council in this respect.

However, even though I was acting as a private individual when I tweeted what I did, I recognise that it was unnecessary. So I would once again like to put on the record a full apology and assure the committee that I will be more circumspect in future.

I didn’t mention this at the committee meeting because it was not relevant to the case, but this matter took a major toll on me – I suffer from this condition and only today have been awake since 2.30am. I am glad it is now over.