Local Politics

The demise of some of Kent County Council's business ventures.Plus: Why a council is keen on FOI for the wrong reasons

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, June 13 2013

With a turnover of £600m and a workforce of 800, Kent County Council has one of the biggest commercial trading organisations in local government. And if you believe the hype, it has - at least according to its website - "a long established track record of success."

It certainly brings in a lot of cash for the county council and as the quest for new markets continues it is apparently  "undergoing a period of further evolutionary development."

But the county council's ventures into the business world have not always proved a success. This week, county councillors were told that a series of businesses were being wound up with a loss of £191,000.

The news that this was happening was presented as nothing more than a bit of tidying up, at least so far as a rather thin report presented to the cross-party communities cabinet meeting this week.

You got the impression that the council was rather keen not to to dwell too long on the history of these failed ventures. But the history of how they came about - or rather, how they nearly came about - bears some scrutiny.

Back in 2006, the council's then chief executive Peter Gilroy was keen that KCC explore openings to develop new trading ventures as a way of raising income. Among the ideas was to see if the authority could exploit its "historical and cultural assets". 

This led to the creation of "Kent On Canvas", a limited company set up as an "art on demand" service, selling images of the county to the public. However, it turned out that the company was not trading in a way that was consistent with the law on council's arms-length companies.

Kent on Canvas duly became Kent Cultural Trading Ltd - a move, according to the council's report to "regularise the situation."  KCC ploughed on,  developing side-ventures aimed at ensuring "all possible value was extracted".

This saw five other ventures proposed - bizarrely, including one in which KCC intended to sell anti-bacterial cleaner to hospitals and another to sell "patient essentials" to people in hospital.  Quite how these were linked to KCC's cultural assets is anyone's guess.

In fact, both these two never really got off the ground: in relation to the cleaning products, it was discovered that the money making opportunities had been "over-stated" while the "patient essentials" business was compromised by an investigation that discovered "a conflict of interest with a proposed partner."

Meanwhile, an auditors investigation led to the sacking of a senior official involved with Kent On Canvas for gross misconduct after the discovery that he had "misrepresented facts concerning ownership and directorship."

So far as the others were concerned, they fell foul of the downturn in the recession or needed a significant capital injection to get going.

This is not just about the financial losses. Council officers undoubtedly spent many hours investigating the possibilities of these companies , then investigating why they went wrong and then pondering what to do with them.

There are good reasons why local councils are constrained in what they can do in the business world. One is that they are not money-making operations but organisations whose primary purpose is to provide key services to residents.

Perhaps the time devoted to trying to disentangle this rather messy situation would have been better spent on that.

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Meanwhile, another council - Thanet - continues to be in the spotlight over a secret deal that involved allowing a ferry company to defer paying port fees while it tried to secure new backers.

To say this is a bit of a mess is an under-statement but the council appears to think that it has done nothing wrong or indeed, has anything to account for - despite the fact that the deal went so spectacularly awry that it has left the council needing to cover a £3.3m black hole in its budget - among the measures is a £1m cut to the housing welfare budget.

The latest development involves a claim that in permitting the ferry company Transeuropa to defer its port fees, Thanet breached rules on state aid. The council denies this.

Trying to elicit information from the council is proving rather tricky.

I have lodged two requests to the council press office for answers to certain questions about the saga. On both occasions, the response has been to tell me that the council has determined the requests for information and comment should be treated as Freedom of Information requests rather than standard media inquiries.

Why? The council hasn't really explained but I think I know one reason: FOI requests don't have to be dealt with immediately and can be kicked into the long grass for up to 20 working days.

Either way, you get the distinct impression Thanet is rather anxious to discourage probing about an issue it deservedly is feeing a bit of heat about.

Not least because all but a select few councillors  were told about, and indeed signed off on, the deal ensuring that while the debts racked up, no-one but those who had endorsed it had any idea what was going on.

 

 

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Categories: Local Politics | kent

The battle for County Hall: Who will get to the magic number of 43?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, May 1 2013

 UP-DATED, Thursday May 2.

If I knew who was going to take control of Kent County Council in tomorrow's election, I would, of course, be hurrying down to the bookmakers to place my house on the outcome.

But I don't and neither does anyone else - despite what the politicians are all telling me. There's nothing new or revelatory about that but the battle for Kent County Council's 84 seats is for once, much more unpredictable in 2013 than it was in 2009 when Labour went into meltdown as Gordon Brown's premiership was in its final death throes.

The unpredictability of the outcome has much to do with the high-profile campaign being waged by UKIP, not just in Kent but right across the country.

It is unusual for one party to have such a disproportionate impact on any election but UKIP has, for better or worse, been the dominant feature of this campaign. The media has been criticised for giving them too much publicity and for failing to subject some of their candidates and policies to greater scrutiny.

That may be  valid but so too is the fact that they are - like it or not - a party seeing a popular surge in support, just as the Social Democrats did in the 1980s and the Greens did when they made a breakthrough in the European Parliamentary elections in 1989.

Quite how it will perform on the day is anyone's guess. In Kent, the party has high hopes of making some kind of breakthrough but that could be anything from one seat to half a dozen or more. It could conceivably gain no seats and simply post a lot of 'good' second places.

In Kent, the party that has most to fear from UKIP is the Conservatives although it is true that it is disquieting both Labour and the Liberal Democrats, too.

It is a sign of the Conservatives' concern that recent days have seen one or two Kent MPs and Conservative candidates go on the offensive against the Nigel Farage gang, a tactic that may not be wise given that it has the effect of drawing more attention to a rival you would prefer voters to ignore.

The Conservatives' greatest fear is not just that UKIP will win seats but that its 70-plus candidates could cost them seats they would have expected to win.

That leaves open the tantalising prospect - or nightmare scenario for the current administration - of the Conservatives just failing to reach the 43 seats they need to continue running the council.

I see that as a long shot but given that no-one can tell how the votes will stack up on Friday, it is what makes this election rather more intriguing and interesting than it was back in 2009.

 

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Even before the ballot boxes are emptied, the political spin doctors will be working out how to put the best complexion on the results. So, what would be a good result for each of the parties in Kent and how might they explain away a poor result?

Conservatives: Retaining control of County Hall with a comfortable, albeit smaller, working majority will be depicted as a good result, given these are mid-term elections. Losing control, or being forced into some kind of joint administration, would be a pretty gruesome result but could be blamed on the national political picture, the recession and the unpopularity of some Conservative policies, notably gay marriage and the EU referendum being held back until 2017.

Labour: A result that sees it recapturing the seats it lost in 2009 and taking a couple more would be a good result and probably enough for the party to claim that it is winning back support in the critical middle England territory. Falling short of that would be awkward but will probably be blamed on voter antipathy to all the mainstream political parties rather than a vote of no confidence in Ed Miliband.

 

Liberal Democrats: Has made it clear that is has modest aspirations and retaining its seven seats on KCC would probably be portrayed as a decent outcome. Anything that sees their numbers shrink might start hares racing about Nick Clegg's leadership. Likely spin: "We are now part of the government and that is different to being in opposition. Voters have used the election to give us a message."

UKIP: Given the hype and publicity surrounding the campaign, a failure to win any seats would be a disappointing outcome. Breaking through and taking a handful away from the Conservatives would be a good result. Likely spin if no seats won: "We increased our share of the vote; these elections were really a staging post before next year's European elections; we have a solid base of support to build on."

The Green Party: A very good result would be winning a seat somewhere in the county; a good result would be increasing their share of the vote above 2009.

 

 

 

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Categories: Local Politics | Localism | Politics

Conservative back-pedalling on grammar school transport.

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, February 19 2013

Conservatives at County Hall are acutely sensitive to suggestions that grammar schools are increasingly dominated by children who have got there because they are somehow privileged.

The fact the county council has now acknowledged that the eleven plus is skewed towards those who can afford private coaching - and is trying to do something about it - reflects these sensitivities.

Now the authority has agreed to review its controversial decision to scrap discretionary transport subsidies for children who opt for a selective school - or a denominational school - above others nearer to where they live.

An estimated 4,200 families have lost out under the arrangements because their income means they do not any longer qualify.

Whether KCC would have done had it not been faced with one Conservative - Cllr Andrew Bowles, also the leader of Swale Council - breaking rank and publicly denouncing the policy is a moot point. 

I suspect the ruling administration would have faced down a similar Liberal Democrat call for a rethink but felt propelled to act knowing that Cllr Bowles might not be the only one to decide to speak out.

He made the point that other Conservatives have privately expressed, namely that ending transport support has adversely affected precisely the kind of children that Kent ought to be assisting when it comes to going to grammar schools.

A review, of course, is just that and there has been no commitment to a U-turn. The fact there will be an-party working group indicates that the Conservatives want to tie in the other parties to any changes that might be made.

And a review will help neutralise the opposition from contending that nothing is being done, even if it seems unlikely that it will report before the May election, which won't unduly worry the Conservatives.

The issue is complicated by the fact that KCC will also have to address the issue of whether it should bring back some kind of discretionary subsidy for children who choose a church school above others nearer to where they live.

And it is worth noting that in an environment where parents are sold the idea they can choose a school, some may question why discretionary support for transport costs should not available for those who choose a non-selective school above others nearer to where they live.

This anomaly was actually a factor when KCC originally determined that it would end most subsidies and it was suggested it could be legally challenged.

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Even the most fervent believers in transparency and accountability would have to question whether Kent County Council's annual budget meeting represents open democracy at its best. 

The gruelling day-long meeting was singularly lacking in political drama - with the one exception of the debate on grammar school transport - and enlightening debate and there was a distinct impression that county councillors were simply going through the motions.

There was an awful lot of Conservative councillors standing up to say what a good job KCC was doing and equally, a lot of opposition contributions saying they weren't.

Perhaps the format might also benefit from an all-party review.

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After hints that he might enjoy another run against the incumbent MP Helen Grant in Maidstone and Weald, it seems the former Liberal Democrat candidate Peter Carroll, who is now working for the Kent police commissioner Ann Barnes, is to give it a miss.

The constituency party will select its candidate this weekend from a shortlist of three - all men but Mr Carroll is not among them.

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Categories: KCC | Local Politics

Live long and prosper: KCC and its executive payoffs

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Sunday, June 17 2012

There was, inevitably, a certain amount of spin and bluster as KCC's PR machine sought to put the best possible gloss on the disclosure that KCC's former managing director Katherine Kerswell received a £420,000 payoff after less than two years in post.

It was a pretty thankless task. The efforts to portray it as all part of a well-organised and money-saving restructure will not have persuaded many taxpayers that this was an exercise in well-thought through financial prudency.

Particularly unpersuasive was the assertion that KCC was forced into making the payout because of restrictive employment legislation and because it didn't want to risk a costly employment tribunal. If both sides had mutually agreed that the role of group MD was to be abolished, why would there be a risk of an employment tribunal? If the managing director's post was made redundant, what would have been the statutory entitlement to redundancy pay for her 18 months in post?

A similar argument about restrictive employment law was made when KCC admitted it had paid £365,000 to its former highways director Adam Wilkinson, who left after a year in post. It doesn't appear many lessons were learned.

KCC's problem is that it has form in this area. And it is not a distinguished track record.  Some might consider that it has at times been almost dysfunctional in dealing with executive pay - there is a suspicion that the de fault position for County Hall politicians when they are confronted by a high-profile personnel difficulty is to throw as much money at it as possible to make it go away.

The council employed Katherine Kerswell at a time when it knew full well that financial storm clouds were gathering for local government and central government was rattling a few cages about town hall fat cats.

Indeed, after the departure of Peter Gilroy - who, lest we forget, received a one-off payment of £200,000 on the day he left the job - the Conservatives actually discussed not appointing a successor to save money but eventually decided it was a step too far. (Mr Gilroy's £200k actually cost the taxpayer £408,000).

Her appointment was hailed as a "worthy successor" to Mr Gilroy but back then, even Ms Kerswell would not expecting that in less than two years she would be on her way out.

The public explanation is that her departure was a result of the restructuring operation she had masterminded with KCC leader Paul Carter to slim down the authority in the face of budget cutbacks and in particular to chop away at the top-heavy management tiers. You could say she became a victim of her own operation.

Behind the scenes, however, there was said to be growing disgruntlement (whether legitimate or not, no-one knows) among some in the Conservative group about the former MD and that came to a head during the Conservative leadership contest last October - two months before it was announced she was to leave.

It is worth remembering KCC's lamentable attempt to deny that its MD was to leave - issuing a statement flatly contradicting the reports - last November, then just a week or two later confirming that she was - events that hardly gave the impression that KCC had been engaged in a properly and carefully considered exercise.

Whatever contract KCC signed with Katherine Kerswell, it was clearly one that failed the taxpayer. So, who approved it and who signed it? When the council complains that it doesn't have the resources for some services, taxpayers should perhaps remind it of one of the reasons it may be a little short of money.

Looking ahead, Conservatives at County Hall may well find that when they come to next year's local election and - as they surely will - tell us that Conservative-run councils cost you less, voters on the doorstep may be just a tad cynical.





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Categories: Local Politics

For our eyes only: the library report KCC doesn't want anyone to see

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, July 29 2011

A RARE revolt by Conservative backbenchers recently put paid to plans to close or end KCC funding for between 40 and 50 libraries.

Members of the Conservative group were reported to be aghast at the idea.

One confided that it would have proved catastrophic for the ruling administration and that the presentation in which the plans were outlined was like watching a car crash in slow motion. The leadership was instructed to have a rethink.

But what exactly was proposed? Other than that the cost-cutting plans set out suggestions that where libraries might be closed, district councils and voluntary groups would be offered the chance to run them, not much additional detail has surfaced.

And that looks like the way KCC – despite its much vaunted transparency agenda – would like it to stay. A request under the Freedom of Information Act by Ian Clark, an assiduous Kent library watcher, for the proposals presented to Conservative group last month has just been turned down by KCC.

Here is the council’s response:

“KCC is currently exploring and considering the future of the library service. If the information is disclosed at this time, the effectiveness of that important process could be compromised. The provision of advice and exchange of views by KCC members and officers is likely to be more reticent and circumscribed rather than the necessary full and open discussion to allow us to fully explore relevant options. This would adversely affect the delivery of KCC services by inhibiting free and frank deliberation between KCC members and officers about options for the future of the service.”

The response goes on:

"Once KCC have (sic) fully explored all options for the future of the service, we will start a series of conversations with local communities about how we can work with them most effectively. To support that conversation we will release a range of information to facilitate discussion and consultation. Releasing the requested information now would be likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs by undermining constructive dialogue with local communities before we can even start these conversations. It is important that this process is carried out in a correct and consultative fashion, not on a piecemeal basis.”

’Given that exploring options for the future of the library service is an ongoing piece of work and that no conclusions or clear proposals have yet been reached, and taking into account that we are committed to working closely with local communities to develop our ideas once we have decided upon an overall approach, we strongly feel that releasing the requested information at this time would inhibit the decision making process.”

 

"Therefore, it is the opinion of Kent County Council's Monitoring Officer that this information should be withheld under Section 36 of the Freedom of Information Act, as disclosure is likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.

 

"Section 36 requires consideration of where the public interest lies, and it is KCC's opinion that it would not be in the best interests of the public for this discussions about things that may never happen to be put into the public arena prematurely and before the appropriate time.”

 

The response raises some questions.

How, if the proposals have been effectively scrapped, might they inhibit future decision-making?

Given that it is now in the public domain and widely known that the proposals were rejected by the Conservative group, in what way might the disclosure undermine ‘constructive dialogue?’

 

In what way would 'free and frank' advice and discussions over entirely new proposals be inhibited by the release of proposals that are not going to be implemented?

 

Where is the evidence that disclosure would – rather than would be likely to – prejudice effective public affairs? Guidance from the Information Commissioner on the exemption says engaging it is more likely to succeed where such an impact ‘would’ occur rather than ‘would be likely to occur’?

 

Finally, where is the “clear, specific and credible evidence” that “the substance or quality of deliberations or advice would be materially altered for the worse by the threat of disclosure?’ (That’s also in the Commissioner’s guidance).

 

I can’t see how the response as framed by KCC addresses these questions but then again, the authority can be decidedly schizophrenic when it comes to transparency.

 

Perhaps the response is not really about constructive dialogue with communities at all but minimising political embarrassment.

 

 

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Categories: Local Politics | Precept

Why a 1.5 per cent pay cut for councillors is too little. Plus: KCC and children at risk

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, May 13 2011

County councillors have, after much hand-wringing, agreed to take a pay cut. It's a small gesture in every way. The 1.5 per cent cut in their basic yearly allowance will lop a modest £200 off their £13,000 they get.

If you want an illustration of why it is fairly small beer, I've worked out that it accounts for 0.017 per cent of the £95m of savings the council is making this year. 

But there's another issue here. Namely that the £16,400 that the 1.5 per cent cut will achieve represents a fraction of the £200,000 savings package the council has agreed for members' services. Once you've accounted for the other measures - such as a reduction in special responsibility allowances for cabinet members - our elected politicians together will be saving the taxpayer the grand sum of £80,000. And the rest? That is to come from cutting jobs in the staff who support members.

Opposition parties argued at this week's full council meeting that the cut should be greater. Labour and the Lib Dems pushed for an eight per cent cut, taking them back to the annual levels of allowances that they had before 2009, which is when the independent panel last set them.

Of course, there was - as Conservative leader Paul Carter pointed out - an element of political posturing going on here. (The race to be holier than thou is never more intense than when politicians are involved.) 

But he forgot - until he was reminded by departing Labour group leader Les Christie - that it was the Conservative administration who decided to make a virtue of the original plans for a pay cut when it first unveiled its budget plans in January.

I don't believe that county councillors should have to go around wearing hair shirts. They deserve some financial compensation for the work they put in. But these are uniquely challenging times for councils wrestling with the impact of austerity measures forced on them by the government.

In a week they unveil proposals to raise care charges for elderly and vulnerable people, their decision to agree a fairly miniscule reduction in their own pay does look a little selfish. Was it too much  to expect them to take a bigger hit - even if only for a year or two?

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Social services chief Malcolm Newsam is to be commended for deciding that transparency is the best  policy when it comes to dealing with the challenges of turning around Kent's troubled children's services.

One of the greatest problems KCC had over recent years is what one county councillor described as "the culture of fear" that existed as things started to unravel - staff knowing that things were going badly wrong but finding it impossible to tell anyone.

For years, KCC basked in the glow of independent inspection reports that suggested it was a five-star service. When it commissioned internal reports assessing the resilience of children's social services, they came back saying everything was more or less OK - with the odd caveat about workload pressure.

At last, the politicians have grasped that they cannot take these things for granted. Too late for some but better late than never.

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Categories: KCC | Local Politics

Is the cost of FOI really too high? Plus: Why Labour are cautious about the elections

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, April 21 2011

Politicians are prone to grumble that Freedom of Information requests cost too much time and money councils and others spend dealing with them - particularly from the media - might be better put to other uses.

But how much of a burden is it? And are the costs really making a significant dent in the finances of public bodies?

Kent County Council produces some interesting data on the issue which suggest that some of the assertions from politicians might be over-stated.

In 2010, KCC dealt with 1,539 separate requests - about three times as many as when the Act first came into force in 2005. It estimates that the hours spent dealing with these requests was 4,779 and the average cost of dealing with a request was £78 - compared to £71 the previous year.

But the bulk of requests did not come from journalists. The media accounted for 16 per cent of all requests; private individuals accounted for 58 per cent and companies 18 per cent. The costs of dealing with 246 requests from the media were £19,188. In the context of KCC's annual £2.4billion budget, that represents 0.00007995 per cent of its total spend. Now, to me that's pretty small beer.

It's far less, for example, than the £1.7m KCC has to spend on members allowances and expenses each year which, we are usually reminded, accounts for 0.07 per cent of its budget.

But the issue is not just about costs, it is about value. It strikes me that a lot of the information that is elicited by journalists has brought into the public domain data and information of bona fide public interest. That our politicians grumble about it rather reinforces this point.

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Ed Miliband was cautious to  play down Labour's prospects in Kent at the council elections on May 5. You can understand why. Although there are some hopes the party may wrest control of two or three councils - Dover, Thanet and Gravesham are being targeted - the party is starting from a very low base after being wiped off the county's political map over recent years, culminating in the catastrophic general election last year when they lost all their remaining MPs.

The view is that despite the cutbacks and continuing recession, the disaffection with the coalition government has not yet reached a point where people are out to give it a serious bloody nose. More like a gentle reproach. The Conservatives have also been fortunate that the backlash has been more pronounced against the Liberal Democrats over what the public perceive as broken pledges.

So I don't see major upheaval in Kent happening in a fortnight. What will be interesting to see is how the Lib Dems fare. Candidates appear desperate to detach themselves both from the leader Nick Clegg and in some cases, even the party. I'm told that election literature from some candidates in north Kent carefully avoid mentioning who they are standing for. 

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Categories: ema | Local Politics

Are council interim managers value for money? Plus: Should Kent have a 'C' charge?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, April 8 2011

IS employing interim managers cost-effective? KCC has a few on its books at the moment as it continues with a rather complex re-organisation that has seen several experienced senior officers recently depart and, if the opposition Liberal Democrat leader Trudy Dean is to be believed, sinking morale at Invicta House.

Some of the costs associated with the appointment of four "external interim directors" currently in post were revealed this week after opposition parties tabled questions seeking the information at a full council meeting. It follows our report recently that the man overseeing the shake-up, Jeffrey Hawkins, was costing the authority £165,000 for his services over ten months.

According to an answer provided by the council leader, the monthly costs in March - including a fee  to the agency KCC used to recruit them - was £69,825, a not insignificant sum. The daily rate ranged over the month from £750 a day to £1,250 a day.

How does this compare with the costs of permanent appointments? Direct comparisons are a little tricky but Cllr Carter revealed that the weekly costs - I emphasise weekly - of KCC's former children's services director Rosalind Turner was £5,300 while the weekly cost of the interim  corporate director in the same job, Malcolm Newsam, is £3,900.

There are various arguments in favour of interim directors. KCC doesn't have to make any pension payments; they don't get sick pay and any leave is unpaid. They come in with a specific brief; do the job and then move on. They don't come with any cultural baggage and can offer fresh perspectives. If they don't do a good job as a short-term troubleshooter, it may make it more difficult to get work elsewhere in a similar capacity. The other side of the coin is that they don't necessarily have any knowledge of Kent, they have no long term commitment and if things do go awry, they can deflect the blame on to the authority.

So, there's a case for interim directors to be made. But the real test of whether they represent value for money will be the results they deliver. Not whether they are cheaper than having permanent appointments in place.


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Ever poked a stick at a wasps' nest? Senior Lib Dem county councillor Martin Vye did the political equivalent when he ventured to suggest that if Kent was serious about tackling pollution and poor air quality, it perhaps ought to consider a county-wide congestion charge. Cue outrage and frothy indignation from motorists and his political opponents.

It was a brave call, if not exactly the most judicious moment to try and trigger a debate (especially so close to council elections). You could argue that while we have seen an exponential increase in car use in recent years, the spiralling costs of motoring are in any case having an impact by compelling people to find alternative ways of travelling to work. Kent is not a county that would be well-suited to such a policy in any case, with large numbers travelling to towns to work from rural areas where public transport connections make commuter journeys on trains and buses next to impossible.

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Meanwhile, Kent County Council wants us all to say no to AV. Why? Well, county councillors held a debate at this week's full council and the Conservatives, with their comfortable majority, succeeded in adopting a policy that the council is formally opposed to AV and is encouraging residents to just say no, too. There was even an official pres release issued about it, too which struck me as slightly odd.

Is it any of KCC's business, you might ask? (The opposition parties didn't think so - saying that such a debate was an abuse of power and nothing to do with KCC but cleverly managing to weave in to their anger comments articulating precisely why they thought AV was actually a rather good idea).

I wasn't too bothered about the fact that councillors had a debate although I have to say that it was a fairly pedestrian one with both sides trotting out the well-rehearsed arguments from either side.

And I'm inclined to think that when it comes to putting their crosses on the ballot paper on May, the last thing voters will have on their mind is the fact that KCC doesn't want to abandon first-past-the-post.


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Categories: KCC | Local Politics

After damning Ofsted report, how much progress has KCC made improving services for vulnerable children?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, March 30 2011

Just how much progress has Kent County Council made in responding to a damning Ofsted report issued last year that said it was failing to provide looked after children with adequate services?

The report – just about as critical as it could be – led to a public apology and KCC was put on notice to improve things within a year.

But if there has been progress, it seems backbench councillors don’t know much about it. And many are not at all happy that they don’t know much about what is - or has been going on - to remedy the shortcomings.

And they are distinctly unimpressed by the rather parsimonious amount of information that has been shared with them. The matter was ventilated at a meeting at County Hall of the cross-party Children’s Services Policy Overview Committee and it is fair to say that several members who might normally avoid saying boo to  a goose – or at least say boo to the powers that be – gave free reign to their frustration.

The chief critic was the Conservative backbencher Kit Smith, who at least has been consistent in his criticisms of a failure to be provided with information.

KCC, said Kit, had “a cat in hell’s chance” of complying with Ofsted’s Improvement Notice within a year on the basis of what he’d seen; and KCC’s overall response was “woolly”.

The normally mild-mannered Cllr David Hirst politely remarked to the meeting that among members “there is a growing anxiety on a number of things.” Translated: “What on earth is going on?”

Meanwhile, the rather more blunt-speaking Cllr Chris Wells said that whatever strategy KCC had, it wasn’t doing a very good job of communicating it to staff or politicians.

There was, he said, a culture at KCC that some people ought not to be taking an interest in this particular area of work. “It is not something that was seen as a driving force that should have members’ interests.”KCC had  little chance of turning things around within a year, he averred. “We are kidding ourselves if we think we are,” he said. “We are looking at progress that will take much longer than a year and we have to be honest about that and face it.

Acting director of children’s services Malcolm Newsam and cabinet member Cllr Jenny Whittle made efforts to offer re-assurances that things were moving in the right direction. It seems the full 50-page improvement plan will be signed off next week when it will become publicly available, with targets and deadlines.

But as one member of the committee remarked, KCC was in danger of sounding like a “gonna” organization – in other words, had plans for lots of things it was going to do but hadn’t yet done much.

My own impression – amid lots of rhetoric about outcomes being  measured against seven pillars – was that KCC has not been inactive but has certainly fallen down in letting people know (in coherent, intelligible language that we can all understand)  what it is up to.

And it cannot afford to be seen to be dragging its feet – even if it is not.

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There was something close to an admission that KCC’s frantic approach to filling vacant social worker posts has not been an unqualified success.

Mr Newsam told the committee that while it had helped address shortages in some areas, recruiting from abroad was not without problems, as they and newly-qualified social workers needed to be managed by those with considerably more experience.

“There is nothing sensible attracting inexperienced new people if we end up losing our most experienced people.”

He also questioned whether the additional money invested had had much impact. “It is very hard to see the impact of where that money is going. There is no coherent analysis of which funding streams are delivering real impact and better outcomes.”

Some interesting and illuminating comments.

 

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Categories: Local Politics

The Pfizer blueprint - will the rhetoric be matched by action?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, March 15 2011

It is hard to dissent from much of what the government taskforce calls for to limit the impact of the closure of Pfizer's Sandwich plant in 2012.

The key recommendations in the 21-page report published today were, in some ways, predictable - there are calls for an enterprise zone, better transport links - particularly rail - and further government support through its regional development fund.

Pfizer taskforce sets out key demands; read our story here>>>

They all make perfect sense. So the issue is not whether what the taskforce says is right but how the government will respond. Science minister David Willetts was a little circumspect in what he said at today's press conference in Westminster, emphasising his support for the principle of the enterprise zone and the importance of improving transport links but saying that decisions on investment in zones and rail connections were ultimately the responsibility of the Treasury.

With George Osborne's budget imminent, it might be too much to expect him to give the green light to an enterprise zone and announce handouts via the regeneration fund.

Which raises the key issue,  underlined several times by taskforce chairman Cllr Paul Carter, that timing is critical and that maintaining momentum is a priority if the Sandwich plant is not to have tumbleweed drifting through its 2.3m square feet of purpose-built office and research facilities come 2012.

The report underlines starkly the consequences of Pfizer's decision on the wider local economy: 1,600 additional jobs could go while nearly 3,000 more in the public sector are predicted to disappear from the public sector in the area by 2015. That represents a potential loss of £380m to the economy - 9 per cent of east Kent's total output.

But it also strikes a more optimistic note by pointing to success stories elsewhere, notably the former ICI R&D site in Runcorn, which was closed ten years ago and is now a flourishing multi-purpose business and techology park employing 2,000 people in 160 different businesses.

So, if the brain drain and wrecking balls are to be avoided, the government must respond quickly.

If east Kent genuinely is on the cusp of an economic opportunity, it is an opportunity the government must not allow to go begging.

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Having written extensively about Southeastern's rail fares in recent months, I ought not to have been surprised. But I confess to being taken aback when I bought my peak day High Speed return to London from Ashford to attend today's Pfizer taskforce briefing - a rather hefty £61.20. Throw in £5 for parking and that represents £1.80 a minute.

Almost makes the cost of a litre of fuel seem cheap. Almost.

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Categories: KCC | Local Politics

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