Thursday, July 24, 2008

Two kinds of hole

West Sussex have a problem with holes at the moment, it seems.

The first is the kind that any driver, cyclist or motorbike rider in Crawley can tell you about - potholes. There are more and more of these things popping up all over town, along with growing cracks, raised or sunken metalwork, uneven pavements and any other signs of poor maintenance and the use of cheap materials.


To help them to know how people feel about the state of the roads (that we pay our ever increasing Council Tax to WSCC to maintain) a new website has, as trailed, been set up.

If you have tales of potholes that are not being fixed after having been reported, or were the repair is inadequate, pop along and either leave a comment or use the email address: Join the Crawley Potholes Club

One possible reason that WSCC could have for it's failure to keep our roads up to standard could be that they are rubbish at handling money.

Firstly, they managed to overspend on Fastway by £6 millions and not notice until right at the end of the project. Cause - piss poor project management, and who led the project? West Sussex.

Secondly, when Henry Smith became leader of WSCC it had pretty much no debt. Now, even though they have been flogging off playing fields and old-people's care homes* they have managed to accrue about £300 millions in long-term debt. Much of this in Government-enabled credit, where WSCC were lent money so that they could build all the new schools and things that Henry would like to take all the credit for. The Government arranged to pay the interest for the first few years, and WSCC should have been working out a way to minimise the balance before that interest holiday ended.

The holiday is over, and instead of reducing their debts, the Tories at County Hall are racking them up further, and the interest is being piled on top.

In contrast, the Tories at Crawley have inherited a well managed pot of money - £100 million. How long before they widdle that lot up the wall as they close down services?

And potholes? Well, I have been looking at the West Sussex council website, and in particular at the amount that they spend on roads. In 2005/6, the amount gross revenue amount spent on Highways and Transport was £63M. In 2006/7, it had fallen by over £5M to £58M. In the same period, they increased Council Tax by over 4%.

What's more amazing is that in the budget for that year, the Tories has promised to increase spending by several million quid. So are they so inept that they can't stick to a budget, or were they avoiding spending money on Highways & Transport so that they could pay for the Fastway SNAFU?

Who knows? All I know is that some Tory councillors are more concerned with arguing over who goes to meetings or not, rather than how the authority that they sit on and help run is seemingly unable to handle money. I thought that the Tories were supposed to be savvy with cash...

* I was going to put a note in here about the d├ębacle following the sell-off and contracting out of care services for the elderly, but it deserves a post of its own

Closing down fun

In case anyone is not fully aware, the Tories at Crawley Borough Council have recently announced the following Play Centres are or will be closed down:

Ifield
Pound Hill
Northgate
Southgate

The first two are already closed. The second two will be open for the Summer Holidays and then close in September.

This comes after CBC has been given money by the National Lottery to improve access to services. What did they spend the money on? Partly to pay for a bus so that kids in Ifield and Pound Hill can get to the places that haven't closed. Seems to me like they used the money to help mitigate the removal of services.

There is talk of a school-based replacement service, but as WSCC would have to be involved, and the schools themselves, I think it has been incredibly premature of Crawley to cut services before the fall back is in place. After all, WSCC are a year behind their programme to restore hot school dinners, and I know of at least one school (Southgate Primary) that is apparently refusing to join in.

How long will the children of Ifield, Pound Hill, Northgate and Southgate have to wait if the same people are supposed to be providing after-school activities?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Vexation

Duncan Crow, Tory councillor at both West Sussex and Crawley has got himself a blog, as I mentioned a couple of posts ago.

He recently put this little missive up: Our last honest Prime Minister, about John Major. Of course, Major was fairly well respected for his honesty and integrity (if not his competence or personality) until it came out afterwards that he'd had an affair with Edwina Currie.

However, the bit of his post that I was most struck by was where he was trying to wriggle out of flat out calling Blair and Brown liars with this little disclaimer:

I am not sure I can say lying as it may tempt a certain Labour Councillor who seems to habitually make vexatious complaints to the Standards Board about Conservatives Councillors to complain about me.

So who is this 'certain' councillor, and what 'vexatious complaints' have they been making? I've heard of the use of complaints for political purposes in other areas, but not around here very much. Is Duncan actually going to be able to tell us who it is that he is talking about, because it ought to be a matter of public record if vexatious complaints are being made.

Skuds (see comments from number 21 onwards) had a look at the Standards Board for England's website and found nothing that looked like a vexatious complaint from a Labour Councillor. I know, however, that often complaints are referred back to the local authority for their Standards Committee to investigate, so I have looked back at the last few years' worth of meetings in Crawley (I have a day off, waiting for Jas' car to be fixed, and can't be bothered to do the washing up yet). Since April 2004 the committee has met eight times, and all except for the last have published minutes. I see no reference to a single complaint investigation in all of that time, and the last meeting has no explicit reference to one in it's Agenda papers.

I have found a reference to the case of a Crawley councillor from before 2004 - he was a Labour councillor, the complaint was upheld (and he resigned as a result) and it originated from an officer over non-declaration of his financial interests and his response to it being discovered.

But nothing at Crawley stands out as being in any way as Cllr Crow describes.

What about West Sussex? Well I looked at the WSCC site and found their Standards Committee papers. It seems that it met more often - on average about three time a year - and I have found the following complaints:
  • In March 2004 a complaint was raised about Cllr Jake Clausen (Lib Dem) by the leader of the his own group, following a conviction for harassment. Cllr Clausen resigned shortly after the complaint was raised, and he was banned from standing as a councillor for two years by the Standards Board. His ban expired last year.

  • In December 2004 a representative of a Travellers group raised a complaint about Cllr Alan Phillips regarding remarks made at a public meeting (among other remarks he had suggested the slogan "if you want a traveller for a neighbour, vote Labour", a crass reminder of the racist leaflet that Tories in Smethwick put out in 1964 which used the word 'nigger'). He was no longer on the council by the time that it saw a report on the matter, and although he was found to have breached the Code of Conduct in respect of bringing the council into disrepute, no further action was taken. I don't know which party Phillips represented, and it's actually very hard to find the election results from 2001.
Neither complaint was 'vexatious', as both resulting in a finding of a breach, and neither of them had been raised by a Labour councillor.

So, I find absolutely no evidence for Cllr Crow's allegation that there is some Labour councillor out there in the habit of making 'vexatious complaints'. Indeed, if that were the case, it would only be known about if the cases were completed, and that sort of behaviour ought to have garnered a complaint to the Standards Board if it were going on.

Of course, Cllr Crow could be referring to cases that have yet to be determined - complaints that are still going around the system. In which case, it would appear to be prejudicial to say that they are 'vexatious' before it is actually known that the complaints have been rejected or not.

So, I'm wondering to myself about this one. In a post about honesty, is Duncan himself playing a little fast and loose with the truth, in order to play up the victim card?

Since May...

I've been meaning to get back to posting more regularly for a while, and I notice that back in May, almost 2 months ago, I promised to discuss Crewe & Nantwich.

Of course, since that by-election there's been Henley and Howden & Haltemprice. Before the local elections, and even with them, it could be claimed that Labour was just in the middle of a normal 'mid-term blues' patch.

The local elections in May 2008 were not much different for Labour nationally than the results of the previous year or (perhaps more significantly) 2004 - a year before the last General Election. However, the main difference is that the Tories are now a more credible force and they are able to maintain a sustained lead in opinion polls.

The economic situation is also confused and likely to become harder in some way. The problem is that oil and food prices have risen sharply (the price of oil has a major impact on the price of food, due to increased transportation costs and the surprising amount of energy used to grow food crops and create fertilisers). This is having an inflationary effect, making life harder for people on low and fixed incomes.

At the same time, the US-born credit crunch has combined with the long anticipated peak in the UK property market to start affecting economic growth. I remember way back in 1999 I was a bit worried when I bought my house that prices were unsustainably high. Since then they have more than doubled and every year various 'economic experts' have predicted a 'correction'. Now it's here everyone has suddenly begun to panic a bit.

However, we are not in recession, and even now there is likely to be a small amount of growth in the UK in the next year (technically a recession is two successive quarters of a shrinking economy in GDP terms). Of course, some sectors will be affected more than others. The current strength of the Euro means that the Pound is cheaper, making our exports more competitive - which is good for manufacturing. On the other hand, construction is getting hit hard and retail (having been able to rely on a steady stream of customers on credit) appears to have been doing poorly. Unemployment is going up again, although it's still relatively low for now.

The problem with the combination of low growth and high inflation is that the usual solution is to adjust interest rates, but the direction is different for each. To encourage growth (and counter the credit crunch), lower rates would allow more cash to flow. However, higher interest rates are the usual salve for inflation, the idea being that it restricts cash flow to reduce the demand-led pull on prices.

My opinion is that as the inflation is not demand-led but comes from the supply side, increasing interest rates is not likely to have as much of an effect as usual. However, the Bank of England was tasked (by Gordon Brown) with keeping inflation under control, but not explicitly to prioritise the rate of growth of the economy.

Anyway, all of this leads to uncertainty and pessimism. This will naturally reflect on the government whichever party ran it. As Labour has been in power for eleven years, and as Gordon Brown was Chancellor of the Exchequer for ten of those years before getting his promotion, it becomes even easier see it as down to Gordon and the party. That the credit-crunch was precipitated by the even more loopy borrowing rampant in the USA, and that oil and food price inflation are both global phenomena make little difference to most people.

So, the economy is leading to a wide-scale malaise in Britain, and is also leading to two problems for the government. Firstly, a slowdown in economic growth puts pressure on government spending but inflation leads to higher wage demands from public employees, so we are seeing more complaints and strikes from them. This adds to a picture of a government losing control - and is particularly bad when a Labour government is in open conflict with it's affiliated Trades Unions.

Secondly, the malaise is self-perpetuating. Just as a boom is often fuelled by people being confident and borrowing against a rosy future, a slowdown can be worsened if it becomes the main topic of discussion and people start assuming the worst. It is possible that we could 'talk ourselves' into a recession. At such a time, we would need a very confident leader who could project a more positive image. Gordon Brown, it seems, is not that leader. As much as I was opposed to Blair (and to Blairism) within the party, I did think that Brown would make a decent Prime Minister. A year ago it all looked very positive - even flooding in East Yorkshire seemed not to have a negative effect - and Brown appeared to be a welcome change after the populist and PR-led Brown. But while Brown is good during the good times, and while he was able to react well at first, there have been several areas in which he's been less than impressive and has appeared to be letting things get out of his control.

Last autumn, during the media-frenzy over whether Brown would call an early election or not (I still think he was right not to), there were a couple of wobbles where it seemed that the Tories were pressing the agenda, particularly on Inheritance Tax. However, the real seed of Brown's current unpopularity stems from his last Budget as Chancellor:

Brown did something very silly with Income Tax, using the abolition of the lower rate of 10% to help pay for a cut in the main rate of tax from 22% to 20%. For anyone with an income below £18,000 who was not on tax credits, this meant a loss. This was bad enough, but the worse thing was that Brown denied that anyone would be worse off. Frank Field and other Labour backbenchers had been questioning this for a year, but it was only when it became more immediate and Alistair Darling had missed the chance to deal with it in his first Budget that the media and the Tories started to really press the issue. The 'fix' was to play with Allowances, which did reduce drastically the number of losers among the low-paid but also meant that people on medium earnings got a further reduction in tax. As this 'fix' doesn't actually come into effect until the Autumn and is only really going to be in effect for this tax year unless further changes are made.

What this did was to undermine the claim that Labour was working for it's normal 'core' support, the working classes. Combined with higher prices for basics and greater worries about employment and debt, the last thing that people on low incomes needed was an increase in taxes. Even though that increase was small in cash terms, it was in some cases nearly 4% of total income.

Thing is, changing the Prime Minister (again) won't make a jot of difference. What is needed is what was needed about five years ago - a government that listened to it's own backbenchers and the party that got it into power, rather than being overly concerned with process and the latest polls.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Quiet, innit?

No particular reason for my being quiet, and the only reason for this posting is that I noticed that the links needed a serious sorting out.

Renewed Labour and Let's be Sensible have stopped months ago, and Labour Humanist hasn't written anything since Christmas so they are gone. I can't get on to Adam Brown's site - or all I can get is a blank page - and I notice that Duncan Crow now has a blog so that was an easy 1-for-1 replacement (can't have too many Tory councillor blogs getting publicity from me, can I?). Richard Symonds doesn't use the Crawley Independent to blog anymore, he's got his own forum which (once does contain the odd pearl of information about local doings, in amongst all the rest of what I can only call conspiracy theories, as much as it riles him).

The Crawley News site has been moved and relaunched. It's much better, you get most of the paper's stories and people can comment on them. The old one was shared with about three other papers based in Surrey (and was on icsurrey.co.uk) and was very difficult to navigate. I'll not comment on the quality of the journalism though. If you follow my other new link to the Maidenbower Forum, you will probably find someone moaning about grossly inaccurate reporting.

I know that there are probably a couple of new local sites that I should add in - Such as Ian Irvine's blog, but I can't remember what the url is and I'm about to eat my Sunday lunch soon.

Also, there's going to be a new blog for Crawley to 'celebrate' all of the holes that appear in the town's streets. When it's up and running, it will get a trail here.