Friday, 17 October 2014

Council Meeting

Last night I attended my first local council meeting - hence the catchy title to this blog.  I have intended going several times, but never quite made it – put off by the lengthy duration of meetings, a long commute on delayed trains, family commitments or because I got sidetracked by a meeting with a friend and glass of wine, or two.  I generally follow the meetings on Twitter, but this time finally managed to turn up. 

I arrived at St George’s Centre 15 minutes before the meeting began.  The room was packed, which I hadn’t expected.  I had gathered from reading Twitter that it was usually a small crowd.  This time the observers had been increased greatly by 200 local taxi drivers, there to listen to a proposal to seek a ‘sustainable and legal solution’ to control unlicensed taxi drivers operating in Medway. 

I sat at the back, next to one of the regulars who was incredibly helpful and patient with my questions and lack of knowledge of meeting protocol.  As I was at the back and there was a very large taxi driver right in front of me, I had limited visibility.  More disappointingly, I also struggled to hear.  There were 200 attendees between the back of the room and the council, a good number of whom were having their own whispered conversations.   The sound system does not seem geared to cope with large crowds.  Sue, who sat next to me, had headphones to help her– and yet she couldn’t fully hear either. 

First was a thought for the day and a prayer offered up for all our forces and volunteer forces who are due to sail to Sierra Leone to assist with emergency aid to combat Ebola.  This was a nice touch.  We fight so many unjust wars, taking on a genuine enemy was worthy of mention. 

The meeting began with approval of the previous meeting, apologies for absence, declarations of interest, the mayor’s announcement and the council leader’s announcement.  I know that is how it began because it said so in the Agenda.  I couldn’t hear it sufficiently to know otherwise even though I was only 50 feet away from proceedings.   I also missed many of the responses to public questions.  As well as struggling to hear, it was quite difficult to pick out the answers from within many of the councillors’ party political broadcasts.  Not all councillors indulged in this practice, but from each party on the council at least one of their representatives commenced every answer with a bit of party PR or, just as time consuming,  criticism of the opposition .  Come on councillors, that is what your party leaflets through our door are for, well that and filling up the weekly recycling bags.

Public questions started with a proposal to support the white ribbon campaign which aims to reduce violence towards women and children.  The motion was supported.  There were four questions on the planning permission granted to Rochester Airport and the funding for the planned works.  There was a question about the CEO’s pension, to which an answer could not be given because until the CEO retires, his pension arrangements won’t be finalised, but the council contributed some 11% of his salary.  One constituent wasn’t happy with the mess created by gasworks during excavations, but little could be done, there were standards which had been adhered to.  Another wanted street lights to go off after 1a.m., for which the council has no plans.  I agree with the council on that one.  I like to see where I am going. 

There were several questions about health services, mental health services and the decommissioning of health trainers.  I continued to struggle to hear right up until the proposal for the council to control unregulated taxis from operating in the local area.   Not surprisingly during this there was complete silence.  Councillor Murray’s motion received cross-party support.  Although it was good to see the cross-party support, I didn’t understand why so many councillors had to chip in. Councillor Murray started talking at 7.48 p.m., the motion was carried without objection at 8.12 p.m.  It took 24 minutes to propose one uncontested motion.  Is this an effective use of council time? If the motion is proposed and seconded and there are no objections, what purpose does it serve for no fewer than nine councillors to get up and spend several minutes agreeing?

After that item, much of the audience left, and I got to move much nearer the front.  There followed the Leader’s Report and the overview and scrutiny committee.  At least 23 members of the council stood up to make comments on various topics.  This part of proceedings commenced at 8.14 and finished at 9.17.   It included a number of topics and a series of party political broadcasts.  There was a general consensus on Lodge Hill.  There was complete consensus on the abandoning of the Mayor’s proposal for an  airport at Thames Estuary,  although Councillor Juby said that it is very likely the current Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, will be Prime Minister within the next 9 to 10 years so the possiblity of an airport may not have died completely.   There is food for thought.  

The council had achievements to be proud of.  Education has improved, the council itself has won a Gold Award for investing in people, which puts it amongst the top 7% of employers in the country.   Tributes were offered to the public who had campaigned against the Thames Estuary airport.  Two councillors discussed the available budget for short breaks (for young carers I think).  Councillor Griffiths felt that the council had broken its promise not to change policy with regard to special needs children.  Councillor Carr was concerned about housing development planned on Greenfields sites in Rainham.  Councillor Harriott noted that the empty shops at Twydall should have been converted into a home for welfare reform, but that this didn't happen.  There was general agreement that the council had a significant role in assuring the continued improvement at Medway Maritime Hospital.  Councillor Igwe said that he felt that Strood South and Strood North were afterthoughts on the council’s radar and he often received updates and information via the grapevine.  Councillor O'Brien said it was important to be mindful of welfare budgets, there could be no price on children's safety and that he was happy with level of investment in a valued service.  In amongst this genuine council business the party political broadcasts took up much of the time.  The council leader did call for the ‘verbal ping-pong’ to end, however that request was pretty much ignored and the PR machines rolled on.

Questions from members commenced at 9.17.  Councillors were reminded that they had 20 minutes and advised to be brief.  We were two hours in to the meeting, brevity had yet to be witnessed, so I had to admire the optimism of the warning.  However to their credit, members’ questions took 19 minutes.  It included questions on the planning committee for Lodge Hill, the leaky roof at Rainham swimming pool, work on Darnley arch and traffic on Medway City Estate.   The next six minutes were spent on council tax on empty homes, additions to the capital programme and special urgency decisions – which were agreed. 

At 9.42 p.m. Councillor Irvine resigned with immediate effect, stating this was to force a by-election which would give the people of Hoo a referendum on Lodge Hill.   The first motion, to request apologies and compensation from the Mayor of London for the costs incurred in the fight against the Thames Estuary airport, which should have been next, had been proposed by Councillor Irvine, but as he was now Mr Irvine and had left the building, it was not debated. 

Further motions included contacting the government on changes to the Localism Act – the motion carried, but supplementary motion that a community asset should be retained by the community was not carried.  Councillor Cooper offered a report setting out details of funding available to preserve the Medway Queen, particularly with the 75th anniversary of Operation Dynamo coming up, in which it took part.  Councillor Carr and Councillor Harriott asked the council to recognize the service and sacrifice of the crews of three Chatham based cruisers sunk in 2014, and the recognition of the Dutch vessels and crews who saved as many as possible.  The council agreed. 

According to the agenda, the meeting should have ended.  However nobody seemed keen to stop talking.  It was almost 10.30.  We had been there for 3.5 hours, I had work in the morning so I had to leave.  The meeting was interesting, but I couldn’t help but feel that it could have been cut down in time if the councillors didn’t indulge so much in self-promotion and party political broadcasts.  If a motion has no objections, there is no grounds for debate.  The public, in raising supplementary questions, is not allowed to use council meetings to make political statements and the council leader monitors that.  Why then should councillors, paid by the taxpayers to represent us, be allowed so much time for spin on behalf of their own parties?  

Despite this drawback, I enjoyed the meeting and hope to attend again.  I even hope to ask a question next time.  I am quite tempted to invent my own political party, just so that I can weave a bit of party spin in to my supplementary statement. 

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Out-of-Town-Visitors

I live in Rochester, formerly famous mainly for a castle, a cathedral and Dickens-related festivals which afford locals and tourists the opportunity to dress up in Victorian costumes and drink mulled wine and local ale in the streets.  I love the castle and the cathedral.  I don't bother to dress up, but will quite happily wander around with friends taste-testing the various vats of mulled wine - you have to try them all, it is only polite.

Rochester, and its neighbouring town of Strood, have hit the news recently.  Our local MP, Mark Reckless stood down as a Conservative and is standing for re-election as a member of UKIP.   He was a decent enough local MP and an outspoken backbencher, as was his predecessor, Labour backbencher Bob Marshall-Andrews.  Being somewhat disillusioned with party politics I therefore see outspoken backbenchers as a democratic necessity.  They are much like the Dowager Countess in the fictional Downton Abbey.  They have got as far as they are going to go and can therefore say what they want.  Those around them might not wish to hear it, but often they need to hear it.  As a member of a much newer party and, should he win, as only one of the party's two MPs, Mark may not be so willing to speak against the party leadership.  (It has occurred to me that if there are only two MPs, he and Douglas Carswell may become the party leadership.)

Although I wish Mark well, I won't be voting UKIP.  I suspect, however, that my vote will count for little and predict a UKIP landslide, which was the case here with the MEP elections earlier this year.  I could be completely wrong, we will find out next month.  In the meantime, Rochester and Strood are inundated with visiting MPs from all political parties.

I wonder how many of them had heard of Rochester or Strood before this by-election, let alone wished to visit it.  I wonder how many packed the family in the car for a fun day out in Gloucestershire, before wandering around Stroud looking a bit lost.  I wonder even more how many of them are required to get here by rail.  I hope it is most of them  We suffer 'rail replacement' every weekend - 'rail replacement' being Southeastern's euphemism for 'slow bus which may get lost along the way', which makes getting to and from this part of Kent a nightmare, and if a few more MPs had to do that even once, they might think twice before awarding the next round of franchises.

Perhaps I should remind them all just before they start to consider the new contracts and compare bidders.  They are all coming to tell us how to vote, which is very kind of them.  I hope they all leave us with their names and addresses so we can return the favour when they are considering awarding rail contracts and every time there is a vote in the House of Commons.  I am more than happy to turn up on their doorsteps, rosette on lapel and leaflet in hand to talk about how charming their house is, wander round their local with a glass of frothing ale of unspecified origin, pretending I do this every weekend and then telling them in my most patronising tone how I think they should be voting, because that is what they are here to do to us.

I find electoral campaigning strange and wonder whether it is really beneficial or mostly counter-productive.  I see local councillors and local party leaders out and about all the time.  I may not agree with their party politics, but I know that most of them want the best for the area and are active members of the local community, so I understand door-stepping from local politicians whose faces are familiar.  I don't understand the concept of an army of visiting MPs, nor the journalists who may follow them hoping for a verbal or physical slip-up to hit the headlines.  If we recognise the MPs, it is rarely for a good reason.  The media seem predisposed to focus on bad news, the public (and I include myself) seem predisposed to remember it.  Therefore if our only encounter with MP X is that they cheated on their spouse/country/expenses claims how much heed are we going to pay to them when choosing how to vote?  Even a curmudgeon such as I may be swayed by a local, familiar politician.  A visitor in a tie of party colours, pasted on smile, glazed eyes and patronising tones is unlikely to make a difference other than convincing us to vote for 'anyone but them'.

For the last two weekends I have avoided the town centres as much as possible.  Contrary-me is almost tempted to go into the High Street just to point out to the Patronisers the error of their ways.  Non-contrary me has far better things to do with my time, and in this case non-contrary me wins.  Party political broadcasting, spin, marketing and walkabouts will never make MPs 'one of us'.   If MPs from all parties really want us to vote for them, perhaps they should try focusing on boosting public services, developing policies that matter, improving health, education and transport services and genuinely putting people first rather than just telling us how to live whilst eradicating everything we need for a decent standard of living.