All posts tagged 'KCC'

Spinning lights, Lodge Hill and Ann Barnes' PR spend

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Sunday, February 15 2015

Conservative county councillors did their best to put a gloss on their streetlight switch-off U-turn at the authority's budget meeting but it has been an unnecessarily messy episode which the opposition parties understandably exploited.

The ruling administration did what it could to make the best of a bad job but had to face accusations that it had not actually saved any money, after spending £3m on installing the technology needed to move to part-night lighting  - effectively neutralising the predicted saving of £3m up to 2017, when it says bulbs will be replaced wih LEDs.

At least Conservative council leader Paul Carter was upfront in acknowledging that had the council known that the cost of LEDs was to fall significantly, it might not have embarked on the switch-off. (His claim that it had saved money was less convincing).

Opposition in Kent appears to have been more vociferous than other areas, which may have something to do with its size and rural nature.

To be fair, it did consult pretty widely at the outset.

Having said that, perhaps councillors did not do themselves any favours by appearing rather dismissive about residents' fears over security and crime, insisting the perception of an increase in crime was not matched by the reality.

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Any public figure who spending thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money on outside PR agencies and consumer research companies can expect to be asked to account for it.

Kent crime commissioner Ann Barnes says appointing outside consultants was necessary to secure an "independent" review of the communications strategies adopted by the force.

Communications are important for any public body especially for the police.

But we doubt many people will regard it as that important to pay a PR firm close to £14,000 for an insight into what was being done and what might be done better - especially given the common complaint that they don't get to see many police officers on the street these days.

It is equally hard to justify the £2,400 spent on media training for the crime youth commissioner Kerry Boyd, whose term of office is to end shortly but whose activity has been so low profile as to make her virtually invisible.

Perhaps the advice was to not say anything or do anything in public or before the media.

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It proved one of the few local flashpoints in the Rochester and Strood by-election, so what have the parties made of the government's decision to call in the plans for 5,000 homes at Lodge Hill and hold a public inquiry?

Strangely, it has produced an unlikely consensus between UKIP MP Mark Reckless and Kelly Tolhurst, the Conservative candidate.

Mr Reckless says he is delighted he will not rest until he has 'won the war'. Kelly Tolhurst declares she will "continue to lead the campaign against it."

Perhaps they should stand on a joint ticket. No, we can't see it either.




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Categories: Memory | Precept

Manston, Murray + the lights go out at County Hall

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, February 6 2015

The fate of Manston Airport is still - excuse the pun - up in the air.

But the MPs on the transport select committee lifted one or two interesting stones on what seems a very complex issue of who owns the airport site when they quizzed a variety of witnesses at a hearing this week.

The hearing made for an uncomfortable experience for Pauline Bradley, the director of Manston Skyport Ltd and the two interim directors of Kent Airport Ltd who were repeatedly pressed on the issue of the extent to which the former owner Ann Gloag was involved and how she potentially stood to benefit on the back of the business park scheme envisaged by the new owners.

MP Tom Harris articulated what many people think about the sale when he asked Ms Bradley if she could understand "why people might look at this and think it looks slightly fishy" given that "a lot of people are about to get very wealthy on the back of a £1 purchase?"

In a reply that lacked a great deal of conviction, she said that there had never been any attempt to disguise Ms Gloag's financial stake and there was no question that she would exercise any financial control. Which is of course an important distinction but it took a while to prise out the fact that Mrs Gloag has a 20% stake.

In one of the more dramatic moments, Sir Roger Gale read from a report which he said revealed that Mrs Gloag had no intention of running the airport for two years. While it was unclear who wrote it, the MP quoted a section which stated that "in the process of creating the JV [Joint Venture] steps should be taken to restructure the HGT  shareholding such that it cannot be easily identified" and that "the perception that the site is under the conrol of a non-controversial JV partner would be commercially advantageous from a planning perspective."

I got the distinct impression that the committee members were not awfully impressed or totally convinced by the evidence put forward by the owners but we will have to wait and see. And it is likely that we may have to wait until after the election to find out what the select committee recommends.

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If you can hear the sound of car gears crashing around County Hall, it is probably connected to the latest policy U-turn.

After a reversal on plans to axe the number of communty wardens comes the news that the great streetlight switch-off is to be effectively scrapped.

We were told when it was first introduced that a pilot scheme would run for a year and then be reviewed. But the Conservative administration has clearly got the jitters and are to phase it out. There will still be a review which as I understand it will focus on issues.such as whether the switch-off has led to more crime and if so, where.

 

The new policy is to invest £40m in replacing every single streetlight with new LED bulbs, which have the advantage of being more energy efficient and can de dimmed and are cheaper to run - once you have made the initial outlay.

KCC invested an awful lot in its pilot swith-off scheme and there will be some questions about why it went to such great lengths to do so.

The odd thing is that when KCC first announced about deciding to replace the bulbs in its 120,00 streetlights in October, there was no mention of the possibility that it could be an alternative to the night-time switch off.

But the switch-off has gone down badly in many communities and there have been claims it has led to increased crime rates.  When opposition parties at KCC  called for an end to the scheme last September, they were told by the Conservative Mr Brazier that "most rational people know there is nothing to fear."

The fear that seems to matter among Conservatives is the fear that it will cost them votes at the forthcoming election.

 

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Al Murray hit the campaign trail in Thanet South this week and rival candidates were probably gritting their teeth as he effortlessly  secured a huge amount of media coverage.

 

 

There were plenty of jokes, repartee with reporters and mugging for the cameras. It is all slightly surreal and you have to wonder whether, by May 7, the joke may have worn a bit thin.

 

But he is doing a good job of pricking the pomposity of politicians who,  during interviews, like to preface their answers to questions with the refrain "I am glad you have asked me that" - normally followed by an answer that has absolutely nothing to do wth the question.

 

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Categories: Politics

In their own words: The Year In Politics

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, December 19 2014

It has been a tumultuous year in Kent politics and 2015 is shaping up to be just as turbulent. Here is how the politicians saw things - in their own words:

“We have picked up the jigsaw pieces from different boxes and put them in new boxes where there is real synergy.” Some mystifying jargon from John Burr, the KCC director in charge of re-organising the way the council is run.

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“We are not the masters now, the people are the masters. We are the servants of the people. We must never forget that.” Newly-elected Rochester and Strood UKIP MP Mark Reckless victory speech has uncanny echoes of Tony Blair in 1997.

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“By-elections are different; there is a chance for people to vote in way they haven’t done before.” Conservative leader David Cameron calls for people to vote tactically to stop Mark Reckless in the by-election.

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You should tell that to Mrs Cameron” The Prime Minister's retort to a reporter on the campaign trail in Rochester who said he was looking fit and whether he had been working out.

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“People who have got through [to Britain] call and say ‘We’ve got through. This is El Dorado and we’re staying here’. Natasha Bouchard, Mayor of Calais addressing MPs on why hundreds of migrants were gathered in the French town.

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“It was poor judgement and naivety on my part rather than words spoken with any malice.” Janice Atkinson Ukip MEP and prospective parliamentary candidate for Folkestone and Hythe after being caught on camera describing a supporter as “a ting tong from somewhere.”

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“I did ask about the mafia issue” - Thanet council officer Mark Seed on reports that potential investors in ferry firm TransEuropa had crime links.

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“The only reason I agreed to do the documentary was to help people better understand the role of police and crime commissioner.” Kent crime commissioner Ann Barnes on that Channel 4 documentary.

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Women of the UK: burn your bras...Or not.” Chatham and Aylesford MP Tracey Crouch tweet in response to a Ukip claim that for every bra bought in the UK, £1 went to the EU.

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“These statistics, while accurate, could lead to an entirely misleading impression being given about how hard members work for their communities.” Cllr Gary Cooke, KCC cabinet member for democratic services explains why the council stopped publishing meeting attendance figures.

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“Conclusions were drawn where there was no evidence to support those conclusions.” Kent County Council leader Paul Carter on why he withdrew a report suggesting government welfare reforms were behind rising crime, homelessness and food banks.

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“It is now not beyond the bounds of possibility that we hold the balance of power in another hung parliament.” Ukip leader Nigel Farage after his party’s crushing European election victory in May.

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“Nigel Farage is a pound shop Enoch Powell and we need to watch him.” Comedian Russell Brand on BBC ‘Question Time’ takes a dig at the party leader

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“As we entered the studio, and his personal make-up artist straightened his chest hair for him, I kid you not, I realised that perhaps he might be a bit lighter weight than expected.” Nigel Farage retort at Russell Brand on BBC Question Time.

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“Over the past few decades, flood defences in many areas have been neglected, and local people left to fend for themselves.Those days are coming to an end.” Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg visiting Kent to announce £17m of flood defence work

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"I am out but not down" Ashford MP Damian Green after losing his job as policing minister in what was culled a cull of middle-aged ministers from the cabinet

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"I don't think it would have made much difference" - Liberal Democrat candidate Geoff Juby on whether the presence of his party leader Nick Clegg on the Rochester and Strood campaign trail would have helped. He went on to lose his deposit in the party's worst result in a by-election 

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"The New Ways of Working Programme has progressively implemented the approved phased redevelopment of several key hubs" - what else but a Kent County Council officer's report on "re-organisation"

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UKIP no doubt already has them in its sights.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Categories: Politics

Does Kent need more local politicians?

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

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

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

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

Does KCC need more councillors?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Categories: Politics

Inhalers, pollution and a council tax shock: The week in Kent Politics

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, April 4 2014

Here's my pick of the week's top political news in the county:

1. As a toxic cloud hung over much of the county and we were advised to stay indoors, the Liberal Democrat minister for climate change Ed Davey gamely paid a visit to one of the county's most polluted roads in Maidstone - where he was pictured enthusiastically drawing on an inhaler and blowing his nose. No, it wasn't a PR set-up despite some being a little sceptical about his inhaling technique. His prognosis on more days of heavily polluted air?  "We will just have to get used to it," he said. 

2. The question of whether  Manston Airport could survive continued to dominate the headlines. There were more twists and turns as it emerged that an unidentified consortium had withdrawn its offer to take over the airport, seeming to signal another major setback. But unions representing the 150 staff under threat revealed that they had put forward plans to safeguard its future. Meanwhile, the two Thanet MPs secured a commitment from the Kent MP and business minister Michael Fallon to throw his weight behind a task force dedicated to saving Manston as an airport. But behind the scenes, speculation continued that the site could eventually be sold for housing development.

3. Council tax bills are rising - and there is a sting in the tail as thousands of the poorest households discovered this week they were being asked to pay a greater contribution than last year. Councils blamed the government; the government said it was all down to cutting the welfare bill and charities warned the increases  would tip more people into poverty.

4. It was round two in the European "hokey cokey" debate with Farage and Clegg squaring up over whether we should be in or out. Neither delivered a knockout blow but the post-debate polls made rather grisly reading for the Liberal Democrat leader who - despite getting some credit for initiating the debate - might now be regretting the whole idea.

Meanwhile, UKIP sources revealed that the UKIP election campaign would wind up with a huge rally in Thanet just days before polling day. Let's hope they don't do a Labour-style Sheffield rally....

5. And finally, there was the shock news that Kent could be at the sharp end of another migrant influx - this time from Scotland if it voted for independence. It was claimed KCC had prepared contingency plans to deal with a new migrant wave of Scots, drawn by the supposedly better climatic conditions for "growing" haggis in the Garden of England. Suspicions about the credibility of the story quickly grew however when the date was spotted....

 

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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

Are heads right to bridle at KCC's "hire-and-fire" plan?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, March 12 2014

Kent County Council is facing some awkward questions and unwanted publicity over a draft protocol that sets out to head teachers what might happen to them if they preside over a failing school and have been in charge for two years or more.

Under the proposals, heads will effectively be eased out, put on gardening leave and replaced. Given that under Ofsted's own inspection regime, if a school is in special measures it is regarded as failing to have the necessary leadership skills to improve things, you might well ask why head teachers are complaining.

Especially given that KCC has drawn up the policy document after being requested to by the Kent Primary School Forum. Cllr Roger Gough, the politician in charge of schooling and standards, admits he is slightly puzzled by the furore - as diplomatic as ever.

It is not as if head teachers don't know that this is the likely scenario - indeed, it happens more or less every time a school is failed by Ofsted, not just in Kent but every other part of the country. And many parents would find it hard to understand why, if their child's school is failing to make the grade, there is no change in the leadership of that school.

So, do heads have a genuine grievance? The long shadow of Ofsted looms daily over schools. Heads, governors and teachers live in an almost constant state of tension and nervousness about a visit from inspectors.

At the same time, education authorities bear the corporate responsibility of improving standards at all schools - yes, even academies - and education officials at County Hall have the DfE breathing down their necks, which is then transposed to schools.

It is a toxic combination. You can forgive heads for feeling a little aggrieved at the stark way in which KCC has set out the likely sequence of events although invoking the Argentinian junta's policy of "disappearing" military dissidents is a little over the top.

The analogy one head made with football club managers struggling to keep their team from relegation and keeping demanding owners happy with results is a fairer one.

The problem seems to be that heads, rightly or wrongly, feel that KCC has got the balance between offering support and threatening sanctions skewed towards the latter. 

There is no doubt that Kent does have a problem with recruitment at the top. In a selective system, the challenges facing non-selective secondary schools are sometimes seen as a disincentive to aspiring heads although there are a number of all-ability schools that prove that becoming an outstanding schools is not beyond them. 

KCC insists its overriding priority is to provide schools and heads with appropriate support, although given the axe that is being taken to school improvement services that becomes more difficult.

Under the stewardship of its director Patrick Leeson, standards have steadily improved but there are some signs that sustaining this improvement is going to be a greater challenge.

Heads are right to flag up their concerns about recruitment.

They are also right to question what looks like a fairly uncompromising approach by KCC to under-performance. 

The authority appears to have forgotten its own mantra that  'one size does not fit all.'

 

 

 

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Gove's academy revolution and the school place free-for-all

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, February 26 2014

Kent County Council's decision to consult over closing the Chaucer Technology College has unsurprisingly caused anger and dismay among parents and pupils, who had thought the future was secure only a few weeks ago and are now levelling accusations of betrayal.

Had the politicians had any alternative, there is no doubt they would have sought to find one.

Decisions to close schools are almost always contentious and invariably trigger campaigns to keep them open. In the case of the Chaucer School,  it has been a particularly messy affair - not helped in this case by the fact that Kent County Council had believed an academy chain wanted to take it over  but then withdrew their interest.

Chaucer's future will be determined in June but the proposal to shut it provides a vivid illustration of the tension between education authorities and the Department for Education when it comes to planning and providing enough places.

The county council's statutory obligation is to ensure that there are enough school places across Kent. In the jargon, it is now a "commissioner" of places rather than a "provider." This obligation also requires the council to make sure that there are not too many empty desks or surplus places.

This job has become much more difficult with the advent of academy schools, which are independent and outside council control. Under Michael Gove's revolution, academies have been empowered to expand and grow to meet parental demand.

Why? Because the government believes that the often illusory concept of choice is enhanced if you allow popular schools to expand.

In the brave new world of Michael Gove, in which freedom and autonomy for schools are valued above anything else, academies can expand without anyone outside the school having a say in whether it might be a good or bad thing. Councils have no power of veto over academies who want to take in more pupils which is precisely what the Canterbury Academy is doing. 

It plans to offer 50 more places to Year 7 children in a direct response to parental demand and its continuing popularity. And it is this that KCC cites as a key reason why Chauncer should close.

This growth at Canterbury Academy comes at a time when the demand for places in the district are forecast to fall over the next few years, in contrast with many other areas of the county.

The planned closure of Chaucer is not the fault of Canterbury Academy. It is simply doing what parents want and it certainly hasn't done it out of any malice towards Chaucer.

Kent County Council and the school undoubtedly have questions to answer about the way it has handled the decision, not the least of which is the apparent shortcomings in the way the news was communicated to shocked parents and pupils.

But some questions should also be asked of the government. It has sold the academy programme on claims that it will improve standards and critically give parents greater opportunity for their children to attend popular and successful schools locally - a promise that parents at Chaucer may well feel is hardly worth the paper it is written on.

An education system in which councils are given the job of planning for places but do so alongside increasing numbers of  individual schools who can do their own thing may not be totally impossible but certainly presents challenges.

And if the unfettered free-for-all for school places continues, we may find there are other schools becoming "unviable".

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Why is it taking so long for Kent crime commissioner Ann Barnes to announce who is to be her youth crime tsar?

Interviews for the post took place in November but since then, nothing has happened. Pressed on the issue by MP Mark Reckless at a Home Affairs Select Committee, Mrs Barnes said it wouldn't be too long before she could say anything but alluded to "various reasons" why there had been a delay.

Unfortunately, we are none the wiser as she added that she could not go into any details. Curious.

 

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County Hall balances the books but worse is to come

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



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Categories: Politics

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