National Politics

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

Could UKIP be the surprise election package?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Saturday, April 6 2013

If UKIP was a band, it would probably be the type that comfortably fills mid-size venues but hasn't quite reached the point at which it is capable of selling out big stadium tours. There is a sense in which its supporters are a bit like fans who consider they are in on the next big thing but might actually be a bit regretful if it became a mainstream success.

But there's no doubt plenty of people think it is on the cusp of making the crossover from cult band to chart toppers. Its PR people like to talk about a buzz around the party, a bit like A and R men.

A measure of this progress will, of course, be how it fares at the county council elections.

And the leadership has its eye on Kent as somewhere it can create a few ripples. It is fielding 76 candidates out of 84 - a record number and judging by the unbridled spirit of optimism at the launch of its Kent manifesto on Friday night in Gravesend, many think County Hall will have its first elected UKIP county councillors come May 3.

Actually, the event was not so much a manifesto launch (not much was mentioned about Kent at all) as much as a rally designed to raise spirits for the battle ahead.

More than 300 activists and supporters crammed into a hotel room to listen to Nigel Farage deliver a characteristically flamboyant and colourful speech, in which he fired broadsides at all the mainstream parties (Cameron - "no-one will ever believe him again"; Clegg - "hopeless"; Osborne - "hopeless"; Angela Merkel - "more miserable in private than she is in public"; Miliband - "who cares?") and declaimed like a evangelical preacher that the party's time had come.

Say what you like about him, but he certainly knows how to find a key part of the party's anatomy (in the way it was said of Michael Heseltine and the Tories).

One of his quips about his critics was telling: "They're writing me off as a populist now!" because it touched on why the three mainstream parties are so concerned aboout UKIP.  It has successfully exploited the widespread disenchantment with the big parties among voters who think they all look the same and say the same. It is that disaffection that meant second place in the Eastleigh by-election was depicted as a victory.

The forthcoming elections come at a good time for UKIP: mid-term in the life of any government is a bad time to be going to the polls for those in power and UKIP is picking up support from many Tories in the shire counties that disapprove of the party's position on gay marriage and harbour fears over the impact of immigration.

It has certainly leapfrogged the Lib Dems as the preferred repository of the protest vote. More than that, there is the fact that they have a much more organised campaign and activists willing to trudge the streets with leaflets - the kind of foot soldiers every party needs. And it already has councillors in Tunbridge Wells.

So, you can understand why it feels bouyant. I think the issue, however, is that while it could significantly build on its share of the vote across Kent it may end up in second place in lots of areas, just falling short of victory.

Nigel Farage is typically robust in his assessment, saying it would be a major surprise if Kent - his home county - doesn't have UKIP county councillors next month. He won't say but the target areas are Thanet and Tunbridge Wells, with north Kent also in its sights.

When I asked him if he would have a bet on UKIP holding the balance of power at County Hall, he said he would have to look at the odds. But his smile suggested it may be something the party has contemplated as a possibility.

Such a result is the UKIP dream scenario and the Conservatives' nightmare, which accounts for the current jitters in Tory ranks.

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Among UKIP's candidates is another defecting Tory.  Roger Latchford, who was at one point deputy Conservative leader of Thanet council, has defected and will contest the Birchington and Villages division in Thanet.

Another former Tory, Brian Ransley, once a cabinet member in Tunbridge Wells council until he lost his seat to the Lib Dems, is standing in Tunbridge Wells North.




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Categories: National Politics

Eastleigh: what lessons for Kent?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, March 1 2013

It is always difficult to extrapolate from the result of a by-election what wider messages the voters have sent to politicians and how they might affect the parties' prospects in other areas.

So, is it possible to draw anything about Kent's political landscape from the outcome of the Eastleigh by-election?

Only in general terms, perhaps - particularly given that this was a seat where there was a two-way fight between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives which really has no parallel in most of the county's parliamentary constituencies.

The Liberal Democrats did not so much gallop to victory as hang on by their fingernails, which against the backdrop of the Chris Huhne affair and the Lord Rennard allegations, was arguably no mean feat.

The Conservatives had a miserable result, losing ground yet again to UKIP in a result that suggested that David Cameron's pledge for an "in-out" referendum on the EU did not help shore up the party's core vote.

That will worry Kent Tories who are very jittery about UKIP and see Nigel Farage's party as more of a threat to their prospects at May's county council election than anyone else. It was interesting to hear Michael Gove cite immigration as one of the "doorstep" issues mentioned by voters during the Eastleigh campaign - that, coupled with voters' concerns over the EU - make UKIP more than just a natural repository for protest votes.

Cameron's dilemma is whether to stick to the centre ground or adopt more right-wing policies to neutralise the UKIP threat.

For evidence closer to home of the potential for UKIP to take votes away from the Conservatives, the result of a by-election in Ashford is telling: UKIP came third in a contest won by Labour (it was a safe seat) but came within two votes of beating the Conservatives to take second place.

On the other hand, Labour should be equally alarmed that Ed Miliband's efforts to depict his party as a "one nation" party appears to have had little resonance with voters.

The phenomenon of Labour's "southern discomfort" is something the party is desperate to resolve: if it cannot attract voters back in the constituencies in Kent that it won during the Blair era, it will not be in a position to form the next government.

Eastleigh was never a seat where Labour had any chance of winning but it will have to ask why, given all the coalition's woes, it did not fare better.

UKIP didn't win but will undoubtedly be happiest at its surge in the polls.

The question now is whether in places like Kent, it can sustain its momentum in a way which means it is regarded by voters as  legitimate part of the political mainstream - and not just somewhere to register a protest against the others.


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Categories: National Politics

The Political Year In Quotes: who said what and why....

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, December 20 2012

 

"I want to stop the police being run by politicians” –  Ann Barnes, declaring her plan to stand in the election to be Kent’s first crime commissioner

 

“A wilful waste of money” – Ann Barnes, as chairman of Kent Police Authority on the plans for elected police commissioners, before declaring her candidacy

 

 

"It's my view that the idiot entering the roundabout at speed with one
hand on the steering wheel and the other holding his mobile phone poses
an infinitely greater threat to the public wellbeing than a couple of teenagers sharing a cannabis spliff." 

 

Would-be independent police commissioner candidate Ian Driver.

 

 

 

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“Unacceptable and disturbing” – minister Grant Shapps on the £420,000 pay-out to former Kent county council MD Katherine Kerswell

 

“It will save a fortune in the long run” – KCC leader Cllr Paul Carter on scrapping Katherine Kerswell’s role

 

“I am thrilled to join the civil service” Katherine Kerswell on her new six-figure salaried job in the civil service. A few months after leaving her job at KCC

 

“You have to question the training and development within KCC. It does not produce a good working environment when you see people coming in on a six-month contract and apparently sort things out” – Conservative county councillor Mike Jarvis

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“Why don’t they live within their means, or move down here and see what it’s like to be taxed until they weep? Frankly, we can no longer keep subsiding other people’s spending habits.” Former Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie makes friends in the North by advocating a new “Southern” party for the region

 

“I did receive an invitation but told him I wasn’t going to go.” Rochester and Strood MP Mark Reckless on reports that he was courted by UKIP funder Stuart Wheeler to switch sides

 

“Helen’s exceptionally demanding job requires her to be in London for most of the week, which is where she lives during that time. Her decision to use her rental allowance in London is therefore understandable and acceptable given her circumstances.” A declaration of loyalty for under-fire Maidstone MP Helen Grant from her party chairman James Peace

 

“She is treating the voters of Maidstone with utter contempt. She is exploiting the system to the maximum and she seems to consider her constituency a complete irrelevance. She should do the right thing and resign” – Becky Matthews, a constituent of Mrs Grant’s

 

 

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“Everybody is gobsmacked that they got themselves into a financial mess and did not realise what the situation was. It is staggering.” Dover and Deal MP Charlie Elphicke on the financially-stricken K College

 

“You cannot just click your fingers and fix it. We need to think big and hold our nerve over the decades.” Transport minister Patrick McCloughlin on criticism of the government’s review of aviation strategy. It won’t report until after the election.

 

 

 

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“Following a cabinet decision, it has been decided not to proceed with the trade mission to the USA as it was not considered the best use of public funds at this time.” – Kent County Council scraps a planned trade mission across the pond

 

“It is a small investment and a real opportunity” – Kent County Council defends the same trade mission to the USA a few weeks earlier.

 

“The structure of Kent commercial services is unnecessarily complex and not fit for purpose, it lacks the appropriate direction and has become untethered from the council.” A leaked confidential report on KCC’s commercial services

 

“Utter madness, irresponsible and ridiculous”. The leader of Kent County Council Cllr Paul Carter on Shepway Council’s plan for a nuclear waste site

 

“Let’s not over-dramatise this.” Paul Carter on the same subject.

 

“Many are in dire need of some TLC”  - Backbench county councillor Mike Harrison raises an important matter of state at a full council meeting. Yes, the apparently poor  condition of the chairs councillors sit on.

 

“It makes us look like the landed gentry” – county councillor Bryan Sweetland (Con) berates the media over its coverage of the expenses of the county council’s chauffeur-driven cars.

 

“Chauffeur-driven” – how KCC’s policy document refers to the authority’s fleet of cars. Five times.

 

“Concurrent strategies and tactics that will facilitate this requirement must be integrated into the broader approach.” A gold-medal winning piece of jargon from Kent County Council’s emergency Olympic plan.

 

  

 

"A momentous moment in the county's history" - KCC education cabinet member Cllr Mike Whiting on the proposals for a new grammar school.

 

  

 

“A number of people have said the Kent test is not fit for purpose and could be improved, specifically because there is a sense you can coach for it and if people are willing to devote money to something, they can get an unfair advantage when it comes to getting a grammar school place." Cllr Mike Whiting announces a review of the 11-plus to make it "tutor proof"

 

 

 

 

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“We cannot go around all the institutions of this country, heralding the virtues of direct elections when at the heart of our constitution 825 members are there as a result of some form of patronage.” Thanet South MP Laura Sandys backs reform of the House of Lords

 

 

"The awarding of this prize to the EU brings it into disrepute." UKIP leader Nigel Farage slams the decision to award the EU the Nobel Peace Prize.

 

 

Meanwhile, bears continue to make mess in woods...

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Categories: National Politics | Precept

Was it right to shred Fred?

by The Business Blog, with Trevor Sturgess Wednesday, February 1 2012

So Fred Goodwin has joined traitor Anthony Blunt in the Hall of Infamy wherein languish the handful of once revered people stripped of their gong.

But what has the former Sir Fred the Shred done to deserve a criminal’s fate?

He had hubris - what successful businessman hasn’t? He shredded jobs. Nothing unusual there then.

He wanted to expand his company’s global reach and market share. So what’s strange about that? We criticise local business people for lacking ambition, and preferring a lifestyle enterprise.

By many accounts, he was not the nicest of people. But show me a nice boss and I will show you an under-performing business. Yet he has ex-racing ace and nice bloke Jackie Stewart as a friend who obviously shares a love of life in the – former - fast lane.

So why has Fred been shredded by the Establishment?

One reason only of course, Political symbolism. Somebody had to pay for the crash, for the misery inflicted on so many, for the taxpayer bailout, and frankly, for embarrassing politicians who deserve to be embarrassed.

I’m assuming that Fred did not set out to wreck the economy, to ruin the Royal Bank of Scotland with a takeover too far. With hindsight, military planners would not have asked our troops to go a Bridge Too Far at Arnhem with disastrous consequences. How many generals were demoted and ridiculed after that Dutch debacle?

Did Fred set the level of his own pension pot? It was more likely a remuneration group, Have they been stripped of their honours for living in a false world of astronomical rewards?

Stephen Hester is used to six-figure payouts. That’s what happens in financial services yet their practitioners do not merit the remuneration so out of kilter with rewards for people in equally necessary jobs and craftspeople paid little or nothing beyond their normal salary, wage or fee. Hester and his kind would get nowhere without the support of the humble teller at his local branch.

These bankers may well give away lots to charity and keep employees of Rolls Royce and Lamborghini happy. But the public don’t see that.

Fellow banker Stephen Hester should have had the wit to see the storm that would brew over his bonus. Why didn’t his PR people see it coming and advise appropriately?

Perception in today’s world is reality. He would have earned plaudits for either turning it down or giving it to charity. In the end, he was forced to yield by media and political denigration.

Fred’s public humiliation was symbolic and political and in a fairer world undeserved. Hester’s decision was forced and should have been taken earlier.

Both episodes damage business credibility and, when it is only business that creates the wealth of the country to help the sick, the young, the jobless, the elderly and the disadvantaged, that is an unhappy place for our wealth creators – and there are many in Kent.

In his rags to riches to rags disgrace, Fred is only human, a risk-taker who ultimately got things wrong. That’s what happens to entrepreneurs.

However much we deplore banking greed, he deserves a measure of sympathy rather than the gleeful grins of a crowd cheering a public hanging.

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Categories: National Politics | Work | Banking

Don't play the blame game

by The Business Blog, with Trevor Sturgess Tuesday, November 15 2011

It is far from edifying to hear a politician blame an official for wrongs without any immediate right of reply.

Home Secretary Theresa May went down in my estimation when she publicly criticised Brodie Clark, the UK Border Agency chief, for the failings of his organisation.

It is all too easy in a blame culture environment - as this country and a lot of business is - to pin everything that goes wrong on subordinates.  Local MP Mark Reckless was equally quick to pillory officials.

Politicians – and it’s often the same with bosses - are all too keen to shift blame from themselves to save their own skins.

Mr Clark and his colleagues may have something to answer but they should have been given a right of reply to Mrs May’s tirade. They are an easy target.

It was good to hear Mr Clark come out fighting. And there should be some more fighting talk from him in front of MPs today. Let’s hope that at last we get more truth than political spin.

The UK Border Agency has an impossible task. For a start, this Government has slashed staff numbers to such dire levels that compromise is inevitable. The Public and Commercial Services union, which represents border agency staff, said the service had suffered a 25% cut in budgets over four years.

Yet given the sensitivity of immigration, it should have been protected, just as overseas aid is.

Who can wonder at any attempt to simplify entry procedures.

Who has not left a plane at Gatwick or Heathrow and found thousands queuing in the immigration area? Your heart sinks at the prospect of long delays.

Anyone travelling by coach from Europe has been grateful for quicker procedures. I remember disembarking from a bus, trekking through a building, showing passports and going on our way. On other occasions, a coach has been waved through. There was a sensible assessment of risk.

The truth is that the UK is visited by millions, many through Kent entry points. The Border Agency systems just do not work quickly enough for the majority. The danger is that the handful of people bent on causing trouble hold up the rest - as of course they do when you enter the United States.

Unless the Government invests in more - not fewer - staff, gives the UK Border Agency more money, equips it with better IT systems, and adopts a more co-operative approach to staff, the crisis will continue and lapses will occur.

If border controls are tightened further, catching even more law-abiding folk, the UK will be a turnoff. That may be good for safety, but bad for tourism and business.

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Categories: National Politics

Pie in the sky and plane crazy - but the airport plan won't go away

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, November 2 2011

Council chiefs and other politicians in Kent and Medway have been swift to condemn the latest proposal for an airport in the Thames Estuary.

Hardly a surprise. Lord Foster's grand scheme is nothing if not ambitious - it brings together not just an airport but a new river barrier and crossing, and a shipping and orbital rail complex. It makes Boris Island look rather modest.

Given the scale and huge impact it would have, the reaction on both sides has been passionate.

Lord Foster's Thames Hub vision>>

It is a classic situation in which local and national interests collide - a bit like the arguments that raged in Kent over the Channel Tunnel, when there were similar clashes over the blight afflicting the green fields of the Garden of England against those arguing the case for the economic dividend for UK Plc, particularly on the jobs front.

(Remember the scorn heaped on the country when it dragged its feet over the construction of the second stage of the High Speed Link? We were derided by our European counterparts for taking so long and for building a link which, at the time, only went some of the way to London.)

So why won't this idea - dubbed pie-in-the-sky, plane-crazy - go away?

If those advocating different proposals took on board the views of many in Kent, they would run away and hide in a dark room, not spend £100,000 on a report, that for all the criticism that might be heaped on it, at least strives to come up with a credible case that integrates different energy and transport strands and doesn't completely overlook the environmental issues.

One reason is that there is something of a policy vacuum in government - which, according to new transport secretary Justine Greening hasn't completely closed the door on the notion of a Thames Estuary airport - and has only recently finished a consultation on its scoping document setting out its plans for a sustainable framework for UK aviation.

Meanwhile, it has cancelled a third runway at Heathrow and ruled out expansion at Gatwick and Stansted. Triggering the inevitable questions about how it intends to increase capacity and compete in the global economy with those countries who appear to be stealing a march on the UK.

As ever, the government is struggling with the competing interests of those who wish to safeguard the environment and those that argue aviation is a vital to our national economic interests. 

And as always, thrown into the mix is the pressure ministers will come under from MPs with marginal seats who will want to side with their constituents. (A taste of this has come the way of ministers trying to sell the idea of High Speed Two, which would also carve through some of the country's rural hinterland. There is open revolt in some Cnservative constituencies).

So, will the government opt for what Foster calls "the short term patching up our ageing infrastructure" or be more bold when it does eventually flesh out its policies?

Somehow, I suspect that even when it does, the arguments will continue to rage.


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Categories: Hoo peninsula | National Politics

Will bloggers now flock to council meetings? And that Southeastern trains 'audit

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, February 24 2011

It's encouraging to see the government continue with its efforts to persuade councils to do more to open up their meetings to the public. The latest development in the seemingly never-ending transparency crusade is an edict from the Department for Communities and Local Government that councils should "open up their meetings to local news bloggers and routinely allow online filming of public discussions as part of increasing their transparency."

Bloggers should, according to ministers, get the same routine access to council meetings as the 'traditional media'. Welcome though this is, I'm not convinced that it will trigger a march on town halls of bloggers availing themselves of these new entitlements. It's worth pointing out that council meetings are already open to the public and there's nothing to stop anyone from attending in any case. (It'll be interesting to see how councils respond when citizen journalists turn up with video cameras, mind you.)

For me, the wider issue is not who can go to meetings but the continuing concern that the system of cabinet government is one that gives councils enormous power to manage the decision-making process in a way that inhibits rather than enhances scrutiny.

And for all the government's warm words on transparency, it is worth noting that there are some worrying developments in the pipeline under the guise of its Localism Bill.

This sets out proposals that should worry all those who feel more needs to be done to hold authorities to account.

One proposal set out in the Bill would see the removal of any sanctions against authorities who failed to comply with the public's right to inspect documents relating to their accounts - including contracts - as well as the removal of a requirement that public bodies publish adverts in local newspapers giving notice of when the 20-day inspection period of accounts will take place.

It was these rights, incidentally, which enabled us to scrutinise the credit card bills of senior managers at County Hall last year. These changes would appear to run counter to the desire of Mr Pickles to see an army of armchair auditors poring over council accounts and spending.

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I am not at all surprised that an audit of Southeastern trains' punctuality has concluded that its figures added up and it did indeed - albeit narrowly - pass the threshold that meant no discounts for season ticket holders.

It won't please long-suffering passengers, of course. The problem, however, is that the company simply complied with what was required of it under the Passenger's Charter. And that was something that was set by the previous government when it agreed franchise contracts with the operator and that the only way it could be changed is if the government instructed it to.

But even if this latest news is a let down for some, it will add to the pressure that a future contract should set out compensation agreements based on individual line performance rather than performance across the whole network. 

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Categories: Freedom of Information | National Politics | Public Sector

Pfizer: did politicians know? And why under-fire Southeastern could get its extension

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, February 2 2011

After the devastating news about Pfizer closing its plant in Kent, there has inevitably been speculation about whether ministers were privy to the announcement before it was made. Business minister David Willetts said today that the government was told 'a few days before' in a briefing with the company and immediately set about asking if there was something the government might do to change its mind.

That does rather suggest that it was as much as a shock to the government as it has been to everyone else. That incidentally, includes Kent County Council.

The question then becomes whether the government's radar was adrift on what was happening in the wider pharmaceutical industry and should - could - have been more pro-active.

Labour is suggesting - rather inevitably - that ministers ought to have been in the loop and should have been making efforts to encourage Pfizer to stay put. That may be rather over-estimating the influence and leverage governments have when it comes to persuading global corporations faced with a contracting market in a recession to bend to their will.

One other consequence of Pfizer's decision is that it raises a serious question about the government's central contention that job losses in the public sector will be absorbed by growth in the private sector - especially in the context of expected job losses of 1,500 at KCC and many others in the county's public sector.

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I am getting the distinct impression that for all its faults and the opproprium heaped on it by disgruntled passengers, the odds on Southeastern being offered a two-year extension to its contract are growing.

Despite the admirable efforts by Kent MPs to pile pressure on the government to do otherwise, it seems ministers are in a legal bind that would make it extremely difficult to go against the conclusions of its 'continuation review' and it appears likely that Southeastern may be on course to meet the required thresholds - notwithstanding the many complaints from its passengers.

The government will be extremely wary of exposing itself to any kind of legal action from Southeastern were it to go against the review and the possibility of handing out compensation to the company.

Of course, ministers will be able to blame the previous government for laying down the franchise rules that place them in an awkward position but I very much doubt that will appease Southeastern's long-suffering users or the county's equally frustrated MPs.

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Categories: National Politics | Politics

Will Gove's school revolution make the grade? Plus: Why MPs are powerless over rail fare hike

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, November 24 2010

I've got a feeling of deja vu listening to and reading about Michael Gove's blueprint for driving up classroom standards. There's lots of talk about tradition - natural Conservative territory - the desire to see more pupils wearing blazers and ties and an emphasis on improving the quality of teaching. (Although I couldn't spot the word "diversity" anywhere which was littered through most of the Labour government's various reforms)

Somewhere in amongst it, there are also references to houses and prefects. It all sounds vaguely redolent of Hogwarts so I was slightly surprised to hear no mention of Quidditch and wizadry skills being introduced to the curriculum.

Of course, one traditional feature of education provision is already undergoing radical reform - namely, the role of councils and what future they will play as Gove stirs up a cauldron of reforms.

The issue was touched on by county councillors at a cross-party committee scrutiny meeting at County Hall today and it was hard to avoid the conclusion that many are struggling to grasp the ramifications of changes which will radically diminish their input.

One of the consequences of drives by this government and its predecessor to give schools more autonomy has been to leave councils with less and less direct involvement in schools (although they continue to provide vital support services.)

This has been a deliberate. The Gove mantra is that schools know best how to educate, not distant overly-bureaucratic councils.

That is why we are seeing a new generation of academies and, in time, free schools - ironically, charged with the job of "innovating" new methods of teaching, although presumably only as long as students are dressed in formal suits.

But what happens when things go wrong at a school? Where are the local checks and balances? Where is the accountability? There was a time when education authorities had the job of intervening and acting to ensure that things improved. Interestingly, their statutory responsibilities in this area are steadily being eroded.

Kent's first academy, The Marlowe Academy in Ramsgate, has just been given a notice to improve by Ofsted. But as an academy, it is detached from KCC which will have absolutely no role in tackling the school's shortcomings. (Perversely, as part of Gove's vision to haul up under-performing schools, the Marlowe could in time be "taken over" by the government and forced to become, er, an academy...)

Conservative backbencher Cllr Kit Smith articulated the general frustration felt by many at this impotence with some pointed remarks at today's meeting. "We as KCC have some form of moral responsibility to make sure children get the best education they can. These are our children for the future and if they have a bad experience at school, that reflects on our county. While the government has taken away our statutory responsibility, we still have  a moral responsibility...it would be irresponsible of us as county council not to."

Who would quibble with such sentiments?

Sadly, in the brave new world of academies, free schools, ties and blazers, no-one appears to give much for moral responsibility, let alone local accountability.

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Kent Conservative MPs have been quick to condemn the astronomic rises in rail fares for hard-pressed commuters but they, too, are impotent and unable to do anything.

More commuter woe for Kent's rail users>>>

Why? Well, as several have been quick to point out, the fares regime is tied in to complex franchise agreements determined by the previous government and the changes permitted for regulated and non-regulated tickets.

Which means that for the time being, MPs can roundly condemn the increases - but when it comes to representing the interests of passengers or pressurising for some respite, can't actually do terribly much other than sound off about how dreadful it all is.

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Categories: Conservatives | Education | Local Politics | National Politics

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