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Manston, Miller and Mr Farage: The top political stories of the week

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, April 11 2014

Here's my round-up of the top political stories of the week in Kent and beyond:

1. After trying to stave off calls to quit, Maria Miller capitulated to the inevitable and quit her job as culture secretary. Few Kent MPs seemed prepared to comment in public about the saga which left Mr Cameron facing questions about his judgement. One that did was Tracey Crouch, the Chatham and Aylesford MP, who said Mrs Miller was right to resign but expressed frustration that MPs elected in 2010 were being tarred with the same brush despite the expenses rules being tightened.

2. Rarely out of the political spotlight, the definitely not shy or retiring UKIP leader Nigel Farage had another week in the headlines. A poll suggested that if he chose to stand at the general election in Folkestone and Hythe against Conservative incumbent Damian Collins, he would run him close but may not win. Bring it on, said Mr Collins. Mr Farage dropped an even heavier hint that he was eyeing up a Kent seat in 2015 but declined to say which one. Our bet? It will be Thanet South.

3. There may have been a spectacular increase in people cycling but Kent's track record on encouraging more people to use two wheels rather than four was under the spotlight. Census figures suggested fewer people were  cycling to work than ten years ago - compared with more forward-looking places like Brighton and London. The Green county councillor Martin Whybrow denounced the county council for its track record, altlhough given that the Conservative leader of KCC is an enthusiastic rally car driver, maybe he shouldn't have been that surprised.

4. An unfortunate piece of timing left some people wondering whether David Cameron was "running frit' after a scheduled and heavly trailed interview with Radio Kent was abruptly cancelled - supposedly so he could make a telephone call to a fellow unnamed Prime Minister.  Was it coincidence that the interview was due to take place the day after Maria Miller quit? Who knows.

5. Uncertainty continues over the fate of Manston Airport as the final flight by KLM took off on Wednesday and the airline boss of the Dutch operator made clear the carrier would most definitely would not be coming back. There continue to be talks over a possible buyout and owner Ann Gloag has agreed to consider a rescue plan drafted by staff. A case of watch this space.

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Categories: Liberal Democrats | Politics | Precept

Maria Miller's resignation was inevitable but who wins?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, April 9 2014

Maria Miller's resignation was predictable the moment it became clear that many of her Conservative parliamentary colleagues were not happy about her staying in her job and were taking flak on the doorsteps from voters who were questioning why she hadn't already been sacked.

And as the days went on, more Tory MPs were prepared to say publicly it might be better if she went - effectively questioning their leader's judgement and his inistence that she could stay in the cabinet.

The judgement was made by David Cameron that because she had been cleared of the central charge, she ought to be allowed to stay on.

Despite Cameron's emphasis on this point, the finer technical details on which a committee of MPs delivered this verdict went unnoticed by many - or was delibarately ignored.

That is part of the problem with accusations of political sleaze. The public - much to the exasperation of MPs elected in 2010 - were largely oblivious to the fact that her conduct and claims were being judged against the old regulations, not the new ones which have tightened many of the loopholes gratuitously abused by so many former MPs.

Fair or not, there was enough in the standards committee report - not least the charge that she had sought to frustrate the inquiry - to give her opponents ammunition. She did not do herself many favours with her perfunctory apology, a PR car crash by anyone's standards.

It is telling that as a result of this episode, politicians from all parties are now falling over themselves to talk about the need for further reforms to the expenses regulations - having told everyone back in 2010 that they had devised a foolproof set of new rules that would restore the integrity of  politicians and be impossible to circumvent.

The public backlash over the saga is not just about Maria Miller but a wider feeling that our elected representatives still play by different rules. Unless they can address that, distrust will remain.

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The forthcoming European and council elections were undoubtedly a factor in the pressure being heaped on Maria Miller.

An already tricky election for the Conservatives risked becoming even more challenging with sleaze allegations swirling around.

UKIP - already favourites to win the Euro elections - will no doubt pick up even more votes from those disaffected with the mainstream parties. And it still looks like the leader Nigel Farage will be standing as a candidate in Kent.

Whether it is Folkestone and Hythe or Thanet South remains to be seen but Mr Farage came much closer than he has before now to confirming it will be one or the other, telling my colleague Matt Leclere that "it was more than likely" he will be a candidate somewhere in the Garden of England.

 

 

 

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Categories: Politics

Inhalers, pollution and a council tax shock: The week in Kent Politics

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, April 4 2014

Here's my pick of the week's top political news in the county:

1. As a toxic cloud hung over much of the county and we were advised to stay indoors, the Liberal Democrat minister for climate change Ed Davey gamely paid a visit to one of the county's most polluted roads in Maidstone - where he was pictured enthusiastically drawing on an inhaler and blowing his nose. No, it wasn't a PR set-up despite some being a little sceptical about his inhaling technique. His prognosis on more days of heavily polluted air?  "We will just have to get used to it," he said. 

2. The question of whether  Manston Airport could survive continued to dominate the headlines. There were more twists and turns as it emerged that an unidentified consortium had withdrawn its offer to take over the airport, seeming to signal another major setback. But unions representing the 150 staff under threat revealed that they had put forward plans to safeguard its future. Meanwhile, the two Thanet MPs secured a commitment from the Kent MP and business minister Michael Fallon to throw his weight behind a task force dedicated to saving Manston as an airport. But behind the scenes, speculation continued that the site could eventually be sold for housing development.

3. Council tax bills are rising - and there is a sting in the tail as thousands of the poorest households discovered this week they were being asked to pay a greater contribution than last year. Councils blamed the government; the government said it was all down to cutting the welfare bill and charities warned the increases  would tip more people into poverty.

4. It was round two in the European "hokey cokey" debate with Farage and Clegg squaring up over whether we should be in or out. Neither delivered a knockout blow but the post-debate polls made rather grisly reading for the Liberal Democrat leader who - despite getting some credit for initiating the debate - might now be regretting the whole idea.

Meanwhile, UKIP sources revealed that the UKIP election campaign would wind up with a huge rally in Thanet just days before polling day. Let's hope they don't do a Labour-style Sheffield rally....

5. And finally, there was the shock news that Kent could be at the sharp end of another migrant influx - this time from Scotland if it voted for independence. It was claimed KCC had prepared contingency plans to deal with a new migrant wave of Scots, drawn by the supposedly better climatic conditions for "growing" haggis in the Garden of England. Suspicions about the credibility of the story quickly grew however when the date was spotted....

 

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Why Kent will lose out in lorry charge scheme. And should KCC really have 84 councilllors?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, April 1 2014

First, the good news.

After years of discussion, the government has finally introduced a charge on foreign lorries using the UK's roads, meaning that there ought to be more of a level playing field between foreign hauliers and UK  companies.

Now the less good news. Kent won't directly benefit from the income raised - an estimated £20m a year. Instead, the Department for Transport says it will be passed to the Treasury, who will have its mitts on the money and decide what to do with it.

Politicians of all colours have, over recent years, argued that Kent should get some back from the "vignette" scheme since the vast majority of HGVs arrive in the UK via The Port of Dover or the Channel Tunnel and their numbers are growing - meaning more wear and tear on an already over-burdened road network and congestion on key travel routes.

The figures bear this out: In 2013, 2,206,728 lorries used the Port of Dover compared with 1,952,138 the previous year - an increase of 254,590.

But the DfT says the scheme is not about raising income for road maintenance but has been introduced to help haulage firms. It also says the money raised is actually pretty modest - £20m apparently covers no more than paying for one mile of a motorway.

The secretary of state Patrick McGloughlin said as much two years ago when he first outlined the scheme - in fact his press statement yesterday bore an uncanny resemblance to the one issued yesterday, with quotes which were virtually identical.

So, Kent loses out again because it's a peninsula county. Much has been made of the fact that Kent is the  "Gateway to Europe" but the benefits of its proximity to the continent often appear elusive.

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How many county councillors should there be to serve the people of Kent?

At the moment, we have 84 but the Boundary Commission has come knocking at County Hall's door to ask if that number is appropriate.

KCC is beginning a review at the commission's beckoning and will have to come up with its own proposals this year. It will do so with reference to the Commission's overall principles - which include the assertion that  "community identity" is less important at the county level than it is at the district and borough level.

County councillors are not swayed by the argument that they are more 'strategic' representatives  - or at least those attending a meeting of KCC's Electoral and Boundary Review Committee appeared not to be - and there is already some hints that many woud prefer there not to be any reduction at all in the numbers.

I can't see that happening, despite the fact that if Kent's population grows at the expected rate, there could be a case to retain the status quo.

A report prepared for members noted that in previous reviews of county boundaries, there has historically been a 10% cut in the numbers - equating to KCC having about eight fewer members.

That is probably where KCC will end up and it would just about tolerate it.

Councillors are often keen to stress that they have a fairly onerous workload, although as one county councillor - David Brazier - remarked, the burden of work varied depending on where you were a representative (more prosperous divisions having fewer needy residents than those in areas of economic deprivation.)

Perhaps the most persuasive argument for having fewer politicians is that, at least in KCC's case, not many have direct involvement in the decision-making process. At last week's full council meeting, seven items on the agenda required only that councillors "note" reports - a point rightly criticised by Labour.

Ad today's meeting of the boundary committee followed suit: the two items on the agenda were both "for noting."

 

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Categories: KCC | National Politics | Public Sector

The Friday Five: the top political news stories of the week

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, March 28 2014

This week's political round-up features Disneyland, more on the Manston airport saga and yet another setback for the Kent grammar school plan....

1. There have been plenty more twists and turns in the tale of Manston Airport. After last week's announcement that the owner Ann Gloag was consutling on closure, there seemed to be fresh hope when Thanet North MP  Roger Gale announced he had been in touch with a potential buyer.

But the consortium said to be interested in taking over the airport was shrouded in secrecy and it was unclear if the owner was interested in selling. Meanwhile, Saudi Cargo said it would suspend its operations from next week and KLM followed suit, saying it was not taking bookings beyond April 10. Meanwhile, KCC and Thanet council announced the creation of a task force dedicated to keeping Manston going. To coin a phrase, everything is up in the air...

2.  Councillors in Gravesham were in a spot of hot water over their plans to take a trip to Disneyland and other theme parks in Florida at taxpayers' expense. The reason?

The "fact finding" trip was planned so councillors and six officers could  examine how a theme park operated so they could better manage the planning process for the huge Paramount scheme expected to be built in north Kent. Inevitably, the council was forced on the defensive, saying that the council would be dealing with a scheme of "global significance". For some reason, that justification for the £15,500 trip failed to impress many....

3. There was yet another setback for Kent's grammar school annex plan with the news that governors of the Weald of Kent Girls Grammar had decided against going co-ed - a move that would have paved the way for it to become the sponsor school for the Sevenoaks satellite. Campaigners seeemd resigned to the possibility that this development might signal the end of the road for the project.

4. Canterbury must rank as one of Kent's most congested places so there was some potentially good news for long-suffering motorists and others with the announcement of a £53m package of road improvement schemes. The city council said the schemes represented the biggest shake-ups in the road network since the 1970s. 

5. Finally, there was a political spat over at County Hall in the wake of a backbench report that suggested that Kent could benefit to the tune of £100m from the EU in the next six years. The opposition UKIP group were distinctly unimpressed but the largely positivie report was welcomed by an unusual alliance of the Tory group, Labour and the Lib Dems. Mind you, they may have some trouble selling that on the doorstep in the run-up to the Euro election in May.

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Categories: Margate | Mayoralty | Precept

The Friday Five: The week in Kent politics

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, March 21 2014

It has been  busy week on the political front in Kent this week. Here's my round-up of the five key stories affecting the county:

1. Chancellor George Osborne took plenty of people by surprise when he dropped into an interview with Andrew Marr on the BBCthat he was planning to build the first 'garden city' in north Kent at Ebbsfleet. But how 'new' was this?

His comments about a city for 15,000 new homes were not dissimilar to an announcement made by the government two years ago - only this time the number of homes was a little lower and there was a promise of an Urban Development Corporation to oversee the development.

That sparked some concerns that a quango would bypass the democratic planning system and the views of local councils. Still, Osborne sees it as an important symbol of the government's determination to build more homes - and took aim at Labour's failures in the past saying its track record was "more ebb than fleet". Alright, not the best joke but not bad for the politician who many see as having had a sense of humour bypass. 

However, some of the shine was taken off when it emerged that parts of the area where new homes were planned could be at risk of serious flooding.

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2. Many have tried; many have failed. Yes, the fate of Manston Airport hangs in the balance as its latest owner stunned many with an announcement that it was to close. A 45-day consultation with 150 staff is underway and many see it as the end of the road for the site, at least as an airport. MPs and council leaders rushed to denounce the proposed closure but there are signs that this time, the end is nigh. The airport was bought by Ann Gloag, a Scottish businesswoman, for £1 last November and there seemed to be the prospect of a brighter future.

But the transformation team brought in to assess its prospects apparently concluded there were none. Now, there are whispers and rumours of the site being sold for housing development.

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3. Could the picturesque Weald of Kent prove to be the new Texas? Unlikley though it may seem, the prospect of parts of Kent sitting on a huge oil bonanza have been raised in an as yet unpublished government commissioned report from geologists.

It is said to conclude that huge energy reserves could be under The Weald. Stand by for a rush for black gold and the sight of people dispensing with their tweeds in favour of  ten-gallon hats and cowboy boots. Tonbridge and Malling MP Sir John Stanley gave the news a qualified welcome but some of his colleagues were rather reticent.

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4. If it wasn't exactly a give-away budget, Chancellor George Osborne sprinkled enough goodiesaround to keep his party happy and set the backdrop for the next election - astutely delivering some good news for the sort of disaffected Conservative supporters who just might be flirting with UKIP.  

For Kent, there was news of an extra £140m for flood defences; confirmation of the Ebbsfleet 'Garden City' scheme and news of more duty on fixed odds betting machines. 

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5. County Hall has been a little quiet but we did get news of changes in the Conservative-run cabinet.  Although it  was hardly a reshuffle. In the light of the "Facing The Challenge" re-organisation, the cabinet has been tinkered with so that the ten-strong group is aligned with the smaller number of directorates. Opposition parties were quick to query why, if the council was slimming down so much, was it necessary to keep ten politicians in the executive overseeing just four directorates.

One notable change in the cabinet will come in August, when Cllr Jenny Whittle, the well-regarded cabinet member for children's specialist services, goes on maternity leave.  Her job will be taken by Peter Oakford, who was elected to the council last year.

That in turn will leave the cabinet as an all-male group. There are some who think that once Paul Carter has had his fill of the job, Jenny Whittle would be well-placed to succeed him. 

 

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Grounded: is it the end for Manston airport?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, March 19 2014

When Manston Airport was sold for £1 last year, new owner Ann Cloag was optimistic about its prospects. In a statement issued at the time, she said:  “Whilst this is a loss making airport, I hope that with the co-operation of our neighbours and the wider community of Kent, the airport partners and staff, we can capitalise on the opportunities available to give Kent the best chance possible of having a successful and vibrant airport."

Manston Airport closure shock>>>

Just three months on comes an announcement that the airport is consulting on closure.

It is undeniably a big shock and appeared to come out of nowhere. Certainly, neither KCC or Thanet appeared to have had any prior notice. The 150 staff affected were told at a meeting this morning and were understandably dismayed. Thanet has an unenviable reputation as an economic blackspot and jobs are hard to come by.

Various factors contributed to the decision.

The most significant was that talks with Ryanair owner Michael O'Leary about bringing some routes to Manston had come to an end after the operator signalled it had its own financial difficulties. No airport can be sustained on a long-term basis without using its capacity and it is understood that even with the presence of KLM  and regular flights to Schipol, it was haemorraging money on a daily basis. There would have been no room for sentiment by  the consultants commissioned to investigate whether it had a future. 

Add in the uncertainty about what role Manston might have had in the aftermath of the Davies Commission and the ongoing issue about  the lack of good road connections and its peninsula location and Manston has been battling the odds for a long time.

And it is worth noting that Manston has also had to compete against the increasingly successful Southend Airport, whcih has become one of the fastest-growing airports in the UK.

This is not the first time Manston has, in its chequered history, faced the threat of closure. But you sense that this time, it is highly unlikely to survive. Given the hard-headed conclusions of the turnaround team brought in to assess its prospects, it is almost inconceivable that someone else could come in to give it a go.

The fact that the airport is consulting staff over closure - rather than putting it on the market - tells its own story. The airport insists that it is not ruling out that possibility but there is already speculation that developers are circling with an interest in developing it for houses, rather than for planes.

This time, it does feel like it is the end for Manston - at least as an airport.






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The Friday Five: the week's top political stories from Kent

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, March 14 2014

Welcome to the Friday Five - my view of the week's most interesting stories from around Kent.

1. Education continued to top the political agenda in the county, with the week starting with news of a possible development in the long-running saga of the efforts to open a new satellite grammar school in Sevenoaks. After a series of knock backs, there was better news when The Weald of Kent Girls Grammar School announced it was considering going co-educational so it could become the sponsor school for the annex. An important step forward but as I blogged, there is a long way to go before it becomes a reality.

2. Another long-running saga threw up an interesting twist down in Thanet, where the council continues to pick through the debris of its disastrous secret deal with ferry company Transeuropa, which left it having to write off £3.4m owed by the company. Documents released to me under the Freedom of Information Act revealed how council officials worried that potential Italian investors in the company could have Mafia links and might use the company to launder money. You don't often get to write a story with the words 'council' 'mafia' and 'money laundering' in the intro...

3. Back to education and cue a furore caused by the leak of a county council document to The Guardian outlining what could happen to headteachers who presided over failing schools in Kent. In short, KCC said they would be put on gardening leave and eased out. Unsurprisingly, this failed to get much support among heads, who decried the 'hire and fire' policy and compared the authority's approach to the dirty war waged by the military junta in Argentina where activists who opposed it were "disappeared."

4. You just can't can't keep the UKIP leader out of the news. No, we are not talking about certain allegations raised in Brussels about Nigel Farage's use of public allowances for the party but this - the court case involving a protestor who hit him over the head with a placard during a visit to Thanet.

5. The week ended on a sad note with the news of the death of lifelong Socialist Tony Benn. As to be predicted, it drew tributes from across the political divide although I suspect he would have regarded some of it as sentimental tosh. Over-used word in the many tributes was the reference to "left-wing firebrand." Sadly, I never interviewed him but I did go along to one of his theatre events. He talked and talked and talked - and then invited questions from the audience and continued to talk and talk some more. He was a bit like Fide Castro...

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Are heads right to bridle at KCC's "hire-and-fire" plan?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, March 12 2014

Kent County Council is facing some awkward questions and unwanted publicity over a draft protocol that sets out to head teachers what might happen to them if they preside over a failing school and have been in charge for two years or more.

Under the proposals, heads will effectively be eased out, put on gardening leave and replaced. Given that under Ofsted's own inspection regime, if a school is in special measures it is regarded as failing to have the necessary leadership skills to improve things, you might well ask why head teachers are complaining.

Especially given that KCC has drawn up the policy document after being requested to by the Kent Primary School Forum. Cllr Roger Gough, the politician in charge of schooling and standards, admits he is slightly puzzled by the furore - as diplomatic as ever.

It is not as if head teachers don't know that this is the likely scenario - indeed, it happens more or less every time a school is failed by Ofsted, not just in Kent but every other part of the country. And many parents would find it hard to understand why, if their child's school is failing to make the grade, there is no change in the leadership of that school.

So, do heads have a genuine grievance? The long shadow of Ofsted looms daily over schools. Heads, governors and teachers live in an almost constant state of tension and nervousness about a visit from inspectors.

At the same time, education authorities bear the corporate responsibility of improving standards at all schools - yes, even academies - and education officials at County Hall have the DfE breathing down their necks, which is then transposed to schools.

It is a toxic combination. You can forgive heads for feeling a little aggrieved at the stark way in which KCC has set out the likely sequence of events although invoking the Argentinian junta's policy of "disappearing" military dissidents is a little over the top.

The analogy one head made with football club managers struggling to keep their team from relegation and keeping demanding owners happy with results is a fairer one.

The problem seems to be that heads, rightly or wrongly, feel that KCC has got the balance between offering support and threatening sanctions skewed towards the latter. 

There is no doubt that Kent does have a problem with recruitment at the top. In a selective system, the challenges facing non-selective secondary schools are sometimes seen as a disincentive to aspiring heads although there are a number of all-ability schools that prove that becoming an outstanding schools is not beyond them. 

KCC insists its overriding priority is to provide schools and heads with appropriate support, although given the axe that is being taken to school improvement services that becomes more difficult.

Under the stewardship of its director Patrick Leeson, standards have steadily improved but there are some signs that sustaining this improvement is going to be a greater challenge.

Heads are right to flag up their concerns about recruitment.

They are also right to question what looks like a fairly uncompromising approach by KCC to under-performance. 

The authority appears to have forgotten its own mantra that  'one size does not fit all.'

 

 

 

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Kent's new grammar takes a step forward

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, March 10 2014

After being knocked back by Michael Gove late last year, the bid to open a grammar school annex in Kent has taken an important step forward.

The Weald of Kent Girls Grammar School - one of the two original bidders - is consulting parents and staff about becoming co-educational, a move that - if agreed - would remove one of the obstacles to the scheme the Education Funding Agency flagged up in its rejection letter.

This time you get the sense that the school has done its homework and governors believe that if the school does become mixed, there ought not to be much that could stand in the way of the Sevenoaks plan getting the approval of Michael Gove, at least in terms of whether it would be lawful.

Of course, there are caveats. It is difficult to read how parents and staff will respond to the consultation, for one thing. The school has taken the step of underlining that existing pupils will not be affected, which should head off any worries among existing parents but might also mean they won't take much interest in the changes planned.

And once concrete proposals are put forward to the Department for Education, it is highly possible that anti-selection campaigners will try to hold it up through the courts. The timing is potentially awkward politically, with a general election next May meaning that the school will want to get it cleared with the DfE at the earliest opportunity. (If it doesn't, UKIP will no doubt be poised to capitalise on the issue.)

Having said that, there is more logic to the Weald of Kent's plans than there was to that once favoured by Kent County Council, the bid by Maidstone's Invicta Academy Trust.

In hindsight, that was flawed from the outset and it is inconceivable that  education chiefs at County Hall weren't aware that it was a gamble - as, no doubt, the expert lawyers it paid more than £6,000 to had told it.

The latest development has been welcomed by the parental campaign group which has led the call for a Sevenoaks grammar satellite although it was, to put it mildly, rather underwhelmed when the Weald of Kent school announced last year it was putting in a rival bid.

However, the group has pre-empted criticisms of the new plans by saying that in west Kent particularly, parents have not really had the option to choose a mixed co-ed grammar because of the proponderance of single sex grammars in the area.

There is another good analysis of the implications here by Peter Read.

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The decision by Thanet South MP Laura Sandys to stand down at the next election has opened up a potentially interesting selection contest for a key seat. But the Conservative candidate will not, I am told, now be finalised before the European election in May.

There are two ways of looking at this: one is that the local association arguably may have a wider field to draw from after May. The other is that the delay makes it harder for the eventual candidate to establish themselves in the area.

My guess is that when the association does come to choose, it will opt for someone with local roots and connections rather than someone who could be construed as a parachute candidate.

Constituency officials will also be painfully aware of the UKIP factor, with hints from Nigel Farage that he is eyeing up a Kent seat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Categories: election

Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis

News, views, gossip and analysis on Kent's political scene, from County Hall to Westminster.

Welcome to my blog. As KM Group's political editor, I keep an eye on the county's corridors of power.

Let me know what you think - you can add your comments or views at the end of each blog entry. You can email me at pfrancis@thekmgroup.co.uk.

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