All posts tagged 'County-Hall'

Cry Freedom - the Conservative budget dilemma over the Freedom Pass

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, January 31 2014

Kent County Council must have calculated that its plans for a £350 cap limiting the use of the Freedom Pass would trigger some controversy.

But any hope that it could ride it out and persuade parents and children that the new arrangements still represented a good deal is failing on quite a spectacular level.

Mounting pressure over Freedom Pass changes>>>

If you wanted an illustration of the backlash, you don't have to look very far. Two petitions calling for a re-think have already attracted about 8,000 signatures. One has been started by a Conservative councillor in Shepway, which must be pretty galling for County Hall.

Even schools are encouraging parents to get on the case, sending out messages on social media linking to the petitions.

There are mutterings in the corridors of County Hall that some backbenchers are not terribly impressed and speculation that come the budget meeting, the opposition parties will join forces and try to block the changes.

KCC's dilemma is that the scheme has proved too successful and as a result, is proving a drain on its dwindling resources. Not many councils could sustain a discretionary service costing £13m a year to run given the relentless pressure on their budgets.

It is doubtful, however, that hard-pressed parents who fear they will have to fork out hundreds of pounds once the £350 cap is reached will have much time for the distinction between mandatory and non-mandatory services.

Containing school transport costs is undeniably a big issue for Kent, partly because it is such a large county.

One of the key principles behind the Freedom Pass was that it was designed to enhance the concept of parental choice when schooling was concerned. It is impossible to know, but there will be many parents and children who factored in the availability of the Freedom Pass when making choices about schools.

The scheme was also lauded for its impact on cutting congestion during the school run and environmental pollution around towns but we are not hearing much about that, despite it being an integral part of KCC's "Growth Without Gridlock" agenda.

It is only two years since the county council made an equally unpopular decision to end a scheme that gave help with transport costs to those attending grammar schools and church schools, depending on how far away they lived from the school.

At the time, the Conservatives justified the decision by saying that it would not be an issue because...of the introduction of the universal Freedom Pass.

That decision also rankled with county councillors and Conservative MPs and continues to do so - about a year ago, under pressure from backbenchers, KCC initiated a review to see if they could restore some limited help to pupils but again emphasised that the Freedom Pass neutralised the impact.

A working group was set up but that has not reported on options and no-one seems to know if it will.

Many parents say they would be happy if the pass could be used just for the purposes of getting children to and from school, dropping the "leisure" use element that allows it to be used seven-days a week for any journey.

KCC is unlikely to want to get bogged down in changes which could create a bureaucratic and administrative nightmare. One of the virtues of the scheme has been its relative simplicity.

Either way, the council is in a political bind and the irony is that it is paying the price not for failure but success.

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Welfare Reforms, County Hall And The Sound of Shredding

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, December 5 2013

If you have passed by County Hall in the last couple of days and heard machinery whirring into action, it may well be the sound of copies of KCC's report into welfare reforms being shredded.

The report and its contents were due to have been discussed by a backbench watchdog cabinet scrutiny committee on Friday (6) but it has been taken off the agenda.

KCC leader Paul Carter intervened to withdraw it after a closer reading of its conclusions, saying that it was not well-evidenced (debatable,in my opinion) and he had asked for it to be rewritten.

Politically, you can understand why he was anxious about its findings, which explicitly linked the government's welfare reforms to rising rates of homelessness, crime and the use of food banks.

He clearly realised the report - which cautioned that the findings were "tentative" - would be seized on by other parties to undermine and embarrass the government over its flagship reforms.

The irony is that in withdrawing it, the county council has only succeeded in drawing more attention to it than if it had been left on the agenda.

From a PR perspective, it was not the greatest triumph.

Inevitably, the council now stands accused of suppressing a report because it has politically unpalatable conclusions. It wasn't too long before opposition parties leapt into action to accuse the leader of "playing politics."

When I first spoke to Cllr Carter on Monday, he was circumspect about the conclusions, arguing there had yet to be a direct causal link between the reforms and rising homlessness.

At the same time, he accepted the package of changes introduced by the government could be a "significant component part of increasing homelessness and the start of migration into the boroughs and districts" -  adding that it was "early days" and the trends would be monitored.

That struck me as a perfectly reasonable response. Clearly, he later had a chance to reflect on the contents and concluded it would be better if it was rewritten.

The difficulty with this is that the new version will inevitably be contasted with the first draft - and KCC risks being accused of a whitewash on top of trying to suppress findings because they are politically uncomfortable.

The fact the report was written at all is because county councillors asked for it. It represented the first six-monthly account "to help monitor and update on these impacts."

Councillors have rightly decided they need to be kept abreast of the reforms and how they are impacting on Kent and vulnerable groups.

The problem they now have is wondering whether anything that is presented to them represents the impartial expert view of officers or has been massaged by politicians before it gets into the public domain.

You can join the 3,000+ people who already have and  read the report here.

 

 

 

 

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Is KCC about to thaw over council tax freeze?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, November 6 2013

It is a few months before councils decide how much residents will have to pay next year by way of the council tax but it looks like many are weighing up whether continuing with a freeze on household bills is viable and sustainable.

Some councils in Kent have already bitten the bullet and ignored the government's edict to freeze bills this year, arguing that they have had no alternative in the face of the budget cuts enforced on them by the government as it grapples with the public sector deficit.

Kent County Council's Conservative administration will be setting out its draft budget proposals at the end of the week and it will be interesting to see whether the spending plans include an option to hike up bills.

A number of county councils rejected the government's offer of a one off grant equivalent to a one per cent increase in bills - including Oxfordshire, which just so happens to cover David Cameron's constituency so KCC would not be striking out alone. Others that chose to increase bills said it was not worth taking the government's grant handout.

KCC has already prepared the ground for the possible ending of the freeze. In its medium term financial plan  for 2013-15, finance chiefs acknowledged that the freeze "creates additional pressure on future years budgets..while the council remains committed to keeping council tax increases to an absolute minimum, at this stage an increasefor 2014/15 cannot be ruled out."

One of the challenges for KCC next year is that its longer term "transformation" project - involving another re-organisation and the outsourcing of many services - is unlikely to be delivering enough savings anticipated to ease the pressure on the council's coffers.

Councils are already fearing the worst and are ramping up the pressure on Eric Pickles, the Communities minister.

This week, the Local Government Association warned that some councils were getting close to being unable to meet their statutory obligations because of the spending squeeze. It said some councils were at breaking point - a rather dramatic claim. It urged the Chancellor to reverse £1bn of cuts to local government grant to provide some stability for authorities already creaking under the impact of successive years of government enforced cuts.

KCC is keeping tight-lipped until it unwraps its budget but my guess is that an option for a modest council tax increase might be incorporated into the draft budget - if only because it won't want to risk dipping into its reserves again.

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You Got Mail: read the expenses correspondence between Kent County Council+tax inspectors

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, August 29 2013

Kent County Council has one or two blind spots when it comes to how it spends taxpayers' money - executive pay has, in the past, been among them - but it certainly had the blinkers on when it engaged in a tussle with tax officials over their expenses.

 

The tussle, as we have reported, centred on a ruling by HRMC that county councillors should be (and should have been) paying tax on their mileage claims from home to County Hall.

That the council's leader Paul Carter took the issue seriously and was reluctant to accede to the instruction is underlined not just by the fact that it paid £5,000 for independent advice.

It is graphically illustrated in the correspondence he exchanged with HRMC chief executive Lin Homer, which you can read at the end of this posting.

It was, as it transpired, a one-way correspondence as HRMC Lin Homer delegated the job of replying to a flurry of letters from County Hall to an unnamed "complaints officer" - so junior, apparently, that his or her name cannot be disclosed under Freedom of Information laws.

Kent County Council's case rested on its contention that county councillors should not have their mileage claims from home to County Hall taxed because they regularly worked from home.

Mr Carter asserted in his first letter that members "spend a very significant amount of time working at home" but, because of safety fears, few regularly saw constituents there.

This latter point is important because HRMC said seeing consituents routinely at home was the basis on which it permitted mileage claims not to be taxed.

Actually, few councillors that I know regularly see constituents in their own homes - and not many avoid doing so because thy are anxious about doing so alone. Much of what they do is - rightly - out and about in their wards or electoral divisions.

They may read correspondence and council agendas but hardly on a scale which could be described as "significant" and certainly not enough to justify calling their home a place of work.

(Many teachers spend considerable time "working from home" but I think heads and indeed council chiefs would balk at being asked to pay their travel expenses as a result. Even some journalists occasionally do...)

And we should not overlook the fact that some of this "work" will be party political, which should definitely not be tax deductible.

It is arguable that given that some members may qualify under the HRMC's ruling and not have to pay  tax that KCC will face some additional administrative work.

But given that there are only 84 elected members, it hardly seems overly burdensome. The county council has plenty of experience in dealing with this sort of bureaucracy.

HRMC was clearly unconvinced by the argument that "councillors get a very modest allowance" and rightly so. "Very modest" is not how most people would see a yearly allowance of close to £13,000 a year for every member.

Read the KCC expenses correspondence between the council leader Paul Carter and HRMC:

Paul Carter to HRMC1.pdf (73.77 kb)

 

Paul Carter to HRMC 2.pdf (23.87 kb)

 

Paul Carter to HRMC 3.pdf (36.49 kb)

HRMC to Paul Carter 1.pdf (31.40 kb)

 

 

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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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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

Could UKIP be the surprise election package?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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Categories: National Politics

Adoption and Iceland: Good news and not so good news

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, November 1 2011

IT is probably a little much to declare it a 'victory' - as the inevitable press release described it - but it is undeniably good news that KCC, along with a handful of other councils, are poised to recover  the money they invested in former Icelandic banks.

KCC on course to get Icelandic cash back>>

But while the words "rejoice" may be resounding around the corridors of Sessions House, it is worth making a couple of relevant points.

KCC originally invested the £50m because it was attracted by the rather generous interest rates being offered by the banks, around 5-6%. It put the money there precisely for that reason and no other. It is not, however, money the authority will be seeing - and you can do the maths yourself to see what budget papers usually refer to opaguely in accounts as the "net impairment loss."

According to KCC's audited accounts for 2010-2011, the sum associated with the 'net impairment loss' is £7.6m. Now, I am guessing this is the sum that the council expected to make as a return on its deposit but now won't. Victorious in the courts, yes but that is only part of the story.

And the protracted legal wrangle, which lasted three years, will also have a cost but as the action was being pursued on behalf of 100+ authorities, this may be relatively modest.

There is no doubt that treasury management policies at County Hall were not quite as robust as they should have been at the time this happened, but neither were they at many other town halls and public bodies (and before I'm reminded the now defunkt Audit Commission was among them).

There was the unopened email that meant £3m more was invested when brokers had advised KCC to halt, for example.

One consequence of the saga is that there is now a little more transparency about how and where taxpayers' money is being invested. Previously, little was volunteered about the subject and what was was largely impenetrable to many.

However, much of it unfortunately goes through an informal members group at County Hall, whose meetings are closed to the public.

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SOCIAL services chiefs appear to have finally got to grips with the crisis in vulnerable children's social care. A positive Ofsted report which apparently says KCC has successfully addressed many of the problems identified in a highly damning report issued a year ago is due out shortly. We'll know the full details in a week or two.

Having overcome that challenge, another is on the horizon - adoption, where Kent appears to have a fairly dismal track record compared to many others when it comes to the speed with which it deals with applications from would-be adopters.

Clearly,the downward trend began a few years ago but for whatever reason, was not spotted or was but ignored.

Adoption challenge for KCC>>

All of which makes me wonder again exactly how it was that for several years, KCC secured high ratings from inspectors for the quality of its social services.

The suspicion is that County Hall had any number of policy wonks skilled in completing self-assessment forms on which judgements were often based but rather fewer people overseeing what was actually happening at the coal face.

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Categories: KCC | Precept

Get Carter: Rivals plot to oust KCC leader. Will they succeed?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, September 16 2011

COUNTY Hall has been awash with speculation about a possible leadership contest for some time, with insiders predicting there could be blood on the Conservative carpet come October.

'We want your job' - top Tories vie for Carter's leadership at County Hall>>>

Now the rumour mill that has been in overdrive has spilled into the open and two challengers to Paul Carter have declared their hand.

The question is whether either can gather enough support to topple the incumbent between now and next month.

Any politician in such a job for so long cannot help but make a few enemies along the way and Cllr Carter is no exception. In recent weeks and months, the disquiet among some backbenchers has become increasingly shrill. The planned closure of libraries, hastily abandoned, cuts to the youth service and more recently a stormy meeting over plans to cut the number of community liaison managers from 12 to 7 - leading to a late U-turn - have all been generating angst within the group.

But that is pretty much to be expected. Like other political leaders, Cllr Carter may be paying the price for having too large a majority. His uncompromising and forthright style can on occasion rub people up the wrong way.

Having so many backbenchers with little direct involvement in the decision-making process is a well known recipe for breeding frustration and discontent.

His rivals will undoubtedly seek to exploit this and hope that the mantra that it is 'time for a change’ will be compelling enough.

But Nick Chard and Keith Ferrin run the risk of looking like they are in a grudge match - both have been fired from the cabinet by the man they want to replace.

Either way, it looks like becoming an acrimonious and potentially divisive contest. In an email, Keith Ferrin writes that he hopes “we can all now calm down and conduct a low key civilized contest in which we all remember that much more unites us than divides us.” (At the same time, he suggests that his rival for the role as reneged on an earlier commitment to support his bid.)

That may be a rather forlorn hope as political leadership battles are rarely civilised affairs regardless of how they appear on the surface. Ask Margaret Thatcher.

As to the outcome, I’m told that Mr Carter is bullish about his prospects. On the other hand, neither Mr Chard or Mr Ferrin would have declared their intentions without taking soundings beforehand – but pledges of support in such contests should always be treated with caution. I expect all three candidates to be getting multiple pledges, as Conservatives eye up their prospects of preferment under each.

 

At this stage, it seems Cllr Carter remains favourite to hang on but a lot can happen in a few weeks. There may be others to enter the fray although one whose name has been mentioned - Dartford council leader Jeremy Kite - has ruled himself out.

But with the council in the grip of drastic budget cuts and a controversial re-organisation, Conservatives may just feel that now is not exactly the best time to give somebody else the captain’s armband.

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Fancy running a council service? Give KCC a call....

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, October 18 2010

The age of austerity is pushing councils in all sorts of directions and into proposals they might never have previously countenanced. We've seen one promote the concept of a no frills authority - Barnet's so-called "easycouncil" and others saying they will no longer be directly providing any services - the so-called "virtual council" route.

Kent County Council has given us a glimpse of where it is heading with its launch of "Bold Steps for Kent" document, weighing in at 48-pages and setting out how it envisages services being delivered over the next four years. There's actually a lot of interesting stuff in it and it would have been quite neat to set out 39 such steps but the County Hall PR wizards missed a trick there. (I have to admit that it was a challenge to get my head round all the detail)

Would you run KCC services?>>

Clearly, KCC does not expect to be the same kind of council in 2015 as it is today. There's talk of management buyouts, new trading companies, Big Society start-up grants and an open question: what is it we actually need to provide ourselves and might someone else do it better? This is the commissioning part of the model, breaking up the monolithic one we arguably have now. On the other side of the coin, there is a call for Kent to get more powers along the same lines as big "city regions" - such as transport and housing - and possible collaboration over the NHS. So, some ideological contradictions and political paradoxes but it brings to mind a phrase I've heard at County Hall quite often - "the mixed economy.'

Leader Paul Carter told me he's an unashamed free marketeer and that he believes in a smaller state, so has no issue with outsourcing services if others can do the job better and at less cost. At the same time, he makes the point that private companies often under-estimate just how efficient the public sector can be. "Our job is to open up the market and allow others in. It is going to force people to think differently," he says.

It will be interesting to see how the concept of management buyouts takes off. Those who have spent long careers in local government do tend to like the (relatively) secure environment - notwithstanding the considerble uncertainty there is over jobs. Will there be a huge appetite to plunge into the uncertain world of social enterprises or private companies? The idea of Big Society start up grants strikes me as sensible but I still harbour doubts about the concept. Say a group of volunteers takes over running a village library but after a year or so, some leave; others move or some find they can no longer commit to the project? Who will step in - assuming that it has proved successful?

And what safeguards will there be to ensure proper democratic scrutiny and accountability of these different commercial companies?

Either way, a major upheaval is underway at County Hall even if I'm struggling to come up with a convenient shorthand name for the new model it is espousing.  

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More Star Trek references creeping into County Hall. After proposing an "Enterprise Directorate" comes the new four-year plan "Bold Steps for Kent." Proceed at Warp Factor Ten, Captain.


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Categories: Local Politics | National Politics | Politics

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