Politics

A reboot for the Kent Crime Commisioner - but will it work

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, July 25 2014

A very different Ann Barnes appeared before the inquistory Kent and Medway Crime Panel this week, a month on from being told to "reassess her style" and repair the damage done by her appearance in the disastrous TV documentary "Meet The Commissioner".

It was a less combative, more consensual and contrite commissioner who set out a range of proposals to improve the way she worked, especially in terms of her engagement with the public and the force, where many officers remain deeply unhappy they have been tarnished by association by the public relations car crash the Chanel 4 documentary proved to be.

So, what did we learn? What was clear is that the commissioner has grasped that the  Ann Barnes "brand" that proved successful when it came to winning the election has become a toxic one in office. So, there was a common theme to many of the proposals, which was a clear move to "depersonalise" her role.

This even involves re-branding her social media profile: her Twitter account no longer features her image or even her name, which you could argue is contradictory when considerinig the underlying reason behind commissioners, namely that the public have a readily identfiable accountable person overseeing the force.

There is to be an end to what she described as "confetti big bang publicity" events -  another tacit admission that her personality is a weakness as much as a strength. In its place will be greater focus on the commissioner's "office"  - again, an attempt to take away the spotlight from her and turn it....well, we are not quite sure where.

There were still flashes of the old Ann, when she referred to the panel as "gentlemen" - overlooking the three female members present and stated it was not necessarily a bad thing to have "a distinctive" style, even though that is what has landed her in difficulty.

Then there is the future of the van - dubbed Ann Force 1 during the election - which the commissioner has determined needs to be retired. Why? Because, according to Ann, she no longer wanted it "to be the story."

This may seem inconsequential but it goes to the heart of her difficulties and what underpins this reboot. The van was actually quite a good PR asset - when it came to the election, she bowled around the county in it to drum up support and the media were regularly told where it would be calling.

But in continuing to use it in office during "meet the commissioner" events, stripped off the promotional stickers, still gave the impression in some quarters that its real purpose was to continue to promote Ann - in other words, some considered it was all part of a rolling election campaign with one eye on 2016, when the next elections will be held.

You might have thought that members of the panel would have murmured their general approval with this decision but in a bizarre twist,  a succession of councillors got to their feet to implore Ann to keep the van. Cllr John Burden, the leader of Gravesham council, was among the cheerleaders. He said that if it was cost-effective and did the job, she should keep using it. A double bluff? Who knows but support came from all quarters, regardless of political allegiance.

The commissioner herself seemed rather perplexed, saying she would reflect on what the panel had said - leaving the van's fate in limbo.

Evidence, if she needed it, that rebranding is not an easy thing - and that it is particularly difficult to de-personalise a brand that has become so toxic largely because of the personality of the person involved.

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Our efforts to ask the commissioner a few questions about the changes were rejected when the meeting was completed. The commissioner said she had an engagement in Canterbury and didn't have time.

 

 


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Categories: Police | Politics

Out with stale males - but will anyone really care at election time?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, July 16 2014

With the kind of chutzpah you tend to expect from politicians, David Cameron declared that his reshuffle presented the best of modern Britain, which begged the obvious but unanswered question as to what sort of Britain we have been living in until this week.

Still, the reshuffle threw up enough changes to satisfy the hungriest of political commentators and observers, not least in the departure of the much-maligned education secretary Michael Gove, who will now get first hand experience of the challenge faced by many teachers every day - handling an undisciplined group of disinterested people.

For Kent's MPs, it proved to be a mixed bag. The much heralded cull of stale middle-aged males led to the unexpected sacking of policing minister Damian Green, the Ashford MP. What had he done wrong? Nothing at all.

Even the hard-nosed Police Federation lamented his departure, surely a first. But he fell into the political demographic being targeted by the PM and paid the price - the irony being that as a moderate, progressive Tory he no doubt believes that Mr Cameron may be doing the right thing in freshening up his top team. Having said that, in replacing Mr Green with Mike Penning - who is the kind of stale male Cameron wanted to cull, he is entitled to  be a little perplexed.

He is not a natural rebel, with consensual tendencies but his note of defiance in a tweet was intriguing, announcing that he would continue to fight for what he believed in. What could it mean? 

Also heading for the exit door is the Faversham and Mid Kent MP Hugh Robertson, widely praised for his stint as Olympics minister.

He decided to stand down as foreign office minister to take stock with his family about his future, which leaves open a variety of options. Having had arguably two of the most interesting ministerial briefs and overseeing the London Olympics, he may consider that he won't top that unless he gets a senior cabinet role. Might he decide to leave politics? A possibility as he has never made secret that he would like the chance to try his hand at another career.

Anti-fracking groups will no doubt be celebrating the departure of Sevenoaks MP Michael Fallon, who has landed the role of defence minister after a lengthy parliamentary career and who may owe his elevation partly to his Euro-sceptic tendencies.

The question is whether anyone will, come May 2015, care two hoots about this reshuffle? Cameron is obviously concerned that many regard his government as being made up of a privileged, public-school educated male-dominated elite who, despite their protestations, have no real grasp of the daily challenges of "ordinary hard-working" families. 

I seriously doubt anyone will go into a polling both next year, reminding themselves that the PM changed his top team to include more women. Voters are not stupid and tend to see through this kind of opportunism but you can understand Cameron's dilemma. If he had stuck with his hand rather than twisted, he would have handed his opponents an easy target.

On balance, it seems the right thing to do but it also runs a risk. Some of those promoted are unknown quantities and lack experience at the top level. And beyond the confines of Westminster, there is a large constituency of stale males in their fifties who may feel ratheraffronted at being written off.

UKIP no doubt already has them in its sights.

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 Michael Gove's departure as education secretary is said to have prompted high-fives and cheers in staff rooms up and down the length of the country.

You might also have heard a smallish cheer at County Hall, where the relationships betwen KCC and the DfE have been slightly fractious to say the least. KCC started the ball rolling by joining a High Court challenge over the cancellation of various building projects under the BSF scheme scrapped by the coalition.

More recently, there has been the vexed progress - or lack of it - over KCC's attempts to create a new grammar school annexe in Sevenoaks, which Mr Gove seemed rather cool about.

Where the new education secretary Nicky Morgan stands on selection is anyone's guess. But KCC will be extending the hand of friendship to someone who they hope just might be more sympathetic to their plan. 

 

 

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Categories: Politics

Does Kent need more local politicians?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, June 17 2014

While councils up and down the country are moving heaven and earth to deliver more for less when it comes to crucial frontline services, there is one area where they are not so keen on downsizing - namely, on their own numbers.

Kent County Council looks set for a tussle with the Boundary Commission, which is reviewing the size of the authority and considering whether it needs a re-organisation because of wide variations in the size of wards - more than a third have what is termed an "electoral variance" of more than 10% from the average.

And inevitably, that has triggered concerns that the commission has its sights set on a cull of councillors. There are few things that induce a political consensus like a threat to their numbers and so it has proved at County Hall, where there appears to be political harmony among the parties that everything must be done to resist the Boundary Commission.

Does KCC need more councillors?

A flavour of this came at a recent meeting to discuss the review. It is true that the opposition parties initially raised some awkward questions about an internal report which they claimed was skewed towards preserving Conservative-held seats.

But this was followed by a less partisan debate, in which all parties agreed that in general, it would be a bad thing if KCC was forced to do with fewer elected members. UKIP councillor Mike Baldock said that in view of the likely growth in Kent's population, a case could be made for increasing the numbers."I am starting to think 84 is too low."

Former KCC deputy leader Cllr Alex King weighed in to say that KCC needed a council of  "a similar size" in the future. "It is quite a large county and we need a similar size to the one we have now...particularly rural councillors cover a great deal of ground and enlarging [wards] would make it even more difficult to represent their people."

'We need a council of a similar size' - Cllr Alex King

Liberal Democrat Ian Chittenden said that with uncertainty over housing numbers, it would be wrong to downsize. So, it wasn't hard to see where our elected representatives were coming from and it set the tone for a debate at the next full council meeting when the authority will decide how to respond.

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, however, it is worth considering some of the figures. In terms of councillor numbers, Kent is the largest county council - alongside Lancashire  - with 84 representatives.

So, you may think that it could do with fewer. However, the average number of electors per county council ward across all counties is 9,877. If that was applied to KCC,  there would be 111 divisions - 27 more than it has now.

Still, I am not altogether convinced that the public will be sold on any attempt by KCC to boost its numbers, not least because of the costs.

Taxpayers already pay £1.7m for the services of the current 84 members by way of allowances and expenses.

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Kent County Council education chiefs are leaving no stone unturned in their quest to create extra grammar school places in west Kent.

A rebuff from secretary of state Michael Gove last year has not dampened their enthusiasm and the latest scheme - or "cunning plan" as KCC leader Paul Carter described an earlier proposal - envisages, so we are told,  a modular approach consisting of separate boys and girls wing.

A last shake of the dice? Maybe but you have to ask whether, if this does really does represent the best chance, why it was not considered before?

 

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Categories: Politics

No-go areas, Manston grounded and EU elections: the week in Kent politics

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, May 16 2014

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

1. Three words uttered by a would-be UKIP MEP standing for election in the south east region succeeded in sparking a furious row.  UKIP's Janice Atkinson claimed there were now "no go areas" in many parts of the county as a result of the presence of East European migrant gangs - identifying parts of Thanet, Medway and Gravesend as such areas. She appealed for calm after a major police operation which led to the arrest by Kent Police of 22 suspects thought to be connected to trafficking. To her political opponents, they were reckless and irresponsible comments. But judging by the reaction, it seemed she had wide support. But what did Kent's police commissioner Ann Barnes think? She wasn't able to say because of the election purdah rules, according to her spokesman.

2. There was to be no eleventh-hour reprieve for Manston Airport despite a huge campaign by supporters to keep it open. Even the pledge by the Prime Minister to do what he could failed to persuade the airport's owner Ann Gloag to think again. Despite a final throw of the dice by the American investment firm RiverOak, which  improved its offer right up to the final day,  there was to be no deal. Why? No-one seemed quite sure as they wouldn't say.

But already there is speculation that the site could be sold for housing development at a more lucrative price. Which can be scant consolation to the 150 staff who lost their jobs as the doors closed amid emotional scenes.

3.  Just when it needed some stability, there was yet more political turmoil at Thanet Council with the abrupt and unexpected resignation of Labour leader Cllr Clive Hart. In a lengthy and emotional resignation statement posted on his Facebook page,  headed "Enough is Enough" Mr Hart gave full vent to his feelings about the "toxic behaviour" of certain other members. In particular, he pointed the finger at the Green councillor Ian Driver  - a persistent thorn in the council's side. Mr Hart - who only a week before had been elected unopposed as Labour leader - said he had felt under siege because of Cllr Driver. For his part, Mr Driver said he was a convenient scapegoat and all he was doing was trying to keep the council open and accountable. 

Clive Hart was replaced by the veteran Thanet politician Iris Johnston but even she faced problems straightaway as the former Labour deputy leader Alan Poole, along with Michelle Fenner announced they were quitting Labour and intended to sit as independents. Decontaminating the toxic political residues of Thanet politics will clearly take some time to complete.

4. It was bad news for Manston Airport but better news for Lydd Airport as it won a High Court battle against opponents who were trying to block its expansion. A new terminal for thousands of passenger and a runway close to 300-metres long will now be built although not everyone who lives in the area was happy.

5.The Conservatives may be braced for a drubbing in next week's European poll but will take heart from encouraging signs that the economy is definitely on the turn - illustrated  by a fall in the unemployment rate in Kent and Medway. If this trend continues, Labour's sloganeering about the "cost of living crisis" might not prove as resonant with voters as it hopes.

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Categories: Politics

Is there time to rescue Manston?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, May 6 2014

First, the good news: Manston undoubtedly has a future.

The bad? It won't - barring a miracle - be as an airport. Despite a huge amount of goodwill and support among the community and at least one consortium putting in a bid to take over Manston, its owner Ann Gloag has announced that the offer was not viable and she intends to close the airport within weeks.

There is no room for sentiment in these decisions and an outpouring of public support and warm words from politicians was never likely to be enough to persuade the current owners to rethink their shock decision.

Manston to close,say owners>>>

What had been required was a coherent, viable alternative from someone. One was submitted by an American investment corporation RiverOak Investment Corps,which indicated in a press release that it had offered a consideration  "significantly higher than the entire capital investemnt expended by the current owner".

According to the current owner, however, the bid would have required continuing subsidies to service the huge debts.

In its press release, RiverOak said it had "developed a long term plan to own and manage Manston as an airport in line with its investment philosophy of diversified investing in asset backed businesses." It added that it continued to be committed to investing in and devloping Manston as a successful diversified aviation service., although it does not spell out exactly how it will deliver on that commitment.

MP Sir Roger Gale did, along with his colleague Laura Sandys, make valiant attempts to pull together a bid but even they seem to have acknowledged that time is running out.

Proposals were also put forward by staff involving developing the freight side of the business but this too assumed there would have to be continuing subsidies for a time. It's worth remembering that it has been losing £10,000 a day as an airport, a colossal drain.

KLM has already walked away and says it won't be back, as have various freight operators. Which brings us to the speculation that the site, partially or wholly, may in turn be sold off to developers for housing. There is a strong feeling that at some point, some of the site will inevitably go to housing developers

But there have been as many twists and turns in this long-running saga as there have in the race to win the Premier League, so with two weeks to go before the door is shut on Manston, anything could happen.

Today, though, it seems its days as an airport seem numbered.

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It is interesting to see that  RiverOak has turned for its PR to someone with intimate knowledge of Manston airport and was closely involved in various efforts to develop flights from it back in the early 2000s.

Tony Freudmann was vice president of the Wiggins Group, which owned and ran the airport before it was sold to PlaneStation, where he was senior vice president between 1994 and 2005.

Mr Freudmann has also had his own consultancy - FT International - between 2009 and 2013 in which he "delivered high level consultancy services in relation to aviation and tourism development to the public and private sectors in the UK, Germany and America."

He is now chief executive officer of a firm called Annax Aviation Services in which he manages "the global regional airports and airlines strategy of a priately-owned investment group."

He was also instrumental in the failed attempt to establish flights between Manston and Virginia in America back in 2006. The plug was pulled on that after poor ticket sales. Kent  County Council lost £300,000 in the venture.

 

 

 

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Categories: Manston | Margate | Politics

Politicians in high visibility jackets and chatting about boilers? There must be an election looming

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, May 2 2014

Here is my round-up of the top political stories of the week in Kent and Medway. 

1.  If  you haven't seen a politician for a while - get ready. One could be on your doorstep soon. The European election is just around the corner and the May 22 poll - with the results on May 25 - looks like being marginally more exciting than perhaps it has been in the past. Chancellor George Osborne was first out of the gate, with a visit to Ebbsfleet where his much treasured 'garden city' project will be.  At the moment, there's not much to see except a muddy quarry but the Chancellor was whisked away for a tour of the field, resplendent in a high-visibilty jacket, boots and a had hat. Mind you, Dartford MP Gareth Johnson had by far the best jacket, replete with so many fourescent strips, he could be seen from space.

2. Following hard on George's heels was his chief tormentor the shadow chancellor Ed Balls, who popped down to Medway to rally support  among Labour activists and in doing so, enjoyed a lengthy conversation about boilers - possibly too lengthy -  and seemed very impressed by the variety of cakes his guests offered. For once, Ed had UKIP in his sights rather more than the Conservatives, although he contrived to get the key "cost of living" phrase in several times. David Axelrod would have been impressed. 

3. Talking of UKIP....you can't keep Nigel Farage out of Kent that long and although he wasn't physically in the county, his decision not to stand in the Newark by-election, resurrected speculation that he had a county constituency in his sights - either Thanet South or Folkestone and Hythe and the fact that you can't go very far in Folkestone without seeing a UKIP billboard may be a tantalising clue. But UKIP was a bt miffed when some wag put alternative slogans on them  of a satirical nature. And Nigel passed another political right of passage when he was egged by a protestor on a visit.

4. Crime commissioner Ann Barnes had a spot of bother over the costs of an office relocation to Kent Police HQ in Maidstone. At £150,000 it seemed rather a lot, especiallly as, until a national newspaper started asking questions, no-one had appeared to have known about the expenditure. Still,  she fought back and just about managed to rebut the claims - among them a suggestion from an "anonymous" source that she was a bit of a Diva. Still, if it was supposed to be a good news story because of the long-term savings, it seems odd that the commisioner was not shouting about it from the rooftops.

5. And finally, there was news that the government was to crackdown on betting shops in town centres by unveiling new powers to councils that would allow them to block bookies from opening. For once, there seemed to be cross-party support for the policy. Political harmony during the run-up to an election? I'm feeling rather queasy...

 

 

 

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Categories: Politics | Precept

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

County Hall balances the books but worse is to come

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

In the end, there wasn't quite as much political drama as there might have been at Kent County Council's budget meeting.

After seven hours of debate and the usual slew of opposition amendments, the figures remained exactly as they did before 84 members trooped into County Hall to consider the best way of spending £1.6bn of public money and whether to back the first council tax rise in three years.

The ruling Conservatives had managed to diffuse a potential flashpoint by dropping its original plans for a cap on the popular children's Freedom Pass.

If the new plans did not completely neutralise the opposition parties, they did enough to ensure that potentially disaffected backbenchers in their own ranks did not rebel.

Indeed, it was pretty obvious that the Conservative group were under instructions to rally round the beleaguered cabinet member David Brazier, who has come in for a lot of flak for the way things have been handled.

We were told - not altogether convincingly - that far from being a humiliating U-turn, the heroic Mr Brazier deserved credit for having 'listened to the people' and responding accordingly with different plans. (Or a U-turn...)

There is also some talk of bringing in a pay-by-installments scheme to ease the burden on parents who have to buy more than one pass. It remains a tricky issue for KCC however: the cost of the post-16 pass at £400 is likely to prove too much for many and given the bleak financial outlook for councils, it may be something that KCC will be forced to revisit.

It was interesting to see some strange political alliances among the opposition parties - notably UKIP teaming up with the Lib Dems and the sole Green councillor - and although their efforts to amend parts of the budget were all voted down, I suspect we will see more of this opposition rainbow coalition.

It was also interesting to see that the Conservatives have clearly decided to go on the offensive against UKIP.  The role of chief tormentor has been handed to Cllr Jeremy Kite - also the leader of Dartford council - who relishes verbally duffing up the Ukip group in the way he did with the Lib Dems.

In a sense, this rather flatters the 17-strong UKIP group, who six months on since the county council election are beginning to show signs of being rather more effective in their role than they have been, notwithstanding the occasional naive amendment.

The main message coming out of County Hall is that while the books are balanced this year, there is worse to come.

Leader Paul Carter indicated that the need to save a further £90m in the next two years was likely to result in more pain for taxpayers. Whether the "Facing The Challenge" programme can deliver transformation without cuts to key services remain to be seen.


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Kent County Council carried out an extensive consultation over its budget plans this year and succeeded in getting many more people to respond than it has ever done before.

One interesting finding was that while residents clearly understood the need for restraint and broadly accepted the need for a council tax hike, when it came to whether there should be more privatisation or outsourcing to save money, only 13% supported the idea.

Underpinning this scepticism was the belief that private companies ultimately are more interested in how much money they can make from contracts rather than the quality of the services the provide.

KCC's transformation agenda envisages the council doing much more outsourcing and privatisation and is currently in the first stage of examining the level of interest there is among contractors to run services, including libraries.

The issue is whether, if contractors are not interested in some of these services, KCC feels able to continue with them given the financial cosh it is under.



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Categories: Politics

An electoral gamble: why UKIP leader Farage has his eyes on Kent

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, October 7 2013

It was almost a casual aside and came across as a throwaway line.

But the swirl of rumours that Nigel Farage will stand in Kent at the general election gained credibility when he dropped a strong hint that he was eyeing up Folkestone and Hythe.

UKIP leader to stand in Kent?>>>

It is a tantalising prospect but if - and it remains an if - he does, it would ensure Kent takes centre stage at the general election, with the country's future in Europe guaranteed to be a dominant issue.

It is not just Damian Collins who might suffer one or two anxiety pangs at the prospect of the UKIP leader tramping the streets of  Folkestone for four weeks.

The incumbent MP has responded by challenging Mr Farage to effectively "put up or shut up" - a challenge which is likely to fall on deaf ears.

The UKIP leader, despite asserting that he represents un-spun politics, knows a thing or two about how to play the media and will be quite happy for the "will he, won't he" speculation to carry on a while.

So, why Folkestone and Hythe? Just 24 hours earlier, media reports speculated that it would be the Thanet South seat held by the much more pro-European Conservative MP Laura Sandys. To some, that would make more sense.

Thanet became something of a UKIP stronghold at the county council election in May, taking seven of the eight available seats. That gives it valuable foot soldiers prepared to pound the streets knocking no doors and stuffing envelopes with flyers. (Although UKIP also did well in the Shepway county divisions, where it took three seats).

Laura Sandys is much more pro-European - which would give UKIP a more vulnerable target. Damian Collins is more sceptical, saying that if the UK cannot renegotiate membership terms, then he would prefer to be out.

And UKIP did not do that well in Folkestone in 2010, taking a little over 4% of the vote. Damian Collin's share was nearly 50%.

The presence of Farage, a wily PR operator, would certainly enhance UKIP's prospects - history shows that strong candidates with a high public profile can confound the numerical odds.

And there is another reason: UKIP's message around immigration will have particular resonance in a constituency where the issue of immigration is high on the agenda.

Nevertheless it is a big gamble for the party which has as a key objective a seat in Parliament in 2015.

But the party leader likes nothing more than confound the odds.

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Categories: Politics

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