Gavin Maclure's Musings

My take on politics locally, nationally and internationally


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I back Nadia Cenci for Tory Leader

Ipswich Spy have being doing some good political reporting on the Ipswich Borough Council Conservative Group leadership contest with their sources telling them there will only be two contenders for the top job: current Deputy Leader Cllr Chris Stewart and Cllr Nadia Cenci.

Current canvassing looks as if Cllr Chris Stewart will win the ballot. This is not good news. As much as Cllr Stewart is an intelligent chap, who I have always found amiable, and instinctively is a Tory rather than a “wet” Cameroon, he is not exactly box office. The current Deputy Leader of the Tory Group might have a grasp of detail and could quite happily table and trundle through pointless motion after motion (which is all opposition parties can do) but he does not stir people to sit up and listen. His diction is at best monotonous, at worst, dare I say it, boring. With most of the electorate not even bothering to turn up and vote for local government councillors, do the Tories really want a man leading them who would not stand out in a crowd?

But the Conservatives at Grafton House are in luck. They have a person in their midst, who despite having some strange views, DOES make people sit up and listen: Cllr Nadia Cenci. And she can actually be heard in a Council chamber: the acoustics might be bad but I can always hear every word Cllr Cenci says whereas when most councillors stand up they drone on to the point individual words don’t punctuate through the ether. Given politics is about the art of communication, this is a pretty dire state of affairs.

I have not always agreed with Cllr Cenci. For instance, when she was Communities Portfolio Holder, during the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition at the Borough Council, I saw her give far much lee-way to so-called “charities”, some of which basically were businesses in another guise, but I always respected Cllr Cenci’s passion and active approach to her brief. When it comes to bread-and-butter Tory subjects like the economy, you couldn’t put a cigarette paper between Cllr Cenci and I. Nadia Cenci is no shrinking violet. She says what’s on her mind and be damned with the consequences. Some members of her own political group might not like this but the media love it. Cllr Cenci is a reporter’s dream: copy guaranteed on every occasion!

Experience is also a big factor when it comes to choosing a leader. This does not mean they should be 101 years old and have done and seen it all. That is not experience, that’s just an ability to not die. Cllr Stewart’s Achilles heel is his lack of experience as a councillor with only two years spent in an Opposition role, which, frankly, is a basic level. Cllr Cenci on the other hand has been on the Executive Committee as a Portfolio Holder when the Tories ran the Council between 2004 and 2011: that counts for a lot when it comes to knowing how to deal with officers (ever a thorn in a Tory councillor’s side) and the politics of local government, skills which a Conservative Opposition will need in droves just to survive as a distinct force on the Council over the coming years.

So, who do the Tories want to be their face to the public: a retired schoolteacher with a touch of the Sir Humphrey about him or a brash Anglo-Italian who, when she stands up and speaks, the blogosphere and the Ipswich Morning Star’s Mr Geater reach for their notebooks. How does the old saying go? All publicity is good publicity. You never know, there might be some votes in it – if I was standing as a Conservative candidate this year or next, I’d be happy with that.

As a sidebar, it is disappointing to see two young Tory councillors sitting on the sidelines in this leadership election. Both Cllr Richard Pope and Cllr Kym Stroet sit in ultra-safe Bixley ward in the east of the town; they are both capable of taking on the mantle of leader but have decided not to throw their hat into the ring. The Conservative Group ARE going to lose seats in 2014: would it have not been wiser for Cllrs Pope and Stroet to step up to the plate rather than see the leadership being decapitated next year?


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Tweetgate: Ipswich Tories try to ban Twitter

If I were still a member of the Conservative Group at Ipswich Borough Council I’d be doing everything I could to raise the profile of the Conservative Party, its councillors and candidates.

Twitterphobe: Cllr Richard Pope
So it was particularly bizarre to see Tory Cllr Richard Pope at last night’s Borough Council meeting try to ban Twitter from future meetings, thereby denying councillors from communicating with Ipswich residents and I suspect also to ban bloggers from reporting council meeting live via Twitter. Another politician I can think of who tries to suppress social media is a certain President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Hardly a bedfellow of the Conservative Party I would have thought?
Dictator: President Bashar al-Assad of Syria
Cllr Pope asked Cllr Martin Cook, who is responsible for IT and democratic services at the Borough, if standing orders could be updated to include the banning of Twitter at council meetings. Whilst Cllr Pope was saying this, a flurry of tweets were being sent by Morning Ipswich Star political editor Paul Geater, Labour backbencher Cllr Alasdair Ross, a reporter from Ipswich Spy and by myself.
Cllr Cook retorted that smartphones were seen as a tool by many people, including disabled people who use specialised software to help them participate in meetings, and Twitter itself is allowed in the House of Commons where it is used by MPs to allow the public better access to debates.
I just can’t understand the Tory Group’s thinking here and for their youngest councillor to stand up to try and ban social media is perverse. All political blogs and the Morning Ipswich Star have ridiculed their attempt to ban Twitter.
The Tory Group is a shadow of its former self when it was the leading party on the Council between 2004 and 2011 with now only 12 councillors to the ruling Labour Group’s 32 councillors. With political tactics like this and being devoid of any policy they better get use to decades in the wilderness. 
Ipswich Borough Council has made it clear they are a fan of social media, with the appointment of a social media officer, and also with the removal of the dead tree press bench. Therefore, I think we can safely say Twitter will be here to stay at future Ipswich Borough Council meetings!


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Ipswich Borough Full Council Meeting: 20th June 2012

Shock, horror, Labour have done something I agree with in Ipswich: they have moved the Full Council meetings back to the grand surroundings of the Town Hall Council Chamber overlooking the Cornhill.

It was announced at last night’s Council meeting by Mayor Cllr Mary Blake that all Full Council meetings will take place in the Town Hall from now on. When I was a councillor, I disliked having to use Suffolk County Council’s Council Chamber at Endeavour House when we had a perfectly good Council Chamber in Ipswich’s very own Town Hall. Like a lot things, it was no doubt for the benefit of officers who could just walk across the road from Grafton House when the 6-weekly democratic inconvenience of a Full Council meeting occurred. Say what you like about Labour but if they have a political objective they barge the officers away to achieve it, albeit taking over a year to do so. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition leadership couldn’t even get the photo of its councillors put up in the Town Hall showing the Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration and instead we constantly had to look at the photos from the never-ending Labour years from before 2004. 
Anyway, back to the business of the council meeting. 
Council Questions 

First up was Cllr Kym Stroet who asked Labour’s Economic Decline Development chief, Cllr Carole Jones, if she was unhappy Ipswich had failed to be chosen as a so-called Portas Pilot. For the uninitiated, a Portas Pilot, named after retail guru and champion of the scheme, Mary Portas, is a central government scheme to re-energise the country’s high streets. If chosen, a town gets £100,000 of taxpayers’ money and advice from Mary Portas to improve their local high street. Cllr Jones retorted: “Yes.” Cllr Stroet then followed up with a supplementary asking if there had been a disagreement between Ipswich Central – the town centre management company – and the Council about bidding to become a Portas Pilot in the second round. Cllr Stroet was asking a rhetorical question as he and Cllr Jones had been at the same meeting where the falling-out took place between Paul Clement’s Ipswich Central and the Borough Council’s Cllr Carole Jones. The supplementary question did reveal more detail about the friction between Ipswich Central and the new Labour administration as it was made clear in Cllr Jones’ reply the Council is in favour of becoming a Portas Pilot whereas Ipswich Central are not so keen (possibly because they don’t like the idea of taking advice from anyone else?).
Personally, I don’t believe Ipswich needs the additional support from Mary Portas. Many residents complain about our high street but they are probably the type to moan about anything. Ipswich might have its development issues on the Waterfront but our high street is thriving compared to similar sized towns across the country, most noticeably in the North West which I visited last weekend – the number of boarded up shops there is truly depressing.
Next up was Cllr Robin Vickery who complained that some residents in Castle Hill ward will have to change polling station. I’m always a bit uneasy about councillors getting involved in the organisation of elections – it’s one area I am happy for the officers to handle and take the blame for. We live in a democracy and councillors should be seen to be at arms length from the returning officer and his team as to not do so puts the incumbent councillor in a more favourable position than the humble candidate.
Cllr Debman then popped up to also ask a question to Cllr Jones. I like George Debman’s direct style of communication. Unlike with some councillors, you know what he is on about. He asked: “Is Ipswich open for business this Summer?” with reference to the high number of roadworks around the town, some connected to the major Suffolk County Council transport project – Ipswich Fit for the 21st Century – works. Cllr Jones lived up to her Economic Decline role and refused to answer and said Cllr Debman should ask Labour’s transport spokesman, Cllr Phil Smart. 
Tory Group leader Cllr John Carnall asked further questions to Cllr Jones with one around the lack of consultation with market traders on the Cornhill prior to the Labour council’s decision to take the management of the market back in-house. Cllr Jones waffled on that consultation did take place – during the Town Centre Masterplan consultation – several months ago and that the market managers were happy. Well, they are not exactly ecstatic if you read their tweet on the subject:

Former Conservative Group leader Cllr Liz Harsant asked South East Area Committee Chairman, Labour’s Cllr Keith Rawlingson, what he was doing to improve the communication of Area Committee dates and venue details to residents and how he thinks the new Committee structure is performing. She told Cllr Rawlingson there was no information on the last South East Committee venue on the Council’s website and that the format of a Committee meeting in a ward venue was too formal and restricted the involvement of residents, something which runs contrary to the Council’s policy.

Cllr Rawlingson took a defensive stance and ruled the Area Committees were “working reasonably well” and in typical Keith-style he got a tad angry and said the last Committee meeting WAS advertised on the Council’s website. Yes, it was – just not on the South East Area Committee page! Area Committees were brought in to try and bring decision-making closer to the public but they do the complete opposite by keeping residents at arms length, with a barrier (literally, there is a long table!) between Councillors and residents at the meetings with only one slot available for residents to put their hand up and ask a question. Straight out of the Stalinist text book!

One of the most interesting topics raised was by Cllr Judy Terry who challenged Labour’s Culture and Leisure chief, Cllr Bryony Rudkin, on the delays to the Crown Pools swimming pool improvements. It has recently been revealed the contractor has had problems with the tiles and many have had to be re-fitted. Cllr Terry asked who was going to pay for the additional work: the contractor or the council taxpayer? Unsurprisingly, Cllr Rudkin did not have an answer and suggested there were “many lessons to be learned” from the way the project has been managed. That was almost attack on their beloved officers!
Cllr Rudkin also childishly said her Labour administration would also be trying to learn from good examples of council project management which took place 8 or 10 years ago – conveniently before the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition was formed in 2004.

Next up was Tory Shadow Housing Portfolio Holder Cllr Richard Pope who laid into Labour housing supremo Cllr John Mowles with a question on refurbishment contracts for council-owned homes. Cllr Pope asked: “Why is it that priority for refurbishment is not given to the homes of the most vulnerable and elderly residents?” Cllr Mowles could not give an answer but told us the Council regularly holds discussions with its contractors. Hardly reassuring to residents I am sure.
Cllr Pope then quipped: “My next question is simpler so hopefully we will get an answer!”, which sparked laughter throughout the chamber. His supplementary asked Cllr Mowles if council house building in Ipswich was now possible because of changes by the Coalition Government to local government housing finances and should he now write to Housing Minister Grant Shapps MP thanking him for making his “dreams come true”. Cllr Mowles dodged the question and instead took a swipe at Tory MP for Ipswich, Ben Gummer, accusing Mr Gummer of saying council house building was a “vanity project”. It didn’t take long before this was denied on Twitter by Ipswich’s MP:

As a result of a mumbled question (which I have to admit I didn’t catch) from Liberal Democrat Cllr Inga Lockington to Cllr Jones, the Northern Fringe – the council-owned land between Ipswich and Westerfield – raised it’s head. Cllr Jones gleefully told Cllr Lockington that the Council had a legal principle to develop the Northern Fringe for housing as stated in the Council’s Local Development Framework (LDF). Cllr Lockington should know considering the previous Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration she was part of pushed through the LDF!  I personally think building houses on the Northern Fringe would be a great step forward for Ipswich as long as the house builders are carefully chosen so poor quality housing stock which was built on the Ravenswood estate is not repeated. But considering the need to have 40% affordable housing, I can see the same mistake happening again.

Mrs Sally Wainman finished off Council Questions with – you guessed it – a question on Broomhill Pool where she brazenly asked for two million pounds. Cllr Rudkin’s answer was spoken so fast I didn’t catch all of it but needless to say the answer was “No!”.

New Code of Conduct Arrangements under the Localism Act 2011


A report to revise the code of conduct for Councillors as a result of the new Localism parliamentary act was tabled by Council leader Cllr David Ellesmere. The headline from this report is the hated Stasi-like Standards Committee will be abolished and councillors will not have the thought police breathing down their necks in future as the rule of ‘pre-determination’ – whereby a councillor could not have a view and could not represent his/her residents – is also being scrapped. You guessed it, these were measures brought in by the last Labour government to suppress Tory dominated local government.

Cllr John Carnall passionately defended the Localism Act and told us that out of 6000 complaints received by the Standards Board for England only 28% were worthy of investigation with the vast majority of complaints from councillors about councillors being vexatious and malicious. Cllr Carnall made the best point of the evening: “The local electorate judges councillors not unelected bureaucrats!”. Quite right.

The report was unanimously carried.

Corporate Health & Safety 


This report was unanimously carried with hardly a whisper from councillors. 


Treasury Management 


This report looked on paper to be a rubber stamping exercise but due to the content referencing the money still owed to the council by Icelandic banks and the changes to housing finance it sparked passionate rhetoric from Tories Cllr Carnall and Cllr Pope. Cllr Carnall pointed out that the report said the Council expected to “receive all of their investment back” from Heritable Bank and Landsbanki but Finance chief Cllr Martin Cook had said only a moment or two ago during his tabling of the report that the Council did NOT expect to get all its money back. Cllr Carnall then asked Cllr Martin Cook to apologies on behalf of the Labour Party for putting out a leaflet in the local elections in 2011 stating the former Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration would lose £1.5M from their Icelandic investments. Cllr Cook refused to apologise for this propaganda and again contradicted his own report by saying it was still possible the council would lose money and it may even be up to £1.5M. 

Cllr Pope pointed out that the Housing Revenue Account reforms enacted by the Coalition Government have enabled Labour-run Ipswich Council to build council houses and that the HRA rules under the last Labour government meant Ipswich Borough Council never had the money to build houses.

Postscript

Interestingly, there was no report on the slashing of senior posts at Grafton House as reported by Ipswich Spy earlier this week. This is going to save the Council £500,000 a year. Surely, the size of the savings means the decision should be debated at Full Council. 


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Locking Ipswich parks is wasting my money

Peaceful Holywells Park

When I was a backbench Conservative councillor on Ipswich Borough Council back in 2010, the ruling Executive ordered a report to be written on the practicalities of leaving the parks, owned by the people of Ipswich and run by the Borough Council, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

This was being taken very seriously by both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the Borough Council coalition as a way of reducing significant costs and by allowing the taxpayer to enjoy their parks during the low light periods of early morning and late evening. It had my full support on both the economic and quality of life aspects of the policy: a win-win idea which surely would get implemented?

But then the nimbys got going. Some leafy St Margaret’s residents got it into their paranoid heads that Christchurch Park would be overrun by ‘undesirables’ late at night spoiling the tranquillity in their extensive gardens which back on to the public park. This immediately got Liberal Democrat Cllr Inga Lockington, who represents St Margaret’s Residents’ Association Ward, very excited and she decided it wasn’t such a great idea after all to leave the parks unlocked for the enjoyment of the taxpayer at a time of their choosing. As she was a member of the all-powerful Executive committee, it mattered that Cllr Lockington disagreed but she only had one vote.

However, freedom to use our parks ran up against a far bigger obstacle when the Friends of Holywells Park managed to find 2000 people to sign a petition saying they were against the public park being closed. It did not matter these 2000 people a) probably didn’t all live close by to the park and b) they would not all have been voters in Holywells ward (the ward would be a strong Green Party consituency if they were!),  Holywells Conservative Cllr Liz Harsant, and Leader of the Council at the time, decided it was enough to kill the policy to unlock the parks and reduce the Council’s bill in employing men to drive round in vans locking all the gates two hours before the light disappears.

When the policy report finally got to Executive a deal had been done behind closed doors between the Conservative and Liberal Democrats Executive members to drop the policy. As a backbencher it was raised in our Group meeting and I voiced my disquiet at being dictated to by a minority at the expense of the majority who would like to walk their dog whilst it is still light within the grounds of beautiful Holywells or Alexandra Park instead of being chased out like an alien by a jumped-up, whistle-blowing park ranger in his 4X4 transit van.

There was one dissenting voice – in public, at the Executive meeting: Executive-member Cllr Richard Pope. From the steely look on the face of Cllr Harsant I don’t think Cllr Pope had got the memo. Instead, he told the assembled public gallery he and other parents should be able to take their children to the park before school during the low light period between sunrise and when the park is opened by the ranger an hour or an hour and half later.

Not being an early bird, I look at it from the other end of the day, but nonetheless just as relevant to what Cllr Pope said at the Executive Committee. I was always for the park being left open 24 hours a day for the reasons outlined above but now I have a dog and have become a dog walker I am angry that when I take my dog out for his walk upon an evening – in broad daylight – that I have to walk past a locked Holywells Park which I own as a taxpayer and instead I have to walk my dog along pavements buffeted by passing noisy cars, trucks, lorries, motorbikes and vans. All because a few nimbys don’t like other people using ‘their’ park and had the time to organise a petition whilst it seems the majority of taxpayers were out working.

Now we have a new broom at Grafton House, I would be interested to hear the policy of the Labour administration. Perhaps, Deputy Portfolio Holder for Culture & Leisure and fan of this blog, Cllr Alasdair Ross, could offer his thoughts?