Gavin Maclure's Musings

My take on politics locally, nationally and internationally


Ipswich Politburo vote themselves a pay increase

A drag on Ipswich: The market in front of the Town Hall

Apologies for not blogging lately but I have been out of the country on business and have had to spend an exorbitant amount of time working to pay my taxes to keep the Ipswich Labour Party in the comfort they are used to (despite their party causing the worst economic recession since the 1930s) to pay for the Indian Navy’s new warship and the new tourist attraction in Iceland.

But I did manage to get to the meeting of all 48 (well, it would have been if they had all turned up) Ipswich Borough Councillors at the Town Hall on Wednesday evening last week. When I arrived, I did have a chuckle to myself when I saw the press gallery had been removed and the Morning Ipswich Star’s political editor Paul Geater had been forced to slum it with the ordinary voter and bloggers in the public gallery. Needless to say Mr Geater didn’t look impressed. The price of democracy, eh?
As I wrote recently in the comments section of Ipswich Spy, the quality of minute taking at any meeting at the Council is woeful. If the minutes are to be believed, one would think we all turn up to the meeting, there is a prayer, the mayor tells us what a jolly good time they have had over the last six weeks, the councillors raise their hands seven times and then we all go home. Hardly Hansard. Fortunately, democracy is a bit more active in Ipswich but the actual goings-on at the town hall are only starting to be revealed after a number of local political blogs, including this one, started reporting proceedings over the last two or three years. Borough chief executive Russell Williams is to be congratulated for his excellent decision to make the reporting of council business more transparent.
After the “non-denominational prayers” for “those with faith and those without” (seems like a contradiction in terms) and the Mayor’s Communications we moved on to a perverse announcement from Labour Mayor Mary Blake that a junior clerk was leaving the Council, which was bizarrely followed with gushing praise for this unelected bureaucrat – I was half expecting a standing ovation to follow. Look, I am all in favour of thanking someone when they have done a good job but what is it with councillors, especially Labour, falling over themselves to praise unelected civil servants in a public setting? You never hear, say, George Osborne, standing up in the House of Commons, listing all the Treasury mandarins who have helped him pull the budget together (that’s what their Whitehall managers are for). That’s because we live in a democracy and the person publicly responsible for anything the Government does in his portfolio is the politician. May be Labour just don’t understand democracy or perhaps they can’t distinguish between Labour councillors and Labour-supporting officers?
Then to the business-end of the meeting and Council Questions.
I’ll report on the key themes that came out of the questions to Labour Portfolio Holders. A hot topic at the moment are the roadworks in Fore Street, which are not being caused by the Travel Ipswich programme but by National Grid. A huge crater has opened up in Fore Street to fix the gas mains. The works have been going on for months and have overrun. Ipswich Borough Council – at least until April next year when the County Council take back control of the roads – are responsible for giving permission to contractors to dig up the road and for ensuring the utility works are completed in a timely manner. On the latter point, they have patently failed. 
Therefore, Conservative Cllr George Debman asked Labour transport chief Cllr Phil Smart why the Council were not being more proactive in bringing these roadworks to a close so local businesses can start to recover from the horrendous impact the works have had on their takings during the last six months. Instead of showing some leadership, Cllr Smart just passed the buck to National Grid and deployed the stock excuse for socialists: we can’t help businesses in the area because of “health and safety”. 
Tory Cllr Chris Stewart then asked a good question to economic decline development portfolio holder Cllr Carole Jones on what the Labour administration intended to do to further promote the town during the Ipswich Maritime Festival next year. Again, there was no rhetoric from Cllr Jones about her vision for developing the town’s economy through events like this and instead waffled on about the new Travelodge and Premier Inn hotels being available for visitors to stay at next year. Cllr Stewart in reply tried to help Cllr Jones by suggesting the marina water itself be used as a platform for promoting the town’s history and future. Cllr Stewart also made a good point about inviting the marine industry to attend the Maritime Festival and for civic leaders to bring businesses in this sector together during the event. Instead of welcoming his comments, Cllr Jones just snapped back that he should attend the Economic Working Group to raise these ideas. It later transpired in the meeting that Cllr Stewart is not on the Economic Working Group but he said he would be delighted to attend if the ruling Labour Party invited him!
Conservative Group leader Cllr John Carnall followed with a stinging question to Cllr Smart on how Labour intended to spend the £140,000 earmarked in the budget for “public transport” and asked if the £140,000 which is Ipswich Buses’ pension deficit was just coincidentally the same figure? In typical form, Cllr Smart just side-stepped the question and said he wished the “bus war” (where First Group are legally competing with the inefficiently run Ipswich Buses) would end soon. Cllr Smart needs to be careful here: if Ipswich Borough Council were to use the money to fill the pension gap black hole this is likely to be illegal under the Transport Act 1985. Therefore, I’m glad to see the Tory Group have not forgotten this suspicious budget item from earlier this year. This blog will continue to watch how Labour spend this money like a hawk. Propping up Ipswich Buses’ pension pot with taxpayers’ money so the Labour council can satisfy an ideological need to own a bus company is not acceptable.
Visionary: Sir Stuart Rose
Earlier this month, as reported on this blog, former Marks and Spencer boss Sir Stuart Rose attended the Ipswich Beacon Conference to advise the Borough Council on how to improve the town centre environment to attract more shoppers. One of his key ideas to get more money into Ipswich is to remove the market from the Cornhill. He said it obviously should still trade but it would be better to move it down the soon to be pedestrianised Princes Street/Queens Street and up Lloyds Avenue, thereby freeing the only remaining large open space in the town centre. The Cornhill could then be transformed into an attractive focal point where a café al-fresco style culture could prosper in the same vein as Exchange Square in Manchester. After Sir Stuart’s speech at the business conference on 14th September, Labour council leader Cllr David Ellesmere sprung to his feet to tell the former M&S boss that this was a great idea and he would implement it immediately. Sir Stuart had not even managed to battle his way out of Ipswich before Socialist David Ellesmere had changed his mind and the market again became a sacred cow that just could not be sacrificed for the greater good of Ipswich. Weak leadership of the highest order!
This predictable volte-face, reported by Ipswich Spy a couple of weeks ago, was confirmed at the Council meeting on Wednesday when Cllr Ellesmere answered a question from Cllr Carnall asking him to confirm the plans for the market. Cllr Ellesmere, instead of reiterating his praise for Sir Stuart’s vision, as he had done only a few weeks before at the Beacon Conference, instead said he thought Ipswich Market’s location was a positive to the economy and that retail guru Mary Portas agreed with him. What he failed to mention is Mary Portas had praised a market in another town which was not cluttering up the only free public space left in Ipswich’s town centre. I think Cllr Ellesmere’s back-pedalling might have more to do with the fact the Labour Party receives funding from the market traders through their union subscriptions!!
Labour ideology is to ensure their own friends come before the greater good of the town.
Allowances: Councillors don’t do it for the money
This neatly takes us on to the main report of the evening, which was on councillor allowances. The Council had ordered a report from an Independent Remuneration Panel on councillors’ basic and special responsibility allowances. The report was ably presented by panel chairman Mrs Sally Wainman, a retired nurse who, when she is not campaigning for Broomhill Pool, now writes at the Ipswich Spy parish. The panel recommended the overall allowances budget should not rise but basic allowances – which are some of the lowest out of any council in the country – should be increased to bring them more in line with other local authorities and to reflect better the hours backbench councillors put into their roles. A backbench councillor receives £3,745 a year. Some back-bench councillors are working 30 hours a week attending meeting and dealing with case work in their ward. A junior civil servant will be earning SIX times as much for doing similar hours but councillors are the most senior people in the Council. Tory frontbencher Cllr Richard Pope said he had calculated he earned £3.75 a day after tax as a councillor. He said: “I don’t know about everyone else but I have come straight from work and £3.75 wouldn’t even buy me dinner in one of the fast food establishments of Ipswich.”. Quite. Anyone who says a councillor is doing it for the money is either mad or bad.
But there are some who say we are equal, but some are more equal than others. Cue the Labour Party. When they took back control of the Borough in May 2011, they immediately gave special responsibility allowances to five of their backbenchers by creating five new chairmanships when they replaced the Area Forums with Area Committees. The Area Committee chairmen – all Labour councillors – chair a formal public meeting a few times a year to discuss community issues in their respective area of Ipswich, of which there are five: North West, North East, South East, South West and Central. The meetings were initially to be held in Grafton House which has security doors and guards and is difficult to access by the public (may be that was the point?) but after an outcry from opposition councillors the meetings were moved into the community, such as school halls. At the time these new chairman roles were created, Labour leader Cllr Ellesmere promised at a Town Hall meeting their allowances would be decided by an Independent Remuneration Panel.  
Well, that Panel has now reported and recommended the Area Committee Chairman allowance be reduced to pay for a rise in the basic allowance. But has Cllr Ellesmere accepted this. No. 
The Panel’s recommendations would be cost neutral – i.e. the taxpayer would not have to cough up a penny more. The Tory Group voiced their favour for the recommendations, even if there were holier than thou moments, especially when Cllr Debman said he would give any increase to the hospice. But contrast this with Labour’s Cllr Ellesmere who shot the Panel’s report down in flames, accusing Mrs Wainman and her colleagues of not understanding the role of Area Committee Chairmen and stating the Labour Group would not be voting for the recommendations and instead would INCREASE the councillor allowances budget to ensure his Labour backbenchers continued to pocket an additional £3,745 a year on top of their basic allowance of £3,745. This means 18 out of Labour’s 32 councillors receive £7,490 a year – over half their Party. The allowance is hardly “special” any more, or may be just special for Labour. The amount of money, in this instance, is not the issue (no one should work for free), it is the hypocrisy of Labour: on the one hand they deplore basic allowance increases and then on the other hand they vote the majority of their members a nice little increase, whilst the opposition Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors are not awarded a penny more.
This is a sign of classic socialism: ensure the party hierarchy get their money and then pull the ladder up to stop the general population from benefiting the same way. And guess who foots the bill for this socialist ideology – yes, you and me as the taxpayer. If you don’t like socialism, never vote Labour.
And neither did the Liberal Democrats come out of the allowances debate smelling like a bed of roses. One of the recommendations was to get rid of the special responsibility allowance for the leader of the Liberal Democrats, who now only have four councillors with even less expected to be returned at the next Borough Elections in 2014. This sparked Liberal Democrat leader, Cllr Inga Lockington, into life (after arriving late because she was attending the Liberal Democrats conference in Brighton) making a passionate plea to keep her extra cash. But when it came to the vote on the Panel’s recommendations, the only two Lib Dem members who could be bothered to attend Wednesday’s meeting abstained! This rightly triggered groans of derision for the yellow peril.
Heros: British Army in Afghanistan

A sombre moment in the meeting then arrived with the presentation of the report on the Armed Forces Community Covenant, which local councils across the country are being encouraged by central government to sign up to as a statement of mutual support between the civilian community and its local people who serve in the Armed Forces. Ipswich Borough Council have a good track record on this. The Borough has been demonstrating their support for our Armed Forces, not just in thoughts but deeds, for some time and were in fact spurred into action by Tory Group leader Cllr John Carnall last year when he suggested the council provide free leisure passes (I-cards) to members of the armed forces who live in Ipswich. This allows soldiers, airmen and sailors to use the council-owned swimming pool and gyms for free when they are not on a tour of duty, including in Afghanistan. The Conservative Group continued to give their full support by backing the signing of the Covenant at the Council meeting.

Labour’s Cllr Alasdair Ross, who has served in Afghanistan as an Operations Warrant Officer with 2 Rifles, made a moving speech supporting our Armed Forces and the work they do defending our country. The speech was non-partisan to the point Cllr Ross even praised Cllr Carnall for his motion last year to give free I-cards to armed forces personnel in Ipswich. As Cllr Ross said, the Borough have subsequently gone further and provided free tickets to shows at the The Regent theatre. Cllr Ross also eloquently highlighted that the headlines may focus on the tragic deaths but British soldiers in Afghanistan are also being badly wounded in double-digit figures every day, some losing limbs. The sooner we get out of Afghanistan the better – why we are there, I do not know.
Cllr Inga Lockington of the Liberal Democrats also pressed for the Norfolk and Suffolk Mental Health Trust to sign the Armed Forces Community Covenant as well as the NHS Primary Care Trust. This was a powerful point because, as Cllr Ross stated in his speech, mental health issues are very prevalent amongst former members of the armed forces: more men who served in the Falklands War have committed suicide than died in combat. The same statistics are true for the ongoing Afghanistan conflict as well. In response, Labour leader Cllr Ellesmere said he would work to ensure the local Mental Health Trust were are also signatories to the Covenant. The report was voted for unanimously.
Roadworks: Traffic chaos has begun in Ipswich

After this serious and constructive item, the Council meeting then descended into farce. I was almost late to the meeting because of the roadworks which have begun as part of the £21 million Travel Ipswich project. And as the roadworks get started in earnest, for reasons unbeknown to anyone other than himself, Tory Group leader Cllr John Carnall decided to put forward a motion supporting the current transport works and thereby linking the Conservative Party with the traffic chaos which will be experienced by all who live and work in Ipswich over the next twelve months. That’s going to help bring the votes in at the County Elections next year isn’t it?

It also doesn’t help that the Travel Ipswich project is a deliberate central government policy to reduce traffic volumes in Ipswich town centre by creating a road network which causes more congestion thereby hoping people will take the bus or cycle. This is supposedly to mitigate against non-existent anthropomorphic climate change. The problem is public transport in Ipswich is piecemeal, commensurately expensive and regularly late. In other words, making it harder for people to drive into the town will not see a shift to public transport use: it will just make it even harder for people to drive into Ipswich and spend money in our shops. To the extent they will travel to Norwich or Cambridge instead. Hardly, the best plan of action to help our struggling economy. It is unsurprising Sir Stuart Rose said Ipswich should make it easier for drivers to come into the town centre: this is a man who gets business unlike Suffolk County Council.
The Tory motion slipped in a commendation for Ipswich MPs Ben Gummer and Dr Dan Poulter (whose constituency also encompasses North West Ipswich) for securing the £21 million funding. All true, but again why try and link the Conservatives with mass roadworks and a scientifically flawed “green” policy? 
Labour have a huge majority on the Council and they predictably crushed the Tory motion. Was it really necessary Cllr Carnall? No one outside of the Council chamber heard the praise for our Conservative MPs. And after you take the mainstream media, bloggers and the Independent Remuneration Panel out of the room there were only two or three members of the public present.  It would have been far better to wait for the works to be complete, hope they are a success and then bask in the glory. If the Conservatives are to ever win back power at the Borough Council, they have to do much much better than this.