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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Categories: Margate | Mayoralty | Precept

Savings here,savings there but still the bills rise

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, January 17 2014

Kent County Council, like every other authority, is facing a huge challenge trying to balance its books in the face of Draconian cuts in government grants.

Having frozen the council tax for three years, the Conservative-run authority now plans a hike of just under 2% - meaning that the savings it has to make are a little over £80m rather than £90m.

It believes council taxpayers will, with some reluctance, accept the hike - although they haven't got much option.

The council is delivering a strong message that despite the budget shortfall, its latest "transformation" project will mean frontline services will be spared and those who rely on them won't notice any difference.

That of course depends partly on what you call a key service.

Although it is discretionary, for example, there are lots of families who are discovering that the school Freedom Pass will cost them substantially more than they have been accustomed to paying for their children to get to and from school.

As with all council budgets, the devil is in the detail - and in KCC's case, you can't say it doesn't deliver on that front.

The difficulty is the rather imprecise and occasionally vague way some savings are described.

This year, the phrase of choice is "review" and there are more "reviews " than you would get at the opening night of the an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

Some examples:

  • A review of the education psychology service, saving £280k;
  • A review of inclusion budgets, saving £193k;
  • A review of economic development activity, saving £640k
  • A review of staff management structures and other efficiencies, saving £1.05m.
  • A review of arrangements across the gateways porfolio, saving £150k

I am told  the word review has been chosen to reflect the fact the savings target is "deliverable" but  the precise way it will be achieved has not been determined. Which begs the obvious question of how does the council know it is 'deliverable?'

Elsewhere, the language is more precise in describing various reductions. For example:

  • A reduction in directors and managers, saving £750k;
  • A reduction in the use of agency staff in social services, saving £492k
  • A reduction in school improvement activity, saving £250k
  • A reduction in the libraries book fund, saving £150k

Some of the headline savings - or cuts - are already known, such as the £12m being saved in budget for looking after vulnerable elderly people and the £2m being cut from the budget for children's centres.

Elsewhere, there are references to "right-sizing," "procurement efficiencies" and "demand management" - all part of the local authority lexicon where budgets are concerned.

Given the scale of the savings being forced on it by the government, residents might need some persuading that Kent County Council is managing this without any cuts anywhere, no matter how they are described.

Still, this year's challenge of squaring the budget circle will not be the end. In 2015-16, the council has said it will have to save £43m and in 2016-17, a further £44m. As yet, the savings have not been identified.

Stand by for further reviews.

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Categories: Precept

Gove proceeds with caution over grammar plans

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, November 25 2013

There is some restlessness at County Hall over the length of time it is taking Michael Gove to decide on plans for a 'new' grammar school in Sevenoaks.

Politically, this delay is confounding those who think that if the Conservative party - and indeed Mr Gove - want to improve their stock, this would be a fairly straightforward way of doing so. (Especially as UKIP is making a clear commitment to restore selection).

Behind the scenes, it would appear the issue troubling the Department for Education is the same one that has troubled Kent County Council.

Namely, the question of whether the proposal is legal, given that there is a prohibition on opening new selective schools.

The argument of campaigners and KCC is the scheme represents an extension of an existing school to meet a demand for selective places, caused largely by demographic factors.

But the argument is clearly finely balanced. KCC wanted to assure itself that its case was solid by engaging the services of a specialist education lawyer.

It will not disclose the lawyer's advice. In response to a Freedom of Information request, it said the advice (which cost £6,150) was confidential and it was not in the public interest to release it.

In doing so, however, it implicitly acknowledges the issue of legality is one over which there may be persuasive grounds on both sides.

The reply to our request stated "it would not be in the public interest for privileged legal advice to be revealed to a party who can then use that advice to further his or her own case. Releasing the advice would mean making it available to opponents of the annex scheme - effectively using public money to fund both sides of a potential judicial review, referral to the Secretary of State or to the Schools Adjudicator."

Clearly, the advice provided to KCC was that the case could be argued both ways and it would be a surprise if the advice the DfE is getting did not say the same.

Frustrating as it is for those supporting the plans, you can understand why the DfE is treading carefully.

Given that grammar schools still stir up political controversy, Mr Gove will want to ensure that any decision he takes is watertight and won't trigger any protracted legal wrangling.

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The news that Thanet South MP Laura Sandys is to stand down at the next election has come as something of a surprise.

She is a well-regarded MP and judging by the reaction to her decision, considered to be highly diligent on behalf of her constituency.

It presents a tricky situation for the Conservatives, who will be acutely conscious of the speculation that Thanet South has been a seat that UKIP leader Nigel Farage may have his eye on.

Laura Sandys has never made any secret that she is on the pro-European wing of the party. It will be interesting to see whether local Conservatives opt for someone who veers in the other direction.

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Categories: Precept

UKIP's low key County Hall debut. And why did a council keep secret a deal with a ferry company?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, May 24 2013

It was rather a low key debut for the new 17-strong opposition UKIP group at County Hall this week, as councillors gathered for the first official meeting since the dramatic election.

You could hardly say there was a lot of raw politics about. Given this was largely a ceremonial meeting to appoint a new chairman and deal with some rather boring constitutional details, perhaps we should not have been surprised.

The ruling Conservatives remain a bit jittery about UKIP, that's clear -  but they had a relatively easy ride on this outing and were rather relieved not to have been put on the spot about anything that contentious.

Let's not forget that this was the first taste of County Hall politics that the 17 UKIP councillors had and there were probably a few "first-day-at-school" type nerves around. KCC can be a pretty intimidating place - as a couple of the newcomers confided. "The scale of this place is huge," said one.

Perhaps the nerves were responsible for a bit of a tangle that UKIP got into over the new allowances scheme - in other words, their pay.

The group's leader Roger Latchford said his group supported a freeze but went on to say that it was unfair that all opposition group leaders were getting the same special responsibility allowance.

The point seemed to be that UKIP was taking on the "formal" opposition role at KCC and therefore its shadow cabinet members ought to be entitled to more money. (Under the scheme, all oppostion groups leaders will get £6,316 plus an additional £500 for each member.) 

Whatever way you look at it, it came across as a request for more money from the taxpayers' pocket and a few Conservatives lost no time in making the point.

For a party that makes much of the need to curb public sector profligacy, it was not an altogether auspicious start. Let's put it down to finding their political feet.

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HOW did Thanet Council come to a position where it has found itself out of pocket to the tune of £3.3m after a secret deal with a ferry company went pear shaped?

And perhaps as importantly, why were details of the deal kept secret from councillors?

And was there a serious misjudgement by officers and members in allowing the debts to stack up and a failure to recognise warning signs?

These are just some of the questions facing the council after it emerged that it was having to raid its reserves to plug the £3.3m hole in its finances caused by the company, Transeuropa Ferries, going into administration.

It is staggering that the council has found itself in such a situation. It believed the deal, which allowed Transeurope to defer payments on harbour fees to the council, was justified to retain the company's presence in the town.

One of many problems it now faces is why the deal was kept secret and never shared with all members of the council, who should have had the opportunity to scrutinise it properly - even if it meant they had to do it behind closed doors as an exempt item.

It is not even clear whether the original deal that was agreed by the council's then Conservative administration was the subject of a cabinet decision or report. Ought not such a deal have been signed off by the executive under the proper executive decision-making process?

If it was a key cabinet decision - and it is hard to think why it would not have been - it should have been properly recorded and reported by the cabinet or cabinet member and then presented to the relevant scrutiny committee who would have had the power to call it in.

As far as we can tell, it wasn't - the council has not yet responded to a series of questions we have asked on this.

And not only that but why wasn't the deal flagged up in the council's last annual statement of accounts, where you might have expected it to feature?

Someone at the council will have to account for all of this but on the surface, it looks like a monumental mess that has left taxpayers likely to foot the bill.

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Categories: Precept

Are Kent Conservative backbenchers feeling UKIP nipping at their heels?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, May 16 2013

Unlike many, politicians have to re-apply for their jobs every four or five years and the decision about whether they should be re-appointed is in the hands of voters.

And voters can be rather unpredictable and prone to switch allegiances, as the recent county council election showed rather dramatically.

So, we should not be surprised that a number of Conservative backbenchers in the county voted last night for the 'rebel' amendment on the Queen's Speech.

There is nothing like a bruising mid-term electoral lashing to concentrate the mind and the Kent MPs who backed the amendment no doubt had given careful consideration to the dramatic UKIP surge in the county council election.

So, this was a convenient way of sending a message to the electorate that they are as sceptical about Europe as any UKIP candidate who might be on the ballot paper in 2015.

Their decision to blow a raspberry at Mr Cameron will prove particularly helpful in election literature to post through doors in a couple of years.

Conservative backbenchers in Kent know that the issue of Europe is not going to go away. Those who knocked on doorsteps during the recent election campaign found that Britain's membership of the EU and immigration were often not far from voters' thoughts.

While UKIP is unlikely to win Parliamentary seats at the next election, that is not the point. It is whether UKIP will cost them votes in sufficient numbers to lose them their seats.

Marginal seats like those in the Medway Towns, north Kent and Thanet have switched between Labour and the Conservatives over recent years and if there is one thing that current MPs fear it is that a split in the vote for the right will allow Labour back in.

Whether UKIP's surge will be durable is, of course, open to question.

But if the results of the recent election showed anything, it is that voters are deeply cynical about commitments made for some time in the future - and particularly cynical about promises to do things after the election.

MPs who backed the rebel EU amendment understood this. It might be considered gesture politics but it is inconceivable that they did not make a calculated decision that it was worth putting a marker down now - even if the election is two years away.

 

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Categories: Precept

A sea change: is the political tide really turning UKIP's way?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Sunday, May 5 2013

UKIP did not win control of any councils and three quarters of people who turned out did not actually vote for them. But it is a measure of the impact it had on the political landscape on Thursday that it has succeeded  in becoming the talking point in the debate about whether the the political map of Britain has been radically redrawn.

No mean achievement for a party dismissed as clowns, loonies and fruitcakes by their opponents.

The Kent County Council election  results and reaction>>>>

Nowhere was their success more shocking or stunning than Kent where against even the most optimistic predictions they came tantalisingly close to depriving the Conservatives of securing control of County Hall for the first time in two decades. From a standing start, they took seat after seat from the Conservatives, who were paralysed with anxiety that their grip on KCC was being loosened. To end up with more seats than Labour and the Liberal Democrats and become the formal opposition was truly staggering.

There are lots of reasons why UKIP did well and it may be that in Kent, sensitivities around issues like immigration and asylum seekers were more pronounced and resonated more with voters than elsewhere. It is telling that the areas where they did particularly well - Thanet and Shepway - are both places which have had deep rooted problems with economic deprivation and have also been areas where the impact of new communities have been seen and felt at first hand.

In fact, while the party did target Thanet, it did not have a concerted campaign in Shepway yet nearly pulled off a clean sweep of all five seats with very little canvassing. Gains in Swale - another area where the recession has hit - were also notable.The exception is the affluent west Kent town of Tunbridge Wells, where it also won seats.

More than that, UKIP has tapped into widespread voter antipathy and disenchantment with mainstream politics and mainstream political parties: its success has a lot to do with people regarding it as anti-establishment; anti-elite and somehow outside the system - a perfect repository for protest votes. But it has also tapped into a major issue that the big parties have spent too long pussy-foting around - Britain's role and future in the EU. The unwilllingnes of the main parties to be explicit (particularly in terms of time scale) about when people might be given a say has been devastating for them.

But after the euphoria of Thursday's results, there comes the cold reality of the consequences of suddenly finding yourself elected to office.

UKIP county councillors will troop into County Hall next week for an induction programme that will remind them that as locally-elected representatives, they will not be able - much as they like -  to spend the next four years banging on about an EU referendum and immigration. They will all be receiving allowances of around £13,000 to represent constituents whose interests may well be rather more parochial but no less important  - the state of their roads, school places, families dealing with difficult social services issues and planning.

The ability of UKIP to build on the momentum that it has will not be based on how loudly local councillors shout about the need for a referendum on Europe. If they want to be more than a flash in the pan and establish a secure position as a genuine political alternative, voters will need to be convinced they can tackle and influence policy in ways that affect - for the better - the 300 different services that Kent County Council provides. It will also be interesting to see how and if the 17-strong group, all newcomers with one or two exceptions, to the world of local government, remain a cohesive unit.

Parties that achieve success quickly and unexpectedly can sometimes find it awkward adjusting to the demands of being elected to public office and it was intriguing hearing in private how some Conservatives at KCC are already speculating over the prospects of "turning" some of the new UKIP councillors and returning them to the Tory fold.

The other challenge, allied to this, is that UKIP's USP - a movement outside the political system - has actually been undermined by their stunning success. They are, in a sense, no longer outsiders looking in at mainstream politics. If they believe the hype and really do consider they are part of a four-party system, then the consequence is that people will at a council level particularly be judging them on what they actually do rather than on what they say.

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For the Conservatives in Kent, the election was a sobering moment. Only once in its history have the Conservatives lost control of County Hall, back in 1993. That they came within a whisker of losing outright control last Thursday was a discomfiting experience, to put it mildy. In one sense, they were not being punished because of their track record over the last four years but were being punished for the perceived failings of the coalition, which is what they had expected.

But I do think that the party has to do more than blame the dismal results on mid-term blues. Senior Conservatives in Kent have been quick to turn their fire on the national leadership, with KCC leader Paul Carter being particularly damning - accusing some in his party at Westminster of acting more like Lib Dems than Conservatives.

Implicit in this is the idea that the party's woes can be dealt with by a lurch to the right. I am not so sure. The received wisdom so far as general elections are concerned is that they are won and lost in the middle ground. Tony Blair won three because he realised that in places like Kent, classic middle England territory, you had to appeal to the centre ground to deliver victory. 

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Labour has insisted that it is satisfied with the progress it has made in Kent but it fell short of its key objective: recapturing all the seats it had lost back in 2009.

For it to have shown it was making real advances, it should have won more and the fact that it has secured too few to even be the official opposition at County Hall is not where it wants or needs to be. Ed Miliband staked a lot by coming to traditional Tory heartland during the campaign but on these results, it seems the party still has a Southern Discomfort issue.

Their one hope may be that over the next four years, there will inevitably be  a handful of by-elections. The Tories need only lose a few seats for the arithmetic to be changed in a way that just might lead to the authority having a different rainbow coalition.

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We expect the jungle drums at County Hall to be beating with news of a Conservative cabinet reshuffle within a few days. The defeat of the well-regarded cabinet member for schools Mike Whiting means there will have to be changes. Education remains one of the key roles and there are many awkward issues looming, not least trying to persuade Michael Gove to back the KCC plans for a new grammar school.

The other gossip surrounds the future of the deputy leader Alex King, who was unable to be at his count after breaking his leg. It could be that his tenure as the reliable second-in-command could be coming to an end. If it is, perhaps the role could go to the Sevenoaks councillor Roger Gough - well-thought of, intelligent and potentially a good foil to the rather direct style of the current leader.

But I also think he'd make a good education cabinet member. And whenever I make these predictions, they usually turn out to be well wide of the mark so you might be advised to disregard them...

 

 

 

 

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Categories: Precept

The school place conundrum. Plus: Former KCC boss tells public sector to be more cost-effective.

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

When county education chiefs set out their blueprint for Kent's schools for the next five years, the introduction to the extremely lengthy Commissioning Plan acknowledged the education authority was operating in "an increasingly diverse environment."

Some of the consequences of that environment are beginning to be seen, not least in the challenge facing Kent County Council to ensure there are not just enough school places across Kent for children but that there are, in its own words, enough "appropriate places". At the same time as fulfilling that statutory obligation, it retains a general responsibility for the performance of schools in the area - regardless of whether schools have broken free of the supposed shackles of the county council and become academies.

Squaring this circle has its problems and data from the authority shows wide-variations in the intake of Year 7 pupils across the 99 secondary schools. The data was obtained by the well-known Kent education adviser Peter Read.

That there are five - including Kent's first academy, The Marlowe in Ramsage - that took in less than half the 11-year-olds they actually had places for is not quite as shocking as it might appear. Worrying, true, but Kent is no different to any other area in seeing fluctuations in pupil numbers across both the primary and secondary sector.

Education chiefs say that a general surplus - or spare capacity - is not necessarily a bad thing, although if it applied the same calculations to the empty desk data now as it did when it embarked on a programme of closing and merging more than 40 primary schools a few years ago, we might be seeing the same happening in the secondary sector.

The arguably more interesting aspect of the figures is not the under-occuppied schools but the third where more pupils were accepted in Year 7 last year than schools had places for. They include nine academies and 13 grammars and it hardly needs saying they are all among the best performing schools in the county.

There is nothing KCC can do to stop popular over-subscribed academies enlarging as the government, which likes to apply a market forces philosophy to education, has decreed that is what should be permitted: it's a question of supply and demand. This approach marks a return to the Thatcherite ethos in which competition between schools was considered the best way to drive up standards. No politician will ever say it but underlying this approach is a view that if schools can't make the grade, they should wither on the vine.

For KCC, this means trying to provide places while some schools, understandably focused more on their own interests, look to increase their numbers to respond to parental wishes. But the only real area where KCC has direct control is over its maintained schools. It has very little power over academies which is precisely the point (whether you agree with it or not) of the policy. If successful schools expand, continue to be succcessful and siphon away more able children, where does that leave the others? And where does it leave KCC as the commissioning body?

That 13 grammars took in more children, coupled with plans by at least three more to add places next year, should also be a concern. There may be an issue of a shortage of places in west Kent but there are some who suspect something else is going on here.

The relentless quest and obsession among politicians for diversity in the schooling system has over the years, created as many problems as it solves. If the government does genuinely believe that academies and free schools are the answer to declining standards, perhaps the solution is for all schools to become them.

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When Katherine Kerswell was managing director of Kent County Council, she embarked on one of those "re-structuring" exercises with the Orwellian title of "The Change To Keep Succeeding" programme. This was dressed up in all kinds of impenetrable jargon but was basically about cutting away staff and particularly management.

It was not, to put it mildy, terribly popular especially with county councillors, who at one point questioned just how successful the programme could be considered when in an early incarnation, it appeared KCC was to end up with just as many top officers as it had under the old management structure.

Of course, the managing director secured more notoriety when she left KCC after less than two years in the job and picked up a £420,000 pay-off in the process, not exactly what council taxpayers considered value for money. Now she has written an article extolling public sector leaders to do more to be cost-effective in "these austere times".

It's hardly the most revelatory suggestion ever to have been uttered and the irony of it coming from someone who was extraordinarily well remunerated when she quit has not been lost on some.

However, I do agree with one thing she writes - namely that "decision-making that is obscure, unseen or hidden fails the test of a modern democracy. As citizens, we now want 24/7 accountability, and we expect the full disclosure and transparency of those public decisions taken in our name."

Why then, did we have to wait for KCC to fulfill its statutory requirement to publish its annual accounts to find out about her payout - six months after she left?

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Where is Kent's Big Society? It's hard to tell on the strength of the pitiful take-up of Kent County Council's £3m fund available to social entrepeneurs to set up business in the county. Just three loans have been taken up in a year, suggesting there's not much appetite out there for this kind of initiative.

Of course, KCC's loan rate of between 12 and 15% may have something to do with the low take-up.

 

 

 

 

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Categories: KCC | Precept

As councils wrestle with a funding squeeze, does anyone know what is a frontline service is?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, January 21 2013

When is a council service not a frontline service but something else?

In the world of local government, the distinction is important because council chiefs never like to take decisions that adversely affect so-called frontline services, especially when it comes to funding.

(And it begs another: if the primary function of councils is to provide such services, why is it spending - and why has it spent - so much money on other apparently inessential stuff?)

One of the ways such a service is defined is to talk about it as separate from, or different to, council "back office" functions or "administrative services" - the services that do all the paperwork while those at the "front line" get on with the more important work.

Whether such a definition is valid is open to question.

Kent County Council has made great play of the fact that its latest budget proposals, incorporating £94m of savings, will not hit these services. On one level, the council's claim is reasonable.

But the problem is that it is actually quite difficult to tell exactly what impact these savings will have just at precisely this moment; even the most innocuous looking saving can end up having repercussions that not even the council's financial gurus had thought of.

And if you cut administrative jobs out of the equation, where does the burden then fall? Kent County Council's answer - and that of others - is to say that it is carrying out a programme of transformational activity in which services will be delivered differently and service users won't notice.

About one third of KCC's planned savings - £28m -  are to come from just such activity although it's hard to get beyond the headline figure to the detail of exactly how in the welter of budget information KCC issues about its spending plans.

The Conservative administration has also underlined how savings will be secured through a greater emphasis on preventative work, especially in adult and children's social care.

That seems perfectly sensible but it is not hard to find evidence of the scale of the challenge: an original intention to save £4m in the budget for looked after children has not proved achievable because of the continuing high demand for services.

And some believe that the austerity drive, welfare cuts and the on-going recession will only create more call on some services, particularly around care, not less.

Even KCC itself admits in its budget book, the government's relentless belt-tightening is really putting the squeeze on it: "The cumulative effect is that local government is working within an increasingly uncertain and challenging public service landscape."

"If the economy continues to show a slow recovery, the indicative position for 2014/115 and 2015/16 could get worse and we could face additional spending demands and/or further reduced income necessitating greater savings."

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Despite giving the public some eight weeks to comment on its original budget savings of £60m, KCC is not embarking on a repeat exercise even though the savings have increased by more than half.

It says that as none of the new savings require an "equality impact assessment" there is no need for a full consultation. There is said to be some nervousness at County Hall that this may be challengeable but they have their collective fingers crossed.

Instead, views are being invited on the new budget up until the end of the month, a matter of a week and a bit.

But where you can feed in your views is hard to find. In fact, there doesn't appear to be anywhere on its website where you can unless I have missed something.

Answers anyone?






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Kent's 'new' grammar school testing the Tories

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, January 11 2013

Whatever else the Conservative-run Kent County Council does this year, one thing is clear: it will be moving heaven and earth to ensure that its plan to open a grammar school annexe in west Kent come to fruition.

Of course, on one level, the argument is simply about the authority responding to a genuine grievance held by many parents about the lack of provision of selective places in Sevenoaks.

Kent sets its sights on new grammar annexe>>>

But the politics - and politicking - involved goes to the heart of a debate about grammar schools that has simmered and occasionally come to the boil within the Conservative party ever since David Cameron, in something of an educational Clause Four moment, decided that his party would not support any further selection and the idea of more grammars.

Kent Tories have never made much effort to conceal their unhappiness with this U-turn, believing fervently that many parents actually want more selection, rather than less.

For many, selective schooling is something of an article of faith and have been aghast at the party turning its back on the policy.

So, the possibility of adding more grammar school places, through new arrangements allowing the expansion of popular schools and where there is a proven shortage of available places, has been seized on with something approaching Messianic zeal in Kent.

Which goes a little way to account for the fanfare surrounding the announcement that Kent County Council has identified a potential site for its new annexe. 

A press release unveiling the news was about as overtly political as you could get without breaching the protocols on local government publicity that are designed to prevent councils from issuing anything that might be construed as seeking to solicit support for a particular party.

Education cabinet member Cllr Mike Whiting was even quoted as saying that parents not just in Kent "but across the country" were relying on "Conservative administrations across the country to champion and provide" more selective schooling. How that got cleared for release is anybody's guess.

The release was crammed with supportive statements from various Sevenoaks county councillors (all Conservative) and the Conservative MP Michael Fallon. The only surprise was that they obviously could not prevail on Michael Gove to provide a suitable soundbite - but I daresay that will come in due course.

I understand there has been some tensions behind the scenes about how this was all handled. The ruling Conservative administration at County Hall won't be especially bothered, even if it is lacking a rather vital piece of the jigsaw - namely which existing grammar schools are going to partner or sponsor the annexe.

What matters from the political, rather than the educational perspective, is that Kent Conservatives can go into this May's council election campaign being able to underline - unlike the national party - that they stand firmly behind selection and grammars and are actually doing something about it.

Not just so they can bolster support from within their own ranks but so they can back the other parties into a corner - not least UKIP, who I am told, are fielding candidates in every single division and have been scornful of the Conservative's decision to abandon support for selection.

 

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The omission of any details about would-be sponsors for the grammar annexe is intriguing. The line from KCC is that it is making sure everything is watertight before going public on who might be involved.

There will have to be two partner schools but quite who they may be is anyone's guess. There have been rumours that the council has found it hard to get anyone interested.

One interesting aspect of the announcement was the apparent support of the Knole Academy, which is currently using part of the Wildernesse School site, for the masterplan.

Could it become one of the sponsors in some way or have some other involvement, perhaps in helping provide additional support for those who do end up attending the grammar annexe?

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With most council decisions, there is some kind of process - consistent with the authority's constitution - by which the decision is considered, sometimes consulted on and agreed.

It is a process that generally speaking happens in the public domain, with supporting reports and other documents that anyone can access.

And on occasion, decisions might get called in by backbenchers so they can chew it over and ask questions. Indeed, KCC is so keen on ensuring that councillors do this before decisions happen that it has set up an entirely new system of cabinet "pre-scrutiny" committees.

However, the decision-making process involved in identifying a site for its new grammar school has gone through no such process. The "decision" was announced via, as I've pointed out, a triumphantly worded press release.

It's precisely the sort of thing that makes people like me rather cynical and suspicious that KCC can often be more interested in the political PR value of its activities above anything else.

Next week, we will get the judgement from Ofsted about how well Kent's most vulnerable children are looked after, following the damning assessment two years ago. It will be interesting to see how this may be spun.

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