All posts tagged 'conservatives'

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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Kent's political selection box: round-up of latest candidate news

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, July 30 2013

It is proving a busy month for those who have eyes on the county as a place to launch or take the next step in their political careers, so here is a round up of recent selection news:

Labour has chosen its parliamentary candidates for a further three of Kent's constituencies. In Thanet South, the party has nominated Will Scobie to take on Laura Sandys. He was elected to the county council in May - one of Labour's few succeses in Thanet - and is also a Thanet council member. He faces the challenge of overturning a 7,000+ majority. Despite being a youthful 24, he has plenty of political experience under his belt although social media has inevitably seen some adverse comments that he has no other "outside" experience beyond politics. From what I have seen at County Hall, he seems pretty sharp.

Sittingbourne and Sheppey Labour party has opted for Guy Nicholson, a Yorkshireman living in London who serves on Hackney council as cabinet member for regeneration and Olympic legacy. It is his first stab at fighting a general election. He faces the challenge of trying to overcome a 12,000+ majority in 2015. The seat was back in 2005 a "super marginal" with a narrow Labour majority of 79 but Gordon Brown's implosion turned the seat into a relatively secure Conservative one in 2010.

Finally, Gravesham has chosen local councillor Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, 34, a former Gravesham mayor who has strong local roots having attended Gravesend Grammar School and lived most of his life in the area. He has already notched up a political first - he became the youngest Sikh mayor of any counci in the UK in 2011. He is currently cabinet member for business and communities on the council. Adam Holloway held on to this seat with a majority of 9,312 in 2010 and Labour considers this a viable target although the party made relatively modest gains in the KCC election - a signal perhaps that it has plenty of work to do to win back disaffected voters.


Meanwhile, the Conservatives are in the midst of choosing the candidates who will be on the regional list for the south east at next year's European elections. The convoluted selection process has a little while to run and party members are voting for candidates on two lists. In the south east, members have already picked the arch Euro-sceptic Dan Hannan and Nirj Deva - both already MEPs - as the two who will automatically go to the top of the list.

They are also deciding who should be on the general shortlist, the candidates who will make up the rest of the party's platform. The ranking depends on how many votes they each get and in the south east, there is some interest in how Richard Ashworth, the leader of the Conservative group in Brussels, will fare after he failed to make the top two. If he comes anywhere less than third on the ballot, he is unlikely to be returned to Parliament.

Also on the list is the Shepway councillor Rory Love.


UKIP is already taking up its prospects of doing well at the European election but has yet to decide which names will be on its list. Hustings meetings were held at the weekend and 26 hopefuls put themselves forward. These will be whittled down to 12 in the coming weeks. Among those in the frame is the Tunbridge Wells councillor and former Kent crime commissioner candidate Piers Wauchope.


Finally, the search is underway for the person the Conservatives want to replace the veteran Tonbridge and Malling MP Sir John Stanley. Sir John is retiring in 2015 and his departure opens up a rock solid safe Conservative seat that plenty of hopefuls have their eye on. It should be a high calibre shortlist when the constituency gets around to whittling down names in the Autumn.

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Categories: Localism | Politics

Are Kent Conservative backbenchers feeling UKIP nipping at their heels?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, May 16 2013

Unlike many, politicians have to re-apply for their jobs every four or five years and the decision about whether they should be re-appointed is in the hands of voters.

And voters can be rather unpredictable and prone to switch allegiances, as the recent county council election showed rather dramatically.

So, we should not be surprised that a number of Conservative backbenchers in the county voted last night for the 'rebel' amendment on the Queen's Speech.

There is nothing like a bruising mid-term electoral lashing to concentrate the mind and the Kent MPs who backed the amendment no doubt had given careful consideration to the dramatic UKIP surge in the county council election.

So, this was a convenient way of sending a message to the electorate that they are as sceptical about Europe as any UKIP candidate who might be on the ballot paper in 2015.

Their decision to blow a raspberry at Mr Cameron will prove particularly helpful in election literature to post through doors in a couple of years.

Conservative backbenchers in Kent know that the issue of Europe is not going to go away. Those who knocked on doorsteps during the recent election campaign found that Britain's membership of the EU and immigration were often not far from voters' thoughts.

While UKIP is unlikely to win Parliamentary seats at the next election, that is not the point. It is whether UKIP will cost them votes in sufficient numbers to lose them their seats.

Marginal seats like those in the Medway Towns, north Kent and Thanet have switched between Labour and the Conservatives over recent years and if there is one thing that current MPs fear it is that a split in the vote for the right will allow Labour back in.

Whether UKIP's surge will be durable is, of course, open to question.

But if the results of the recent election showed anything, it is that voters are deeply cynical about commitments made for some time in the future - and particularly cynical about promises to do things after the election.

MPs who backed the rebel EU amendment understood this. It might be considered gesture politics but it is inconceivable that they did not make a calculated decision that it was worth putting a marker down now - even if the election is two years away.


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Categories: Precept

Gloves come off in police commissioner race.

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, August 15 2012

There hasn't been much by way of excitement in the race to become Kent's first elected police commissioner. But after a relatively lacklustre start, it seems the gloves are coming off as rival candidates square up to one another.

The arrival of the forthright and uncompromising former Kent Police Authority chairman Ann Barnes as a candidate has undoubtedly stirred things up.

This week, she garnered some healthy media interest after leading a delegation of independent candidates to Downing Street to take issue with the Home Office rules that mean would-be commissioners won't get a 'free' mail shot to outline their manifesto pledges to voters.

It was a deftly executed PR move - although I doubt the specific issue is one that many people are terribly exercised about.

The truth is most voters pay very little attention to such mailshots and many more get thrown in the bin or used for the cat litter tray than are carefully read by people before they venture out to the polling station.

What was interesting was the reaction her intervention prompted from the Conservative candidate Craig Mackinlay, who issued a lengthy statement to the media saying the costs of allowing an election address would be enough to pay for 40 front-line police officers.

His statement was more intriguing for another reason. In it, he speculated about the independent nature of Mrs Barnes' candidacy, stating "it would appear that many declared independent candidates are far from being so."

What could he possibly mean? Well, here is the rest of what he had to say:

"I make no obvious connection at this stage but given that Mrs Barnes’ campaign team is substantially made up of Lib Dems, with a campaign manager who has stood unsuccessfully three times in Parliamentary elections for the Lib Dems, I shall let the public decide whether Kent Lib Dems have found their true candidate hidden behind an independent facade and are now expecting Kent taxpayers to spread their message."

Mrs Barnes’ campaign is being masterminded by Peter Carroll, who stood twice in Folkestone and Hythe and once in Maidstone as a Lib Dem parliamentary candidate.

The Lib Dems are not fielding a candidate and behind the scenes, the Conservatives appear to think that it could be a useful strategy to plant in peoples' minds the idea that Mrs Barnes, if not an out-and-out Lib Dem is effectively their candidate.

Mrs Barnes' campaign team have decided to say nothing in response to these comments by Mr Mackinlay but are not as upset as you may think.

The view is that it shows the Conservative camp is rattled and if their line of attack means they keep Mrs Barnes' profile up and help establish her as a viable independent candidate, it is all grist to the mill.

Still, these are skirmishes in the phoney war.

What really matters is what the candidates intend to do if they become police commissioner. If they persist in tit-for-tat politicking, they may find voter disinterest is even worse than some fear come the actual election in November.

Read our special report on the race to become Kent Police Commissioner here

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Call in Poirot: The Mystery of County Hall's MD

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, November 21 2011

When Katherine Kerswell was appointed as KCC’s new group managing director, she spoke of her delight at joining an authority in “such an exciting role.”


The leader of the council, Paul Carter, said how “enormously impressed” the appointment panel was by “her breadth of vision and energy and her absolute commitment to placing Kent citizens at the heart of the services we deliver.”


She certainly came with a reputation for doing things a little differently – she had become something of a You Tube viral sensation in her previous role at Northamptonshire county council after encouraging staff to “taste the strawberry”.


Apparently, it was an attempt to encapsulate the ‘flavour’ of  the council’s services.


Barely one year on from this optimistic beginning, rumours are rife that the Managing Director - described as the biggest job in local government by Cllr Carter - is poised to depart.

The welter of speculation around County Hall has not been helped by KCC’s reluctance to say terribly much other than issue a bewildering and cryptic statement that says Mrs Kerswell “is and remains” the managing director. Which is factually accurate but doesn't really say an awful lot.


Intriguingly, this was also circulated to members of the Conservative group with the note: “The current line is as follows…” – rather implying that there are likely to be new lines coming.


The council won’t, incidentally, even comment on whether she is at her desk.


The circumstances of her reported departure remain a little unclear. If she is to leave, why is she going?


And, of course, if it transpires that she is, what pay off will she get? Some insiders have suggested a figure of close to £1m.


(Given the authority’s new-found enthusiasm for transparency, it will be interesting to see whether we will be told how much or a gagging clause is inserted preventing anyone speaking about it?)


Whatever account KCC chooses to give publicly, there appears to have been some kind of falling out between her and the political leadership.


It is certainly the case that Conservative councillors felt the direction KCC was taking was being led more by officers than by them. This was partly the reason why there was a leadership challenge. I’ve been told that there was a pledge by Cllr Carter to tackle this when he addressed the group in when he was challenged for the job.


There was also political disquiet over aspects of a far-reaching restructuring of the authority, which was supposed to slim down the number of top officers but made only marginal changes at the top.


The shake-up led to the departure of a string of senior directors with years of experience which cost the authority £350,000 in redundancy payments.


Temporary gaps were filled with a series of costly interims and consultants.


Known as the “Change To Keep Succeeding” programme, it was backed by the Conservative administration despite unease that it was being done at the same time as KCC was dealing with huge budget cuts and an expected 1,500 job losses.


It is not uncommon for council bosses to leave their jobs before the end of their contract. It happens frequently – and commonly, it is a personality clash that lies behind it.


What is worrying about this, however, is that it has happened barely a year after Mrs Kerswell took over the reins of what is the largest county in the country.


We do not know what the plans are for a replacement – or, indeed if there will be one – but as things stand, official information is in short supply and in an information vacuum, you end up with rumours and speculation.


On the other hand, if it is to do without a chief executive as is widely reported, perhaps that may not be such an issue.









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Categories: Precept

No public interest: KCC's original library closure plans stay under wraps

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, September 6 2011

Kent County Council is pretty keen to ensure that its now-abandoned proposals to shut or hand over the running of some 40-50 libraries is not seen by anyone.

Efforts by a vigilant library watcher, Ian Clark, to persuade the council the report should be published have been rebuffed a second time after KCC rejected an appeal he made under the Freedom of Information Act.

In its original decision, KCC relied on an exemption that permits public bodies to withhold information where it is prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs - Section 36 - an exemption that has proved rather controversial and  can only be used if it is sanctioned by a senior official, in this case the council's monitoring officer Geoff Wild.

When such decisions are appealed, the appeal has to be conducted by someone "independent or senior" to the person who made the original decision. So it fell to KCC's group managing director Katherine Kerswell (who is indisputably senior).

This is the text of the reply sent to Ian dismissing the appeal:

Dear Mr Clark

I have been asked by the Managing Director Katherine Kerswell, to reply
to your request that KCC review the handling of your original request
for information.

You have informed us that you are unhappy with our decision to withhold
a copy of the "library closure proposals" put before the conservative
group meeting w/c 20th June 2011 on the grounds that disclosure is
likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs. This
particular exemption (section 36 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000)
can only be invoked by the County Council's Monitoring Officer who is
also the Director of Governance & Law.

Internal reviews must be conducted by someone independent and/or senior
to the person that made the decision. In order to be able to fulfil our
obligations to you under section 45(e) FOIA, the Managing Director as
the superior officer to the Director of Governance and Law has reviewed
the information that was withheld from you.

The nature of the information is such that she concurs that its release
would undeniably prohibit the free and frank exchange of views and
discussion of ideas in the future which is essential to the effective
conduct of business within the County Council before matters come into
the public domain. It would also cause unnecessary public concern over a
number of ideas that were discussed that may not come to fruition and
have not yet appeared within any blog or in the public domain.

It is essential in any local authority for the elected members to be
able to discuss ideas with confidence and ensure that the policy options
that do end up in the public domain are the most appropriate. Disclosure
of this kind would significantly undermine their confidence in such a
necessary and essential part of our governance and would undermine the
effective conduct of public affairs.

Therefore, the Managing Director maintains that the use of this
exemption was correct.

There are a couple of points worth making here, which I've blogged about before. Where is the "clear, specific and credible" evidence that the "substance or quality of deliberations or advice would be materially altered for the worse by the threat of disclosure?" as the Information Commissioner suggests should be provided?

The response talks about the belief that disclosure would "prohibit" free and frank discussions. The FOI Act says nothing about prohibition in the use of Section 36 - it talks about whether disclosure would inhibit the ability of public bodies to explore extreme options.

It is not the case that the ideas which the Conservative group discussed have "not yet appeared within any blog or in the public domain" - they have and here it is.

So, I am not entirely convinced and it would be interesting to see what the Information Commissioner thinks.

And it will be interesting to see how KCC chooses to meet its statutory obligations under the Local Government Act 2000. Access to information regulations require councils making executive decisions to not just publish records of those decisions but detail all other options that were considered and subsequently disregarded.

And it won't be long before we do have some indication of the new proposals. A public consultation on the future of the library service gets underway next month.

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Categories: Precept

A rare Conservative revolt over library closures plans: how a retreat happened

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, June 22 2011

Mention the word "libraries" in any council and the word "closures" is likely to follow fairly swiftly.

And it has been a condundrum Kent County Council's Conservative administration has been wrestling with for some time. The communities budget, like every other part of the council's spending, is having to take a hit and the issue has been how best to make the necessary cuts.

But it seems there has been something of a rare revolt among the 73-strong Conservative group over some rather contentious proposals that would have seen the closure - or at least the ending of council funding for - a rather substantial number of libraries.

Precise figures are hard to come by but at least one source has mentioned over 40. However, the leadership is in retreat after a Conserative group meeting held this week saw backbenchers express their horror at the scale of the possible cuts and demanded a re-think.

Sources say that many county councillors were aghast at the proposals, not least because some of those identified for closure were in Kent's Conservative heartlands. Others pointed out that they had made various election commitments that local libraries in their areas would be safeguarded.

And of course, many recognised exactly what a PR challenge it would be to justify the cuts to a service that has enormous sentimental attachment. As one put it: "You can do more or less what you like to any other service and not many will care, but not to libraries."

Others warned of the dire electoral consequences pointing out that given the time needed for consultation and the decision-making process, libraries could well be closing their doors perilously close to the next KCC election.

KCC had tried to sweeten the pill by suggesting that libraries could be taken over by parish or town councils, or by volunteer groups - an example of The Big Society. But that seems to have failed to persuade the group that they could get away with it - particularly given the constraints all parts of the public sector are facing.

So the upshot is that for the time being at least, widespread library closures are off the agenda (although I understand there may be a handful that could be shutting their doors) and the Conservative leadership has been persuaded that it needs to come up with another masterplan.


It seems that KCC may have inadevertently acted unlawfully over payments made to its election returning officer for running county council elections.

In a rather complex report on the issue, KCC's legal eagle Geoff Wild has told councillors that while the fees paid to both the county returning officer in the past (former chief executive Peter Gilroy) were made in good faith, the council's arrangements that permitted the chief executive and his colleagues in districts to effectively decide for themselves what fees they should get were "inappropriate and not permitted in law at least as far as the county council is concerned."

The issue has been partly resolved by including the job of running KCC elections into the duties of the new managing director of the council Katherine Kerswell.

Opposition Lib Dem Tim Prater is not happy, saying that if the payments made in the past - according to him, about £60,000 over three elections to the ex-chief executive - were unlawful then KCC ought to be going about getting the money back.

However, his attempts to do so at yesterday's Electoral and Boundary Review Committee meeting failed to find favour among Conservatives on the committee and his proposal fell.

One thing that did suprise some councillors on the committee were the recommended fees for district council returning officers who ran KCC elections in their areas.  Between them, returning officers stand to get £47,376 in fees next time, with individual payments ranging from £3,201 (Dartford) to £5,190 (Maidstone).

Cllr Keith Ferrin (Con) suggested these were in the same league as the wages paid to premiership football players and they should be more modest. I'm not sure which football stars he had in mind.



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Kent's political map: the real story of the election results so far

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, May 6 2011

Ed Miliband urged voters ahead of the polls to use their vote to register their dissatisfaction with the government - a tactical ploy commonly used by parties in opposition. So what did they do in Kent? So far, the messages are rather mixed. Ed, who is heading to Gravesham this morning to congratulate his party's candidates on their success in north Kent, has not in truth really made a huge breakthrough in the county.

Kent's election results - read all our up-to-date coverage here>>

Yes, it has won Gravesham but not because it wiped out a huge majority - it grabbed a handful of seats that were enough to tip the balance of power their way. Labour also made enough gains in Thanet to claim a sort of victory even if the council is hung.

But Mr Miliband will need to ask himself why it was that voters in Gravesham appeared to hear his plea while those in neighbouring Dartford were deaf to it, as they were in Medway. If voters were prepared to back the ruling Conservative administrations at some town halls in Kent, why not in others?

In fact, the results in Medway strike me as particularly concerning for Labour. I'd expected them to make some significant gains at the expense of the Tories but they failed to do so - the Conservative vote held up strongly and Labour's inroads were largely at the expense of the Lib Dems, who look to be imploding in Kent and will have hardly any councillors here by the end of  the day.

Medway has become totemic for both the Labour party and the Conservatives. In the endless battle to win over the squeezed middle, both know that at a general election that unless they win seats there, they are unlikely to form the next government. Of coures, we are only one year into the coalition government and the impact of the spending cuts are still filtering through, so voters may have been disinclined to give the Conservatives a bloody nose.

But even so, not to claim any scalps from the Conservatives will be a major disappointment.

It is not a good day to be a Lib Dem in Kent. They are clearly paying a price for the unpopularity of the national party and its role in the coalition and their desperate efforts to distance themselves from national policies have proved a failure. It will take some time for them to regroup - look at the wipeout of their councillors in Shepway. I expect something similar could be on the cards in Canterbury where traditionally, the city has been something of a stronghold for the party.

Conservative activists will be pretty happy with how things are going so far. I doubt they'll be troubled too much elsewhere in Kent, with the possible exception of Dover. They will hold sway in the bulk of town halls for the next four years - which, if things are going to get as bad as everyone expects in the public sector, may prove to be something of a mixed blessing.

The map of Kent may no longer completely blue but there needs to be rather more shades of red if Labour is to claim that it is back as a political force in the county.

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Categories: election

More on how your money is spent - including a £4.50 taxi ride

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, October 1 2010

We've reported more on how County Hall has spent public money through its corporate credit cards today, along with some other interesting details about how the taxpayer has picked up the tab for a £4.50 taxi ride made by former chief executive Peter Gilroy.

The County Hall Spending Files>>>

There are some who think we have been wrong to present our disclosures in the way we have; some who think we are being too critical and sensationalising the subject and some who think (wrongly) that there is some other reason for our coverage - which has been based purely on our judgement that it is very much in the public interest and a subject our readers will find interesting to read about - whatever their views.

Others believe that if a public body is embracing transparency, then it cannot pick and choose which transactions it would prefer to be transparent about. One point worth making here is that many of the transactions that we have detailed fall below the £500 threshold set by the government at which all councils will be required to put into the public domain data on all invoices above that sum.

So, had the information not been gathered by a concerned resident and passed to us, a considerable amount of it would never have seen the light of day. KCC has rightly come round to the view that being open is a virtue and one that ultimately will be good for it and the residents it is there to serve.

As its own report unveiling its plans for a new transparency regime says, it is important that residents are able to make judgements about not just the costs they, as taxpayers, are bearing but that they can also make judgments about the value of what is being done with their money.


Interestingly, the new Labour group leader on the Local Government Association has hit out at the government's transparency plans, asserting that they are a waste of time and councils have better things to do. You can read about it here Some of the comments are illuminating.


I've blogged a couple of times about how Ed Miliband might play with the voters of Kent - especially the 80,000+ that deserted the party between 2005 and 2010. I've suggested he might become the Iain Duncan Smith of the party. But I was talking to a colleague who suggested a better comparison might be with William Hague, who had an ill-fated attempt to lead the party out of the wilderness after its nightmare of a defeat in 1997.  Just steer clear of the baseball cap, Ed. 


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