All posts tagged 'Kent-County-Council'

Passports, planes and political harmony at County Hall: The top political stories of the week in Kent

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, June 20 2014

1. England may be on the way out of the World Cup but who could be hanging out the bunting and on the way in as the prospective Conservative MP for Thanet Suth?

We won't know until early July but whoever it is will be well-advised to polish up their Euro-sceptic credentials and be prepared to demand a referendum on the UK's membership even before David Cameron wants one. According to the local Conservative association website, applicants for the job must be prepared to push for an "in-out" vote as soon as possible. Surely that can't be connected to talk of UKIP leader Nigel Farage standing there?

2. Conservatives at Kent County Council have not given up on creating a grammar school annexe in west Kent despite a rebuff from Secretary of State Michael Gove last year. The council's latest proposal is for a "modular" satellite school in which there would be a separate boys' wing and girls' wing. Is it the last throw of the dice before the general election next year?

3. There are already 84 of them but does Kent need more county councillors? It looks like the council is preparing for a possible stand off with the Boundary Commission, which is reviewing the size of the county council. For once, the possible threat to cut their numbers has produced an unholy political alliance, with all the parties indicating that there could be a case for even more not fewer politicians.

More politicians? We are not sure the public will be convinced - after all, it is taxpayers' money which meets the current £1.7m annual bill for KCC members.

4. As delays in issuing passports continue, the tourism minister and Maidstone and Weald MP Helen Grant made a not entirely helpful intervention when she was reported that she had urged people who hadn't been issued with one to consider a "staycation."  

Another unfortunate incident of what Hilary Clinton described once as "mis-speaking?" Possibly but this is not the first time the tourism minister has got in hot water over unguarded remarks. And worse, she made them while on a formal ministerial visit to Brazil

5. The fate of  Manston Airport remains up in the air as the campaign to save it continues. The head of the American consortium interested in buying it had a meeting with Thanet MPs Laura Sandys and Sir Roger Gale while UKIP MEPs Nigel Farage and Janice Atkinson urged the CAA to intervene.

The CAA said it couldn't while Thanet Council issued a cautiously-worded statement on the prospect of a compulsory purchase order. Finally, a flying school based there was at the High Court seeking an injunction to prevent it closing. Amid all this activity, the voice of one person was not to be heard. Airport owner Ann Gloag remained silent.

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The Friday Five: The Week In Kent Politics

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

MPs may be away from Westminster but there has been plenty going on in Kent  this week, including a mini constitutional crisis at County Hall. Here's my review of  the top political stories of the last five days:

1. At nearly 200 pages, it's a fair bet that not many people have read Kent County Council's constitution - including, it seems, some county councillors. The document sets out the rules for committee meetings - yes,  it is that exciting - and unexpectedly took centre stage at a meeting of the council's cross-party transport cabinet committee. The committtee should have been debating changes to KCC's Freedom Pass along with the introduction of a post-16 pass.

For a brief period they did but the debate soon got bogged down in an arcane argument about the finer points of the constitutional rules and a shouting match over amendments, motions, points of order and points of explanation and personal statements

The longer it went on, the more confusing it got - which probably helped the Conservatives, who were clearly out to shut down the debate as early as they could. At one stage, a clearly exasperated Conservative committee chairman Paulina Stockell wondered whether she was in the same room as everyone else. Paul Carter, the leader of the council, popped in and looked suitably aghast.

Still, at least the chaotic events didn't descend into the kind of bar-room brawl you tend to see in other countries...

2. With house prices apparently soaring, what hope is there that the government's plans for a 'Garden City' at Ebbsfleet could offer some assistance to those first-time buyers struggling to get on the housing ladder? Not much, it seems. Planning minister Nick Boles said that he would not impose on developers a requirement to make any of the planned 15,000 homes within the reach of those looking for their first home.

3. The great streetlight switch off in the county came under, er, the spotlight this week. Plunging certain areas into darkness was blamed for letting thieves off the hook after a series of break-ins in Ashford. Police officers were left stumbling around in the dark as the fleet-footed suspects sneaked off. Cllr David Brazier (Con) the politician in charge of Kent's streetlights said that if the policy had led to more crime,  the council would be happy to review areas but  insisted "most burglaries take place during the day."

4. Kent County Council's latest transformation under the "Facing The Challenge" is well underway - more privatisation and outsourcing - and county councillors were given a breakneck "position statement" by John Burr, the senior director in charge, this week. Amid all the talk of cascades and fountains, there was also the news about how a reorganisation of different directorates into a smaller number hasd gone. Very well, apparently. "We have picked up the jigsaw pieces from different boxes and put them in new boxes where there is real synergy," he told excited members. Don't try that at home.

5 Could the days of traffic chaos caused when Operation Stack is implemented be at an end? Eurotunnel announced expansion plans it said could mean the days of lorrries queuing along miles of the M20 could soo be over. Well, we can dream. 

 

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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

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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County Hall goes into reverse gear on Freedom Pass

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, February 7 2014

It would have been a surprise had Kent County Council not acted to address the mounting opposition to its planned changes to the Freedom Pass. 

The ramifications of imposing a £350 cap on a new smart card became obvious the moment the council announced the proposal to limit journeys, leaving parents to find the rest once children had spent up to the cap.

The key question that KCC has not answered is why no-one - either politicians or officers - realised that its new scheme hardly represented value for money for parents, especially those living in more rural parts of the county. Did no-one get a calculator out and investigate the cost by factoring in bus fares to and from a sample of different locations?

Certainly, the opposition parties were swift to raise the issue but failed to get much of an explanation when they did. Even when they suggested limiting the pass to just school journeys, the were told it would not save enough money.

So, the answer has to be no and in failing to spot the shortcomings, KCC contrived to get into a mess all of its own making. One explanation might be that the council was not required to carry out an equalities impact assessment because the scheme is a discretionary service and did not need one.

Another possibility is that KCC rushed its decision, conscious that it needed to curb the costs of the Freedom Pass as part of its contribution to an £82m savings package that has to be signed off next week.

Politically, it has been a bit of an embarrassment, despite presenting the U-turn as an illustration of its willingness to listen to residents. The Conservative administration has not exactly covered itself in glory and there were - as there always are - rumours of backbenchers planning to revolt. 

There was also the threat of a rainbow coalition of the opposition parties, who had held meetings to discuss a united effort to block the changes at the budget meeting and could, with the help of a couple of Tory backbenchers, inflicted what would have been a damaging defeat.

Politically, the ruling administration at KCC still sometimes seems to operate as if it has a huge majority and still seems to think that in any political battle of wills, it will always prevail. On this occassion, it came perilously close to a defeat. A climbdown now rather than defeat in the council chamber was chosen as the least-worse option.

No-one under-estimates the financial cosh that KCC is under but the crude way it went about saving money on the Freedom Pass - a flagship scheme and one that has proved hugely popular - suggested its usually astute political antennae were not, his time, switched on. 

 

 

 

 

 

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County Hall goes into reverse gear on Freedom Pass

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, February 7 2014

It would have been a surprise had Kent County Council not acted to address the mounting opposition to its planned changes to the Freedom Pass. 

The ramifications of imposing a £350 cap on a new smart card became obvious the moment the council announced the proposal to limit journeys, leaving parents to find the rest once children had spent up to the cap.

The key question that KCC has not answered is why no-one - either politicians or officers - realised that its new scheme hardly represented value for money for parents, especially those living in more rural parts of the county. Did no-one get a calculator out and investigate the cost by factoring in bus fares to and from a sample of different locations?

Certainly, the opposition parties were swift to raise the issue but failed to get much of an explanation when they did. Even when they suggested limiting the pass to just school journeys, the were told it would not save enough money.

So, the answer has to be no and in failing to spot the shortcomings, KCC contrived to get into a mess all of its own making. One explanation might be that the council was not required to carry out an equalities impact assessment because the scheme is a discretionary service and did not need one.

Another possibility is that KCC rushed its decision, conscious that it needed to curb the costs of the Freedom Pass as part of its contribution to an £82m savings package that has to be signed off next week.

Politically, it has been a bit of an embarrassment, despite presenting the U-turn as an illustration of its willingness to listen to residents. The Conservative administration has not exactly covered itself in glory and there were - as there always are - rumours of backbenchers planning to revolt. 

There was also the threat of a rainbow coalition of the opposition parties, who had held meetings to discuss a united effort to block the changes at the budget meeting and could, with the help of a couple of Tory backbenchers, inflicted what would have been a damaging defeat.

Politically, the ruling administration at KCC still sometimes seems to operate as if it has a huge majority and still seems to think that in any political battle of wills, it will always prevail. On this occassion, it came perilously close to a defeat. A climbdown now rather than the 

No-one under-estimates the financial cosh that KCC is under but the crude way it went about saving money on the Freedom Pass - a flagship scheme and one that has proved hugely popular - suggested its usually astute political antennae were not, his time, switched on. 

 

 

 

 

 

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County Hall goes into reverse gear on Freedom Pass

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, February 7 2014

It would have been a surprise had Kent County Council not acted to address the mounting opposition to its planned changes to the Freedom Pass. 

The ramifications of imposing a £350 cap on a new smart card became obvious the moment the council announced the proposal to limit journeys, leaving parents to find the rest once children had spent up to the cap.

The key question that KCC has not answered is why no-one - either politicians or officers - realised that its new scheme hardly represented value for money for parents, especially those living in more rural parts of the county. Did no-one get a calculator out and investigate the cost by factoring in bus fares to and from a sample of different locations?

Certainly, the opposition parties were swift to raise the issue but failed to get much of an explanation when they did. Even when they suggested limiting the pass to just school journeys, the were told it would not save enough money.

So, the answer has to be no and in failing to spot the shortcomings, KCC contrived to get into a mess all of its own making. One explanation might be that the council was not required to carry out an equalities impact assessment because the scheme is a discretionary service and did not need one.

Another possibility is that KCC rushed its decision, conscious that it needed to curb the costs of the Freedom Pass as part of its contribution to an £82m savings package that has to be signed off next week.

Politically, it has been a bit of an embarrassment, despite presenting the U-turn as an illustration of its willingness to listen to residents. The Conservative administration has not exactly covered itself in glory and there were - as there always are - rumours of backbenchers planning to revolt. 

There was also the threat of a rainbow coalition of the opposition parties, who had held meetings to discuss a united effort to block the changes at the budget meeting and could, with the help of a couple of Tory backbenchers, inflicted what would have been a damaging defeat.

The ruling administration at KCC still sometimes seems to operate as if it has a huge majority and still seems to think that in any political battle of wills, it will always prevail. On this occassion, it came perilously close to a defeat. A climbdown now rather than the prospect of losing a vote on its budget next Thursday was probably regarded as the least-worst option.

No-one under-estimates the financial cosh that KCC is under but the crude way it went about saving money on the Freedom Pass - a flagship scheme and one that has proved hugely popular - suggested its usually astute political antennae were not, this time, switched on. 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Gove proceeds with caution over grammar plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Categories: Precept

Will voters be charged by Labour's energy pledge?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, September 26 2013

After its 2010 meltdown, where it lost all its MPs in Kent, Labour has been pondering just how it can overcome the "Southern Discomfort" phenomenon that has seen voters desert the party in droves.

Ed Miliband's pledge to freeze energy prices is one designed to encourage voters to think that Labour understands the pain of "hard-working" families.

Superficially, it looks attractive and is likely to appeal to those who open their monthly bills with their hands over their eyes.

It also plays into the perception Labour is keen to create that the Conservatives are more on the side of big companies and that it is the party that is standing up for ordinary families.(If you are looking for a parallel Conservative policy, the council tax freeze has the same aim).

On the other hand, there is the charge that the plan represents some kind of return to old-style Labour politics and greater state regulation of the kind that led to anti-competitive price controls.

The faultline with this line of attack is that many feel the lack of regulation and intervention by the government was one of the prime reason for the banking crisis and the current state of the economy.

Alarmist talk from the industry that the plan risks power cuts and the artificial inflation of fuel prices before a freeze has taken some of the shine of the announcement.

But Labour will calculate the public antipathy to the vested interests of big corporate organisations and the feeling  there are market monopolies will help its efforts to woo back disaffected voters.

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Why would you be interested in a report titled "Constitutional Amendments To Reflect The Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings And Access To Information) (England) Regulations 2012 - unless, of course, you are a fan of brackets?

Well, one reason might be that within it is a recommendation that just might make it more difficult for the opposition parties at County Hall to challenge and hold to account the ruling Conservative administration.

Why? Because under rule changes voted through last week, if a county councillor wants to "call in" a decision taken by the cabinet, or an individual cabinet member, they will no longer be able to do so on their own.

Instead, they will have to get another councillor to support the request to call in the decision - and that second person cannot be from the same party.

According to KCC, the change is required because the current rules are not clear and "does not provide sufficient guidance for members as to when and why a call-in might be used".

Now, in reality it probably won't be too difficult for a councillor to persuade a colleague to support a call in request - and it shouldn't be forgotten that Conservative backbenchers also like to call in decisions to scrutinise.

Nevertheless, it adds to the impression that sometimes KCC is not as keen on being held to account as perhaps it should be.

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And on that theme, it looks as though KCC has been rather heavy-handed in responding to criticism from one of its public health managers who had the temerity to speak out over the authority's pension investments in tobacco companies.

The individual has now been threatened with disciplinary action after making the comments - the council contending on rather thin and Orwellian grounds that she had made "unauthorised statements" to the media.

Talk about over the top. Why is the council so fearful of people expressing opinions?

A shocking example of the control-freakery sadly all too prevalent at County Hall where any "on message" deviation seems to result in a North Korean style crackdown.

No wonder some staff say they work for a paranoid organisation.

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