All posts tagged 'Medway-Council'

Nothing on TV? Just be a citizen journalist instead

by The Codgers' Club Monday, March 10 2014

by David Jones

Question: Are citizen journalists little better than the tiresome individuals who write rambling, often near incomprehensible, letters, to the editors of local newspapers? Discuss.

I am underwhelmed by the arrival of citizen journalists in the Medway Council chamber.

They even have their own row of seats. What next? Tea and biscuits?

The council provided seats for these self-appointed guardians of local democracy earlier this year after a big rumpus when some 200 stroppy members of the public were ejected from the chamber during a debate.

I suppose the council felt it had to do something to demonstrate how open and accountable it is.

But I don’t buy the proposition that “citizen journalists” add another layer of transparency to local democracy. Firstly, the very term “citizen journalist” offends me. They might be citizens, but they are not journalists.

As a journalist who spent some 40 years learning his trade, I find the idea that an amateur equipped with a notebook and/or laptop can somehow provide an accurate report of a meeting which might otherwise be missing from the official records quite laughable.

Most so-called citizen journalists have an axe to grind. Their blogs or tweets will be no more than their own spin-laden version of events. Fair, unbiased and accurate they won’t be. In other words, one of those letters to the editor which used to have me scratching my head and wondering if the author was at the same meeting our reporter attended.

Newspapers will often write a comment column on a council issue, but that will be accompanied, elsewhere in the paper, by a fair, accurate and unbiased report of a council debate on which the comment column is based. Citizen journalists are nothing more than individuals writing a ranting letter to the editor, but updated thanks to technology.

I’m not saying that people’s opinions don’t count, but let’s not elevate so-called citizen journalists to a status they don’t deserve and pretend they’re something they’re not. Anyway, it’s probably just a passing fad. A few hours of listening to banal debates and political point-scoring at a Medway Council meeting – or any council meeting – will be enough to persuade most citizen journalists they’d be better off at home watching EastEnders or Coronation Street.

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Categories: Moans and groans

Mayors must look the part but not wear fancy dress

by The Codgers' Club Friday, May 17 2013

by Alan Watkins

he Mayor of Medway has cost local council taxpayers £150,000. But is it so shocking?

Looking at the figures unearthed by the Labour councillors it’s not too surprising.

Whether you think it is right the mayoral office exists at all is more relevant.

According to the miffed opposition, the bill breaks down as staff (£74,000), another £24,000 went on parties and events, £1,200 on ceremonial clothes and £12,000 so far on his chauffeur-driven car.

These days the mayor is no more than a symbol. But he does an important job – one that goes back more than 400 years.

He is the Queen’s representative, the first citizen of the borough. He’s the meeter and greeter of the council and chairs their often acrimonious meetings.

Some mayors can be self-important prigs, others hard-working servants of an authority that needs to wave the flag. All raise a lot of cash for local charities.

Those staffing costs are reasonable.

There’s a secretary plus three officers that need to be on hand at different times when he is on duty. Then there’s things like computers, phones, cleaners, paper, postage and photocopying.

The cash spent on parties and events is a bit of Medway cheap-skating, to be honest.

Take out cleaning, repairs, room rental (well, someone has to meet the cost so why not the mayor?), hired waiters and maids, cooking and preparing everything from petits fours to biscuits you can forget the pate de foie gras.

The days of a roast swan with all the trimmings were long gone even before I got involved with events as a cub reporter. So £24,000 seems to cover a fair number of stale biscuits!

Ceremonial clothing costs are questionable.

One mayor whose name I have since forgotten spent more than four hundred quid on a fancy hat with black plumes. There were no queries from the politicians then: it was left to the Medway Messenger to uncover the truth.

The lady was never seen in it after its debut at the mayor-making ceremony. (She did look as though she was auditioning for a bit part in an Edwardian drama though).

Do we actually need our mayors to appear in flowing fancy dress? – No. Should they dress up at all? – Definitely. It’s a visible sign of their office (along with the civic chain).

It’s a tradition as important as Queens, uniformed soldiers and bewigged judges. Our outgoing, machismo mayor, Vaughan Hewett is one of the modern breed of Tory councillors.

He’s ideally suited as figurehead, chairer of meetings and shaker of hands.

The question is, will he gain a position of importance within the council now that his year has come to an end.

Or will he be one of the numerous Conservative cast-offs – which seems to happen to most of this council’s civic “leaders”.

Labour councillors are annoyed because they are being barred again from holding the civic office. Fair or not, it is politics.

Would Labour ever allow the Tories to hold office in future if they gain overall control of the council?

Meanwhile, their task should be holding the administration to account. I see little sign of that.

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Categories: Medway | Moans and groans

Spare a thought for majestic barn

by The Codgers' Club Friday, January 18 2013

by Peter Cook

It's great news that Eastgate House is to be developed and restored with the help of a Lottery grant. Well done Medway Council.

But it’s sad that across the river a much older building, the Frindsbury Barn, languishes derelict, despite grandiose castles in the air schemes for it to be restored for the benefit of the community.

It’s four-and-a-half years since the barn was off-loaded by the Church Commissioners, unburdening themselves of a huge white elephant. Since then nothing has happened to bring the 800 year old structure – described as the Queen of Kentish Barns – back into good repair.

If this majestic mediaeval marvel falls down it will be our fault – for failing to kick up enough fuss over its neglect.

Only the still small voice of the Frindsbury and Wainscott Community Association has been raised in protest, when what’s needed is the roar of public anger.

The problem, of course, is money. Restoration projects like these cost millions, and I’m guessing that the grandly named Heritage Design and Development Team, which owns the Barn, are not sitting on that kind of boodle.

The company has plans to build houses on a nearby quarry as a means of generating finance. But this is a pie in the sky scheme. First the quarry would have to be filled in, which would take, probably, 10 years or so.

It would also involve building roads across prime farmland to get the lorries through. And local people are set against more housing in the quiet cul-de-sac of Parsonage Lane, where the quarry and the barn exist.

Meanwhile, the barn remains unprotected and open to the elements, despite the fact that the owners told me six months ago work would soon take place to sheet it over.

The council has powers to carry out work to make it weather-tight and bill the owners for the work.

But it says it cannot do this as the timbers are sound and it is not in imminent danger of collapse.

Or put another way, you have to wait until it’s falling down before anyone takes action.

They say because the barn is open to the air, the timbers are kept healthy and free of rot. Well there’s some truth in that. Holding in the damp is a recipe for fungal growth. But restoration experts know about that and have techniques for keeping ancient structures both aired and protected.

Its present state of dereliction makes it look like an abandoned ruin, attractive only to rats and vandals.

What is needed is a properly structured project backed by the kind of people who know about restoration and pulling together the right kind of funding. Schemes of this kind can’t be managed by small private concerns, unless these are run by people with exceptionally deep pockets.

It’s time for everyone concerned with the barn, the council, English Heritage, the owners, us, to think carefully about bringing in heavyweight assistance to get the job done.

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Categories: Moans and groans

Pathetic turnout on 11-plus gives council perfect excuse

by The Codgers' Club Friday, February 3 2012

by David Jones

Call me cynical if you like – and lots of people do – but the one thing you can always be sure of in Medway is that apathy will rule OK when it comes to consultation on an important local issue.

Take, for example, the fiasco over the Medway Test – Medway’s version of the 11-plus – last year.

For the past seven years, pupils have taken the exam in test centres, rather than their own primary school.

This system has never been popular with parents because the children have to go to a designated test centre – a local secondary school – to sit the exam in unfamiliar surroundings.

After errors and delays during last September’s tests, Medway Council promised to consider allowing pupils to sit the exam in their own school once again.

The blunders in September led to a record number of complaints on our website about a single issue. More than 500 parents demanded action.

The council embarked on a consultation exercise to seek parents’ views and guess how many responded? Just 47. Despite this lamentably poor response, the council’s cabinet will be asked later this month to start the ball rolling for some pupils to sit the exam in their own school this September, with a full return in 2013.

No doubt there are many thousands of parents out there who believe this is the correct decision but, as is usual in Medway when residents are asked for their opinion, hardly anybody bothered.

The same apathy afflicted a public meeting in Medway last month over social care charges. Six people – yes, six – attended a meeting called by the council.

People can hardly complain if the council does what it  likes in view of such a pathetic turn-out. Likewise, parents would have had only themselves to blame if the council had decided that public interest in the 11-plus issue was so limited that the status quo would be retained.

It may be that some parents felt they were wasting their time taking part in a consultation exercise. Sadly, the council does have something of a track record of consulting and then doing what it intended anyway.

In the case of the Medway Test, the council and notably education boss Cllr Les Wicks, received such a kicking in the local media that they dare not have ignored the protests.

Having gone through a consultation exercise, they might have argued they could justify keeping the test centre system because of the poor response.

And, if they had, I expect that considerably more than 47 parents would have complained. Too late, of course. But that’s how apathy works – or, rather, doesn’t.

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Categories: City status | Moans and groans

Cleared for take off? Not quite but maybe Thames Estuary airport is not so much pie in the sky

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, January 18 2012

THERE will be considerable dismay in some quarters that the Prime Minister appears to have agreed that the idea of an airport in the Thames Estuary should be fully investigated.

Government to consult on Boris Island airport scheme>>>

But there ought not to be surprise - even if opponents will throw back at him his declaration more than a year ago that the government had 'no plans' to build such an airport. A similar commitment was given to the Rochester and Strood MP Mark Reckless by new transport secretary Justine Greening in precisely the same terms.

But it was George Osborne who paved the way for the idea of examining the scheme in November when he announced the government would 'explore all the options' for tackling the problems around aviation capacity.

Even so, today's news will be seen as a U-turn and a politically awkward one given the deep hostility among his own MPs in Kent.

It is worth pointing out that there has never been any likelihood the government itself would 'build' an airport - that would be for private investment consortiums.

Some will see it as a shot in the arm for Boris Johnson's campaign to be re-elected as London Mayor although I've never been persuaded that aviation capacity is something that preoccupies London voters as much as issues like tube fares or crime.

Politically, Mr Cameron will have to confront the fact that among the county's Conservative MPs, there is universal opposition. The Conservative controlled Medway Council remains wholly unconvinced - although there have been recent hints that Kent County Council may not be quite as implacably opposed as it once might have been. 

He may also be seen as having performed an about-turn and of betraying those who took him at his word that the government was not interested in the idea. Never an ideal position for a PM or for backbenchers who, in some cases, have marginal seats to defend in 2015.

What has changed? Underlying the news appears to be the feeling that aside from addressing the problem of capacity, a new airport would deliver a huge jobs boost and regenerate a part of the south east in a way no other project could conceivably get close to.

Perhaps it is no coincidence the news has come out on the day that unemployment figures have shown another rise in both Kent and Medway.

Those arguments will inevitably have to be balanced against the fact that an airport would have huge environmental consequences.

One thing is clear from today's news. Whatever one thinks of the idea, it can no longer be dismissed as 'pie in the sky.'





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Categories: Precept

True stories buried in press release drudgery

by The Codgers' Club Friday, March 18 2011

by Peter Cook

When did so-called “media departments” of local authorities become so Orwellian and control-freakish?

I’ve always looked on council press officers as fetchers and carriers, employed to get you the correct spelling of a councillor’s name or to put you in touch with people who actually know something.

These days, they seem to see themselves as little Alastair Campbells who want to determine not just what is said, but how it is said and who says it.

A week or so back I had occasion to write a story that put the Medway Archives and Local Studies Centre in a good light.

They had won a nationwide award reflecting the helpfulness and professionalism of staff.

I use the centre a lot and can confirm that staff there are friendly, accommodating, helpful, knowledgeable and prepared to go the extra mile in assisting researchers.

The story, of course, required a quote from someone connected with the MALSC, so I called a senior member of the library staff. We had a pleasant conversation and she gave me just the quote I needed – bubbly, enthusiastic, and informed.

She wanted to run it past the Medway Council media people, more out of courtesy than anything else and, of course, I was fine with that. That was when the Monty Python foot descended, crushing this person’s excellent comments. “They would prefer to do their own story,” she told me.

Well, it was a shame, but no skin off my nose. I did my story, leaving out her quote, but ignoring the media department of course. They don’t tell me what to write.

Eventually, I saw the press release that emanated from this august media department. It was flat, uninspiring, dreary, and looked as if it had been written by someone in the council tax department.

The one thing that struck me was that in included a quote – but from Cllr Howard Doe, who heads up the committee responsible for the MALSC.

It was the usual waffle, probably written by the same person in the media department who compiled the press release. Quotes in press releases are always meaningless and usually made up by a press officer.

Now I have nothing against Cllr Doe, fine upstanding pillar of the community that he is. But what it tells us is that the so-called media department, staffed by highly expensive if lacklustre individuals, is there to promote councillors rather than reflect the work of the council itself.

Remember, you are paying – through your council tax – a lot of money for this department and its propaganda sheet, Medway Matters.

It is also worth remembering that, in the current climate of cuts, Cllr Doe may be the one who has to announce cuts to Medway’s library service. I’m not saying he will, but he might. If that happens, wishy-washy words of commendation to the MALSC will ring very hollow.

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Stop vandals before they ruin countryside forever

by The Codgers' Club Friday, February 4 2011

by Peter Cook

To paraphrase the late great Max Miller: Here’s a funny thing, here’s a very funny thing – I’m going to praise Medway Council!

I’m full of admiration for the way in which it keeps its parks and public open spaces.

Sukie and I often take a stroll around Capstone Farm Country Park and the Riverside Country Park at Gillingham.

They are excellent facilities, well maintained and unspoiled, with lots to do for children and adults alike – not least just to enjoy a bit of country air.

Likewise, there are many pleasant open spaces more centrally located.

So it’s really sad to hear that vandals have been at work at Capstone. Why is it that these spoilers feel such a need to trash the good work of others?

Are their own lives so impoverished that they can’t bear the thought of other people having fun? In particular, they have targeted the horse-riding facilities.

Perhaps they have some kind of misplaced and outmoded idea that horses are only for the rich and so bridle paths are fair game.

Even if that were true it wouldn’t justify their actions. But I’ve been involved with horses since I was 11, and I can tell you I never came from a privileged background.

And the wonderful Riding for the Disabled organisation has demonstrated how good it is for building confidence in children with physical and intellectual impairments.

Routinely, these yobbos are referred to as “mindless”. They are not mindless. They know what they are doing.

And what they are doing is depriving kids from ordinary homes of a chance to take part in a wonderful pastime that will, if they persist, become confined to the rich and privileged.

Lots of young people, of course, are creatively involved with the countryside, giving up spare time to help with conservation projects. But it only takes a few spoilers to wreak havoc. So let’s hope they are stopped – soon.

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Categories: Moans and groans

Boris island: why the Mayor won't say no

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, January 17 2011

It has been roundly denounced and at a cost of £40bn is regarded as pie in the sky.

But London Mayor Boris Johnson just won't let go of his idea to build an off-shore airport off the north Kent coast (where, it is worth mentioning, he has no planning jurisdiction).

The latest wheeze for Boris Island - by the independent panel he commissioned to examine options for the Thames Estuary - is that flood defence islands needed to withstand flood surges could double up as runways.

Flood islands could double as runways, says Mayor's expert panel>>

It sounds creative but I think there is a wider point here: the panel known as the Thames Estuary Steering Group is signalling subtly that it would like to keep the idea of Boris Island alive despite the hostility to it here.

This will no doubt please Boris, who is expected to underline his own personal support for further exploration of the scheme at a seminar tomorrow. A report is due to be published making the case for increased airport capacity in London and the south east that should be "configured in a hub airport".

The Mayor is using the government's own review of aviation capacity to keep up momentum in the debate and according to City Hall will be outlining the strong economic case for alternatives to expanding Heathrow.

It won't go down well in Kent and both KCC and Medway councils are poised to reaffirm their opposition, as no doubt, will many of the county's MPs.




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Categories: Politics | Thames Gateway | Transport

Are our councils hoarding money that could cushion looming cuts? Mr Pickles thinks so.

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, December 6 2010

Whatever way you look at it, £222million is a lot of money. And it is money that councils in Kent have stashed away in reserves - so-called rainy day money kept back to deal with "contingencies".

Now they are coming under pressure from Eric Pickles, the local government minister, to spend some of it to spare taxpayers' a little of the pain coming their way - ironically, primarily as a result of the government's own parsimony in its on-going austerity drive.

Mr Pickles, in a rather inflammatory language, has spoken of councils turning town halls into Fort Knox - saying now is the time to be putting untapped funds to good use.

Find out how much your council has in reserves here>>>

The exhortation comes at a sensitive time. Councils are about to find out how much their budgets will be cut next year and Mr Pickles has clearly been advised that it would be a good way of turning the spotlight away from the uncomfortable fact that he's about to confirm council grants will be reduced by 25 to 30 per cent over the next four years. Even more cynically, by making a pre-emptive strike, he can - should councils acquiesce - take some of the credit later on for giving them the idea in the first place.

In Kent, district and borough councils between them have £104m in rainy-day funds; KCC has £105m (5.3 per cent of its revenue expenditure) and Medway £13m. Some appear to be sitting on quite sizeable amounts when compared to their overall spending.

Having said that, much of the money will have been earmarked already for specific projects but some will be unallocated. (Traditionally, councils have tended to dip into these pots around election time.Can't think why.)

They're the type of sums that will have many sympathising with Mr Pickles especially when councils start wielding the axe over a range of services.

The question is whether councils will heed his advice that they should "just like any household facing challenging times" consider the merits of dipping into their reserves to help them through  a sticky period.


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Categories: Councils | KCC | Local Politics

Taking risks with life and limb is part of growing up

by The Codgers' Club Friday, November 26 2010

by Alan Watkins

It seems the youth of today are as keen to maim themselves as pre-pubescent Codgers were half a century ago.

Codgers-to-be would rope a branch to create a crude swing  high above a pond.

The art of kart-making was a particular skill. We would create them from pram wheels.

The body was made from an orange box begged, borrowed or otherwise removed from the local shop. They were steered with reins of knotted rope.

Halfway down an impossible slope they would always demonstrate why fitting brakes would have been a sensible precaution.

Medway Council’s transport portfolio holder, Phil Filmer, pleaded with me not to remind him of those far-off days.

“We used to ride down earth banks on sheets of corrugated iron,” he confided.

Then in quick succession came the Health and Safety Executive, something called “fear of crime”, and computer games.

Codgers would go all day, in wind and rain, on bikes, foot and kart, exploring the world around them.

We knew the tracks, the trees, the animals and more than 107 ways to graze ourselves.

Drink was from rusty cans dunked in streams and springs no one else knew, we cooked rabbits we’d snared on open fires – and we survived.

We tore trousers and shirts, ran miles and lived life to the full. Only once in my childhood did one of us not return home.

It was a pleasure, therefore, to see modern kids still want to test themselves, risking life, limb, grazes and broken elbows on the new concrete slopes and curves of the wheel park opened behind Splashes on Saturday.

They’ve been mollycoddled all this time. It’s time they learned the ache of a skinned elbow, the way concrete can leave a permanent blemish on wrists and how to grin and bear it as the surgeon pins a broken arm.

What a pity, though, that it cost more than £80,000 to build. There are still plenty of slopes, lots of juvenile ingenuity and sheets of corrugated iron freely available on which to ride – and Codgers can probably still invent more trials there than on the Cozenton course.

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Categories: Moans and groans

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