Public Sector

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

Strange but true!

by The Odd One Out, with Dan Millen Friday, December 7 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, I have been observing the behaviour of the women in my work team over the last few months and it has been interesting to say the least.

 

 

We have had quite a few personnel changes, with three great colleagues leaving us, which I would like to highlight on before I start this post.

'PJ'

Our wonderful Chair's PA, 'PJ', left us for another role. When she left, we felt the pressure. She was the 'Oracle' and a fountain of all knowledge. Whenever we had a problem or needed an answer, we would always ask PJ. That proves beyond any doubt how vital she was to the setup of the office. The Admin team will never be the same again, seriously!

'Leads'

'Leads' was next to leave us. She was the life and soul of the secretariat. Despite not officially being placed within our team on the hierarchy, Leads was definitely considered to be a main cog in our working machine. She was bubbly, fun and showed us all how to make a 'real' salad at lunch time - Sainsbury's iceberg lettuce sales were up during her secondment period.

'Roondog'

'Roondog' departed from our team and the glue that held us together seemed to lose it adhesiveness. Her wedding checklist and housekeeping emails have been sorely missed and our team has struggled to get to grips with not having the benefit of a kick ass Office Manager around to look after our interests.

Ladies although you have gone, you will forever remain honourary members of the admin team. (I need a few minutes - Cry).

 

 

So, now I've dried my eyes, it's time to get on with the official first post.

I have updated you on the changes in my office but now it is time to move on to my observations, and my reasoning for why I am 'The Odd One Out'.

So this week's topic: the bizarre statements they come out with.

My Evidence

I have come across a series of strange and bizarre statements in my time with these women. I present my evidence for your judgement: (I have included the initials of my colleagues for their own amusement)

Does the lump on the back of my neck look big? (SK)

Believe me, I had to keep a straight face for this one because she was deadly serious.

Wedding shoes are expensive but can still be worth every penny. You just dye them black to get 'wear out of them' (KR)

Or you could purchase a cheaper pair of shoes and not have the guilt of the huge cost spent on them & the additional cost incurred to dye them black!

My friend is trying to lose weight. She is on the Pre Heart Op diet! (SK) - yes, someone actually said this to me.

***Speechless with a grin***

I'm going to take a cheeky trip to Wilkinson. Does anyone want anything? (RL)

I'm still trying to work out what a 'cheeky trip' is but it sounds amusing whatever it is.


I just sometimes do not know how to react. It takes me off guard and I have to just think of the first thing that comes to mind. e.g. 'What are you talking about?', 'Are you nuts?' 'Jess is exactly the same!'.

Don't get me wrong, they provide me with 5 day a week amusement but sometimes I am absolutely stunned at the information being portrayed to me. I also sometimes think that because I am the only man in our team that they forget I am pumped full of testosterone and not oestrogen. The things they say to me may fall on deaf ears because I am not a woman and do not have the working of a female brain.

Sometimes this can be a hindrance more than a help but most of time I seem to get away with it and we quickly move on.

Well I will give you a while to digest the last 3 minutes of your life that you have spent reading this blog that you will never get back!

Keep checking in on my blog, I still have plenty more to talk about.

 

"I AM THE ODD ONE OUT!"

 

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Categories: Entertainment | Environment | General | Just Life | Moaning | Moans and groans | People of Kent | Public Sector | Real Talk | Work | The Odd One Out

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

No pain, no gain as KCC casts around for £95m savings

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, January 7 2011

There was such a blizzard of figures and statistics at KCC's press conference to launch its budget that it was tricky to determine just what the full implications of the ruling administration's spending plans actually might be. (There wasn't an awful lot of time to read through the 218-page book on the budget amid the Powerpoint presentations and videos).

The key messages were that KCC is to become a leaner and more "entrepeneurial" organisation that would be resolutely "driving out efficiency savings" - a phrase that always conjures up an image of profligate bureaucrats being shepherded across a bridge and harried relentlessly to cut costs.

The other top line being pushed by KCC was that it was delivering a budget that, despite being cut by £95m, safeguarded core frontline services.

Indeed, council leader Paul Carter challenged anyone to discover whether there were any services that the council currently provides but wouldn't be from April, when the new financial year gets underway.

Quite how much 'leaner' KCC intends to get was a little hard to pin down as it emerged during the press conference that it doesn't yet know how many jobs will go and how many posts will be axed as part of the 1,500 expected to disappear between now and 2014.

There was also a lot of rhetoric about the council delivering services in new and different and 'innovative' ways (interestingly, there's £5m being set aside for a 'Big Society' bank) but frankly, there wasn't a huge amount of detail offered on this either so it's hard to make a judgement at this point.

I suppose a lot depends on how residents feel the impact of KCC's savings package. Take the issue of the Freedom Pass, for example. It is not being cut (it was apparently considered) but the administration fee is doubling to £100.

True, there are safeguards for those on free school meals who will continue to pay £50 and looked after children will pay nothing but I imagine there will be quite a lot of parents with more than one child who will baulk at having to write a cheque for £200-£300 in the current climate. I don't dissent from KCC's view that the pass has been a great success (possibly too successful) but some may see the hike as rather opportunistic - it's not as if the process of administering the fee has changed to become more burdensome on the authority.

And those who rely on rural buses to get them out and about may find they no longer run if KCC proceeds with a plan to withdraw £629,000 from "socially necessary but uneconomic bus routes that provide the least added value."

A cut? I suppose that given that KCC will continue to subsidise other bus routes, then no - but a saving that will reduce services, nevertheless.

As ever, the devil is in the detail. Here are a few other ways in which KCC will be saving money that I've spotted:


£200,000 less on members’ allowances
£123,000 cut on budget for 'Around Kent' magazine
£100,000 less on public consultation
£300,000 less on £2m book fund for libraries
£231,000 less spent on maintaining public footpaths
£280,000 less on waste recycling centres

and

£2.25million saving on "reviewing terms and conditions of employment." 

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If some of the rhetoric about the budget announcement had a familiar ring to it, it may be because similar language was used when KCC made its budget announcement last year.

A press release issued then described how "the council has focused upon ensuring the organisation is lean, flexible and ready to respond to the future financial restraint" and "it is notable that the proposals published today have little impact on frontline services, with savings focusing upon further efficiencies and innovative approaches to delivery." 

Still, good to see a commitment to recycling.

 

 

 

 

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Categories: Local Politics | Politics | Public Sector

Children at risk: how Kent has let them down

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, November 19 2010

There are times when the word "damning" is inappropriately used by journalists but Ofsted's report into the state of services provided to Kent's most vulnerable children is one occasion when it is fully justified.

Read Ofsted's report here

The word "inadequate" crops up an uncomfortable number of times in Ofsted's highly critical report and whatever way you look at it, inspectors have uncovered a pretty lamentable state of affairs. No wonder the powers that be moved swiftly and issued a public apology for letting children in care down. (It's also the kind of report where you might expect heads to roll but none have just yet.)

The most worrying aspect is that Ofsted is clearly concerned that the prospects of things improving are pretty slim, labelling the capacity for KCC and its partners to make things better as "inadequate." In other words, Ofsted doesn't like what it has seen about the abilities of those in charge to address a whole series of shortcomings.

I've often heard it said that KCC has become, over the years, adept at filling in self-assessment forms that give every impression that all is  hunky-dory when inspectors come calling. In the past, I gather that it selected the case files for Ofsted to examine but there are now different - and better - arrangements that mean Ofsted picks out what it wants to see. This may be one reason why Kent has come out so badly.

Perhaps the most telling part of the report is the passage that states that KCC and its partners had considerable evidence over the last two years that problems were coming but nothing was being done to address it.

Of course, there are particular issues for the county - especially the on-going problem of children being placed in coastal towns by London boroughs. But you could argue that should have made KCC and other agencies more attuned to the issues.

The irony is that KCC will now be looking at getting outside help to turn things around. A few years ago, the authority stepped in to help Swindon when its social services department was unravelling. It was hailed a great success at the time.

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At least county council leader Paul Carter did not try to shirk the job of responding to Ofsted's findings, holding  a series of press briefings to give his account of what had gone wrong. Others might have tried to fob the job on to someone else but commendably, he did not.  

 

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Categories: Education | Local Politics | Politics | Public Sector

Mystery over finance director's absence from County Hall

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, November 12 2010

Although KCC is grasping the government's transparency agenda with some vigour, it has declined to volunteer any information about why its finance director, Lynda McMullan, is absent from her desk and, from what little we do know, is expected to be so for at least two months.

We asked the authority a number of questions but it said it would not be commenting on the matter, which will only add to the intrigue and rumours circulating at Sessions House. Rightly or wrongly,  fairly or not, the "no comment" line does tend to give the impression there is something going on behind the scenes.

Most people appear to have been rather perplexed by the rather sudden absence. And it certainly comes at a particularly awkward time for the county council. Whatever the reasons, it cannot be a good thing to have the person who is usually responsible for drawing together the council's £2.4bn budget and spending plans away just weeks before critical announcements are expected on how KCC intends to cope with far-reaching cuts and a black hole of £340m.

I understand the situation was discussed at a meeting of the authority's personnel committee behind closed doors last Thursday. But I can't at this stage add much more than the basic facts that are known. Unless, of course, anyone wishes to enlighten us.

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Eric Pickles, the champion of open government, has further enhanced his reputation as a politican genuinely committed to greater public sector transparency.

He's firmly and rapidly squashed a council's proposal that it be allowed to charge people for dealing with their FOI requests.

Responding to Hampshire County Council's idea, Mr Pickles was ruthless.

 

"If town halls want to reduce the amount they spend on responding to freedom of information requests they should consider making the information freely available in the first place. The simple act of throwing open the books, rather than waiting for them to be prised apart by the force of an FoI, might even save a few pounds in the process."

Just for good  measure, Pickles has also been sounding off about council newspapers, which he intends to rein in under new rules limiting how often they can be produced.

"I don't think... there will be any great loss to British journalism if councils can't print their freesheets more than once a quarter. Propaganda dressed up as journalism not only wastes money but undermines a free press and a healthy democracy."

Couldn't have put it better myself.

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Categories: Councils | Local Politics | Politics | Public Sector

In defence of trips and treatments

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, November 2 2010

KCC has come out with a strong defence of the amount of money it has spent on foreign travel and a medical insurance scheme for senior managers. Its forthright response follows a survey by Channel 4 and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism which placed KCC in the top five spending authorities for both.

As with all such surveys, they do tend to offer a snapshot rather than a detailed analysis and it's worth pointing out that in relation to its size, the cost of KCC's health scheme does seem modest. If you live in Kensington and Chelsea, you are subsidising a similar scheme that costs £470k and is used by 791 staff; in Essex, the scheme there costs the taxpayer £315,000 and supports 774 staff - whereas KCC's costs £190k and 250 managers at KCC. Still, I imagine that in these straitened times, council chiefs will be looking to rein in the costs as the axe begins to fall elsewhere.

On foreign travel, KCC has, characteristically, emphasised its geographical proximity to mainland Europe as a justification for the sums involved in foreign travel - or, as its press statement puts it "Kent is a global gateway region" which apparently merits 117 trips to foreign climes in a year. I'm afraid that hard-pressed taxpayers will probably not be persuaded despite the assertion that foreign travel by officers and members has played a part in securing more than £20m in EU grants since 2007. (Incidentally, Sunderland tops this table with 41 trips at a cost of £82,228 although I've no idea whether it styles itself as a "global gateway region.") One of the problems with such broad-based assertions is that they are very difficult to test; and equally, it is impossible to say whether many of these grants might conceivably have come Kent's way regardless of whether a fact-finding, mission-statement and concordat pronouncing delegation had taken a trip to Brussels or some other destination or not.

And it is not just KCC that plays a role - when it comes to securing EU funding, generally speaking it is national governments that do the legwork through the kind of interminable negotiations that Brussels is famous for.

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I've never had Chris Huhne, the Lib dem secretary of state for the environment, down as a man-of-the-people politician. Far too cerebral. So I wasn't surprised when he told me in an interview that he felt the government's plans to increase Dartford Crossing tolls to £2.50 each way were "a good comrpomise." Not the most sympathetic phrase...

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Categories: Councils | Local Politics | Politics | Public Sector

Pickles gets his way but what happened to localism?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, October 29 2010

Eric Pickles has got his way. The communities secretary has given the nod to a Kent-Essex-East Sussex Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) that will succeed the South East England Development Agency, one of the regional quangos that has become a totemic symbol for the coalition of all that was nasty and wrong about the Labour government's obsession with regional government.

It is not what Kent MPs wanted and it is certainly not what Medway council wanted and whisper it quietly, it is not really what KCC wanted but at the eleventh-hour went for it after Mr Pickles made it plain to County Hall that was what he'd like to see.

There are a few points worth making. In interfering with the discussions around what shape the new LEP should take and by advocating an Essex-Kent LEP, Mr Pickles has apparently forgotten that his watchword since becoming the local government minister has been localism and a determination to allow local councils to decide what was best for their area when it came to jobs and investment.

Can it really be only a month ago that Mr Pickles addressed the Conservative party conference and declared: "For the first time, in a long time, local government has the chance to make real decisions. Goodbye to Labour's regional government?" Yes, it can.

He's not the first minister to make such promises about devolving power and decision-making but he must be the first to ride roughshod over his credo quite so early in their career. His decision to approve a LEP that was his idea in the first place has already raised a few eyebrows - and the deputy Conservative leader of Medway council has described the whole process as a joke.

And what is so different about the LEP than its predecessor, Seeda. True it is a touch smaller but it still brings together three fairly disparate and diverse counties with arguably as many differences in terms of jobs and investment as similarities. It may not have a moniker as a regional body but you can't help thinking that it looks like one, feels like one and probably is one.

Still, we'll have to see how it works out. I've no idea whether it will prove successful or not. It may be that the LEP delivers on all the rather grand promises and expectations that it has articulated. But the process has been messy and unnecessarily acrimonious and generated considerable mistrust. Medway, which has scarcely  suppressed its irritation at County Hall, is certainly miffed about the whole thing and KCC have some patching up to do to repair a relationship that has been badly strained..

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I've lost track of the number of times this week that I've spoken to various politicians about austerity cuts to be told they are "disappointed but not surprised." I'm waiting keenly for one to tell me they are surprised but not disappointed. But I fear I will be,er, disappointed.

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Categories: Local Politics | Medway | Politics | Public Sector

Good news, bad news? Have George's numbers added up?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, October 20 2010

The devil, as they say, is in the detail.

So, it's hard in one sense to make a snap judgment on the long-awaited spending review announced today as most central government departments will  be spelling out specific plans over the coming weeks. George Osborne got plenty of cheers from his own benches after an hour-long speech whose tone was clearly supposed to be sober but veered at times to being rather too euphoric.

Perhaps it was the testosterone flying around the Commons, where the baying across the green benches seemed unusually loud.

From Kent's perspective, there were a few unexpected announcements - or announcements slipped out without much fanfare - notably the proposed increase in the Dartford Crossing tolls which will rise to £2.50 by 2012 - a clear U-turn and one guaranteed to anger a lot of people who may feel the government has backtracked over commitments made before they came to power.

It certainly came as a surprise to KCC leader Paul Carter when I spoke with him earlier - I dare say he won't be happy not to have been briefed.

And for all the talk of fairness, I suspect hard-pressed rail commuters will find it hard to stomach the prospect of higher fares come 2012.

Meanwhile, the message from County Hall is that it was about as bad as expected but no worse. In total, councils are facing about a 30 per cent cut in their budgets. The government has tried to sugar the pill by giving councils more say over how they spend their money but it might turn out to be simply more freedom to make cuts.

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Categories: Local Politics | Politics | Public Sector

A reminder of the dark days

by The Business Blog, with Trevor Sturgess Monday, September 13 2010

Hearing trade unions leaders at the TUC conference was a frightening reminder of the dark days of the 1970s.

It had all the echoes of the three-day week, the Winter of Discontent, Arthur Scargill and other horrors that plunged the nation into doom and gloom.

It was a far more "darker, brutish and frightening place" in those dismal days than it could ever be now, despite the apocalyptic warning by Brendan Barber.

Well done to the Balpa chief for injecting the only note of sanity into a tribal rant by the band of brothers.

Sure, the Government has handed union rabble-rousers an open goal with its continual harping on about draconian cuts.

They should have been a lot more subtle. They have given the impression that cutting spending is their only goal whereas they should be stressing the need for sensible spending, increasing it in some areas where the payback is substantial or where fairness to the vulnerable is concerned.

Tax and public spending went too far under the last Government and has to be reined back. It would have been better PR for the new union barons to have tempered their anti-Government tirade with recognition that the nation cannot go on spending beyond its means for ever.

The public sector has been protected for too long. It is time it shared some of the suffering felt across the private sector. And public spending does not of itself buy civilisation as the union leaders claim because you cannot trust the recipients of our cash to spend it wisely.

Sensible spending is what we need, and with the nation's economy in such a parlous state, we need to cut our cloth accordingly. Threatening massive disruption, and carrying it out, will surely lead to far greater economic and social crisis.

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Categories: Business | Private Sector | Public Sector

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