My KCC Election Manifesto & Video

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Ramsgate Port. Brett Bides It's Time on Expansion

 Last November, in the face of strong public opposition, and objections from Natural England about the environmental implications of its proposals, Brett Aggregates withdrew an application to Kent County Council for a “Certificate of Lawfulness of Proposed Use or Development (CLOPUD) for the erection of a sand and gravel washing plant” at the Port of Ramsgate. 

The application to extend the scope and scale of Brett’s activities at Ramsgate Port was, in my opinion, linked to the £200million expansion of Dover Harbour which is set to begin very soon. 

It was proposed by the Dover Harbour Board (DHB) that it would obtain much of the building material required for this massive construction project by dredging 2.5 million cubic metres of aggregates from the Goodwin Sands. The dredging operations, if approved and licensed by the Government’s Marine Management Organisation (MMO), will take place 24/7 over a 3 year period. By anyone’s standards this is a very large aggregate dredging operation which will provide those within the industry with an opportunity of securing very lucrative contracts.

Having a sizeable operational base at Ramsgate Port, which is close to both the Goodwin Sands and Dover Harbour, and which could be used to process the dredged aggregate, would clearly place Brett in a very advantageous position to win aggregate dredging and processing contracts with DHB. As would the fact that Brett also has a successful marine dredging subsidiary which owns several large sea-going dredgers. It’s clear to me that Brett’s expansion plans at Ramsgate Port are related to DHB’s huge expansion plans and the profits the company could expect to make from any contracts to deliver this work.

But why gamble your cash and waste valuable time and resources in preparing for a business opportunity which is not guaranteed? Because it’s far from certain that Dover Harbour Board will be granted a dredging licence for the Goodwin Sands by the MMO. And this is precisely why I believe Brett withdrew their expansion plans last year and why the company is now biding its time until the future is clearer.

Well following a discussion with the MMO’s Goodwin Sands Case Officer, and in the words of one of my favourite reggae artists, Johnny Nash, “I can see clearly now” about the decision making process and the timescale for approving, or rejecting, DHB’s dredging licence and it goes like this.

Earlier this year the MMO requested DHB to provide it with further information about how it plans to conduct the proposed dredging operations. DHB is set to provide this information by the end of August. On receipt, the information will be published on the MMO website. This will be followed by a third and final public consultation exercise relating to the new information and whether a dredging licence should be granted to DHB. The consultation process will take six weeks and then the MMO will collate and consider the responses before making its final decision.

The public consultation process will generate a very large response because many people, myself included, are opposed to the dredging plans. The consultation will raise some very important issues about the impact of large-scale dredging on the habitat provided by the Goodwin Sands and the threat to sea life this might pose. There are also concerns that dredging the Goodwin Sands may have an impact on tidal flow and coastal erosion. Furthermore many people are worried about the impact of dredging upon the archaeology of the Goodwin Sands which is reputed to be the site of at least 2,000 shipwrecks and countless crashed aircraft from WorldWar2. The sands are last resting place of literally thousands of mariners and aircrew. Just this week actor, Mark Rylance, who stars in the new blockbusting film, Dunkirk, has denounced plans to dredge the Sands as “disrespectful and insulting” to those who perished there during the war.

The complex and technical, aspects of the new information and the sheer volume of responses to the final public consultation mean that a decision on whether to grant DHB a dredging licence is unlikely to be made until the end of this year, or possibly in the new year. This gives Brett several months to evaluate the chances of a licence being awarded to DHB and whether or not to dust down its plans to expand its activities at Ramsgate Port.

My guess is that because the DHB and MMO are both Government bodies and because the Government is backing DHB’s expansion plans, the chance of a dredging licence being granted is pretty high. This means that the people of Ramsgate need to be preparing for a long, tough, drawn out battle to fight-off Brett’s plans and prevent the port and seafront from becoming a heavily industrialised and potentially polluting area. This is something that most people don’t want.  

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Ramsgate Port, Council Leader Wells, FakeNews & FakeSheiks

Soon to be ex-Council Leader  Chris Wells
On 30 July I published an article about how the Port of Ramsgate had lost an eye-watering £17.7million in 7 years and how, after more than 4 of years of trying, not a single operator had come forward with serious plans to re-start a ferry service from Ramsgate following the collapse of Trans Europa in 2013. 

Within 3 days of my article being published, the Thanet Extra ran a story “Baltic ferry company in in talks over Ramsgate berth”. Within a week of my article being published the Kent on Sunday ran a similar story “Port in Pole position for ferries as Baltic firm meets the council”. These articles are, in my opinion, fake news based upon a press release issued by Thanet Council and UKIP Council Leader Chris Wells aimed at distracting public attention away from my revelations about the increasingly desperate financial problems faced by Ramsgate Port and the urgent need for TDC to explore new options for its future.

If TDC and Council Leader Wells were remotely confident about sealing a deal for a new ferry service from Ramsgate then I would have expected them to have made a triumphal, high profile, announcement on the council’s website  about such important news. But they didn’t. 

Instead TDC and Council Leader Wells issued a media statement (see below) which refers only in the vaguest of terms to “discussions with interested parties”. The statement doesn’t say how many interested parties the council has been in discussions with. The statement doesn’t say what form these discussions took. Were they just basic information gathering telephone calls and e-mail exchanges, or  face to face discussions involving serious negotiations? Nor does the statement say when these discussions took place, over how long, and whether or not they are current and on going.

My suspicion is that the discussions referred to in TDC’s and Chris Wells’ media statement were of a very basic, exploratory nature, which took some place some time ago, and that none of these discussions have developed into serious on-going negotiations about the re-introduction of a ferry service at Ramsgate. But just to be sure I have submitted a Freedom of Information request to TDC to find out more about them. I have a feeling that the powers that be at TDC are likely to use their influence to try to block my information request so as to avoid the embarrassment at being caught bang to rights peddling fake news. 

But, when it comes to Ramsgate Port, TDC’s political leaders aren’t averse to media manipulation and the deployment of fake news. In 1982, worried about the future of future of the port, the then leader of TDC councillor Derek Dolding hired a large Chevrolet car, disguised himself in Arabian costume, and drove around Ramsgate Port and Harbour pretending to be a super-rich oil-Sheik interested in investing in the port. Fake news and deception didn’t work then and it won’t work now. The real truth is that Ramsgate Port is in extremely serious financial trouble and it is highly unlikely to be rescued by a Polish Ferry company or an Arabian Sheik. 

It time for TDC to develop plan instead of living in the past an continuing to waste public money

The Fake News Statement

Cllr Wells, Leader of the Council said: “Over the last two years, Thanet District Council has been working on re-establishing ferry services at the Port of Ramsgate. This has included investment in dredging and repairs of the Ro-Ro berths to ensure we are ready for business. The team, which includes a consultant with over 30 years’ experience of the cross channel market, has been in discussions with several interested parties, both in the UK and on the continent, to provide a long term sustainable solution and to relieve some of the traffic issues approaching the Port of Dover.”

Friday, 4 August 2017

Thanet Council’s £5.3 Million Agency Staff Scandal (Part1)

In the past the 3 years Thanet District Council (TDC) has spent an unbelievable £5.315 million on the employment of temporary agency staff! That’s the equivalent of £34,000 per week, every week, for 3 years!

Thanet’s stupendous agency staff binge towers like a colossus over Kent’s other district councils. Its total spending during the past 3 financial years accounts for a staggering 40% of the combined £13,624 million total for the 10 district councils who replied to my information requests.

Thanet Council has lashed out almost 4 times more than its nearest comparator, Shepway Council, which spent £1.613 million on agency staff in 3years, whilst the lowest spender Ashford Council paid out just £294,286 over 3 years which is 16 times less than Thanet.

So what has this crazy amount of money been spent on? Well I’ve worked out that almost £4 million, or 75% of the total £5,313 has been spent on employing agency staff in the council’s Operational Services department which is managed by 4-day-a-week working, “oop-Norf” commuting, £101,000 salaried director, Mr Gavin Waite. My understanding is that this money is used to the pay the wages of street cleaners, refuse workers, and grounds maintenance staff.

But why? What’s the point in employing so many agency staff? Most of the jobs carried out by agency workers are year-round permanent jobs. So why does Thanet Council not employ the agency workers itself? Allowing for employment agency mark-ups/ commission surely it would be much cheaper for TDC and taxpayers to take these workers on as full-time TDC employees? 

Perhaps Thanet Council has a secret policy of having a two

tier system of employment apartheid whereby blue collar staff are employed through agencies with lower pay, fewer benefits and workplace rights, than the relatively better paid, permanent, directly employed, TDC staff. Whatever the explanation might be, as a lifelong socialist, I am totally opposed to the casualization/ outsourcing of jobs. In my opinion this practice directly contributes to the large and growing low-pay scandal in Thanet where average wages are amongst some of the lowest in the country.  

Which brings me nicely to my next question. What did the Labour Party under the leadership of Clive Hart and Iris Johnston do to tackle this unacceptable situation when they were running Thanet Council between 2011-15? Surely as a party committed to tackling low pay and unfair employment practices they would have tried to reduce TDC’s use of agency staff. But no they didn’t. This unfair practice actually began to grow under labour and has continued to do so ever since. I also wonder why the trade unions appear to have done very little to oppose the casualization of work at TDC? Perhaps someone  could contact me to talk about it?

I would also be very interested in talking to agency staff who work for Thanet Council, so that I can gather information about how the system works and what the pros and cons might be. Ideally people working the HRGO agency. Anyone else who has information about what appears to be an excessive use of agency staff by Thanet Council please contact me too. You have my word that any discussions will be confidential and I will use the information as the basis of a future blog.

I will shortly be publishing another blog about Thanet Council’s use of employment agencies and I have some startling revelations which I am sure you be interested in. 

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Broadstairs Folk Week Racist? Morris Federation & Experts Share My Concerns

It’s a free country and everyone has right to voice their opinion. So when I published my article alleging that the organisers of Broadstairs Folk Week were institutionally racist, I expected and  accepted the strong criticism and abuse which came my way. And I got a lot. Whilst I’m not that keen on abuse, I do not object to, or resent, strongly expressed disagreement. After all I’m not always right and as my kids will tell you I’m often wrong.

But on the question of blacked-up Morris dancers I do not believe I am wrong. In my opinion, the Border Morris tradition of blacking-up to perform is offensive, racist, and unacceptable in a modern, diverse and inclusive society. And for organisations like the Broadstairs Folk Week to officially encourage and financially support blacked-up Morris dancers to visit and perform at the festival is nothing less than shameful institutional racism. That’s why I believe the Festival Director, Jo Tuffs should resign!

And it’s not  just me who believes there is important race

related issue here. So do some  Morris dancers, some of whom have contacted me after the publication on my first article. There a has also been some very serious academic research carried out this issue. I would advise anyone who subscribes to the “disguise” , “chimney sweep”, or “coal miner” explanations of why Border Morris dancers black-up to read Chloe Metcalfe’s article “To black up or not to black up” which was published in the Morris Federation Newsletter of Winter 2013. 

Metcalfe, a Morris dancer herself, spent a year researching a dissertation on Morris dancer costumes for her degree. In that time she reviewed countless historic documents, folk history books, academic articles, and a PhD thesis on the subject of blacking-up in folk traditions. Her conclusion is “that there is a strong link between the introduction of face blacking in Morris dancing and the arrival of minstrelsy from America in the 1830s”. In short the blacking-up tradition in Morris dancing resulted from dancers copying the touring American minstrel shows, who were extremely popular in this country during the Victorian period and, who themselves, were blacking-up to parody Afro-Americans. 

So the historic evidence speaks for itself – the blacking-up of Morris dancers to perform has strong racist links and the organisers of Broadstairs Folk Week should not in any way been seen to be encouraging, or lending support to, a tradition linked to such offensive and unacceptable practices.

Last but not least the governing body of Morris dancing, the Morris Federation, has   become much more sensitive to the issue of blacking-up by dancers. So much so that it has  issued comprehensive guidance to its members. Here’s the link

The Federation warns that many people find blacking-up by Morris dancers very offensive. The Federation also warns that blacking-up may also be a criminal offense under the Equality Act 2010 and blacked-up performers run the risk of being prosecuted. It advises its members that the further “they move away from full black makeup, the further they move away from the suggestion that what they are doing when adopting a disguise is related to race”. The Federation “asks teams that use black face paint to recognise the impact that their disguise may have on their audience, and to consider: using a different form of disguise; changing the colour of their face paint” and points out that “there are alternatives to blacking up that can be just as effective”.

This advice is not new and, I imagine, is fairly well known within the Morris dance and folk music community. As an influential and respected voice within that community surely Broadstairs Folk Week Director, Jo Tuffs, and her organising committee should have publicised the Federation’s advice on its website and it’s Facebook page and warned that it would not support any Morris troupes who failed to follow Federation advice. But they didn’t? Why not? Because the Broadstairs Folk Week has buried its head in the sand and its failure to act on this issue demonstrates that's it is  institutionally racist and brings shame to Broadstairs, Thanet and Kent! 

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Broadstairs Folk Week Institutionally Racist!

Broadstairs Folk Week, which is taking place between 11-18 August, is, in my opinion, institutionally racist! It’s organising committee and Director, Jo Tuffs, actively endorse and provide financial support for Morris dancers and musicians from the “Border tradition” who are renowned for blacking-up for their performances. A practice many people, myself included, believe to be offensive and racist. 

Over the past 40 years “blacking up” by TV, stage, and cinema performers has all but disappeared with most people regarding it as distasteful and inappropriate. Yet despite pubic disproval blacking-up has survived and is flourishing within the Morris dancing and folk music community including, to its shame, the prestigious Broadstairs Folk Week.

The festival’s official Facebook page includes several photographs of “blacked up” Morris dancers participating in the 2016 “Big Parade – a family-friendly procession of music, morris and magic” which launches the festival each year. Their inclusion in the parade amounts to an official endorsement by festival organisers of blacking-up and the racist message which this sends out.

The festival’s website encourages Morris dance troupes across the country to visit Broadstairs Folk Week “to busk and take part in our big parade” and “to perform in show spots and run workshops”. In exchange performers receive free festival tickets worth £39 per day and subsidised camping for £5 per night. Some of the Morris troupes taking advantage of this generous offer black-up to perform. To provide those who engage in this offensive behaviour with the equivalent of £39 per day plus cheap camping is nothing less than a disgraceful financial subsidy for racism by the festival organisers and Director Tuffs.

Whatever the historic explanations and justifications for blacking-up might be this practice is no longer acceptable, especially in a modern, diverse and inclusive society. Instead of encouraging and supporting such offensive, racist, behaviour influential organisations and individuals in the Morris dancing and folk music community such as Tuffs and the Broadstairs Folk should be opposing and challenging it.

On 16th July I emailed the festival organisers writing that “to allow "blacked-up" Morris dancers to perform without challenge or criticism is insensitive, panders to racism and is plain wrong”. I pointed out that following complaints in 2016 the Shrewsbury Folk Festival had withdrawn its support from blacked-up Morris dancers and I urged the Broadstairs festival organisers, “to follow the brave and principled stance taken by the Shrewsbury Folk Festival and make a public statement about this totally unacceptable and racist practice before this year’s festival begins”

My e-mail went unanswered so I called the Folk Week office

on 26th July. My call was answered by Festival Director Jo Tuffs who as curt, off-handed and disinterested to the point of rudeness. I followed up this conversation with an e-mail to Tuffs expressing concerns about inaction over my complaint and offering to speak to the festival organising committee about the issue. I have not received a reply to this e-mail. 

I have been left with the impression that Tuffs and her organising committee don’t give a damn about the offence being caused by the Border Morris dancers and are happy to continue to encourage and financially support what many people believe to be the racism in the guise of a tradition by this shameful group of performers. 

Unless Tuffs and her organising committee take immediate action including the exclusion of Border Morris dancers from all official festival events, the withdrawal of free tickets to these dancers and the issuing of a statement dissociating the festival from blacked up dancers, I will contact the Charities Commission to ask for an investigation into whether Folk Week is in breach of its charitable objectives to promote multiculturalism. I will also contact Folk Week sponsors to ask them to reconsider funding a festival which currently appears to be encouraging and supporting racism.

It’s interesting to note that Broadstairs and St Peter’s Town Council, Thanet District Council and Kent County Council provide several thousands of pounds of funding to the Folk Week organisers. When providing such funding councils must adhere to the 2010 Equality Act and its public sector equality duty which requires funding to used, amongst other things, to “foster good relations” between people from different races and cultures and to “eliminate discrimination, harassment and victimisation”. Allowing public funds to be donated to an organisation which endorses and provides financial support to white Morris dancers who black-up is, in my book, tottally opposed to the public sector duty and if things don’t change Broadstairs and St Peter’s Town Council, Thanet District Council and Kent County Council should no longer fund Folk Week.

 NOTE the overwhelming majority of those who visit, perform at, or volunteer to help at Folk Week are I am sure decent, music loving, non-racists who are coming to Broadstairs to enjoy themselves and I wish them well. 

However the organisers of the festival have a duty to ensure that practices which offend, and which many perceive to be racist, should not in any way be tolerated or supported. I am extremely disappointed by the reaction of festival Director Jo Tuffs to my complaint and believe that she has demonstrated that she is not the right person to deal with this and should step aside to make room for someone who can. 

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Ramsgate's Ghost Port Looses £17.7Million In 7 Years!

According to Thanet Council’s externally audited accounts, Ramsgate Port has, over the past seven years, racked up operating losses of £17.6 million. That’s the equivalent of £126 for every man, woman and child living in Thanet. 

The message couldn’t be clearer – the massive losses and the failure of a new operator to come forward to resume cross-channel ferry services following the collapse of Trans Europa 4 years ago means that Ramsgate port, just like Manston Airport, is finished! It is commercially unsustainable and has no future in its current form. 

Had it been in the private sector, a financial performance as

disastrous as this would have led to the closure of the port years ago. Yet senior officers and successive Conservative, Labour and UKIP political administrations at Thanet Council appear to have been in total denial of the harsh economic facts revealed by their own accounts. They have buried their heads in the sand and, in the opinion of many, irresponsibly continued to waste £millions of taxpayers money keeping open a ghost port with virtually no ships.

Official council figures show that  last year only 165 ships berthed at Ramsgate that’s an average of three ships a weeks. Nine of these ships were part of the car delivery contract with GEFCO which has now ended. Sixteen of these ships were for the cruel live animal export trade which will probably end soon too. 

These appalling figures are hardly surprising bearing in mind

the fierce competition from nearby Dover, which is now beginning a £200million, three-year, expansion and modernisation programme and the highly successful, state-of-the-art, London Gateway Port less than 70 miles away. It wouldn’t surprise me if next year the number of ships berthing at Ramsgate fell below 100, proving what most of us already know – that Ramsgate port is a ghost port in terminal decline. 

This is why Thanet Council should face up to reality and begin the urgent task of reviewing the future of Ramsgate Port and deciding what would be the best uses for this important piece of publically owned land. The last time this was done was in 2014 when TDC’s then ruling Labour Group drew up, in secrecy and without any public consultation whatsoever, the Ramsgate Maritime Plan which proposed the wholesale industrialisation of the port, especially the expansion of the aggregate business at the port. 

This time around there should be a serious programme of extensive public engagement and consultation about the future of the port . Unlike Labour’s secretive and biased 2014 Maritime Plan, the views of Ramsgate residents should be accorded top priority, instead of being relegated to insignificance in favour party political dogma and the narrow commercial interests of those who may benefit from an industrialised port, such as the aggregate trade. 

Because whenever the public have been allowed to express

their views about the future of the port, such as the public meetings to oppose the O’Regan plans to develop a concrete block manufacturing and waste wood recycling operation at the port in 2015, or more recently Brett Aggregates proposals to expand their activities, the overwhelming view of local residents is opposed to the industrialisation of the port.

Many people at these packed public meetings expressed

their concerns about the impact of an industrialised, dirty and polluting port upon the nearby marine protected nature areas and the danger posed to air quality for people living in Ramsgate. Others were very concerned about the impact of a heavily industrialised port upon Ramsgate’s seafront and the historic Royal Harbour and how this could damage the recovery of the town’s tourist industry. Most people, including Thanet South MP, Craig MacKinlay expressed the view that allowing for the existing fishing the windfarm and ship repair operations, the future of Ramsgate Port should be leisure focused rather than industrial. A view which is supported by the fact that over the past 7 years Ramsgate Royal Harbour has made profits of £2,172 million which clearly demonstrates that the economic future of Ramsgate Port and Ramsgate seafront should be based upon tourism and leisure rather than the dirty and polluting industrialisation which has been unashamedly promoted by successive Conservative, Labour and UKIP controlled administrations at Thanet Council. 

Sadly this fixation with industrialisation continues apace with UKIP Council Leader Chris Wells and Director of Operational Service Gavin Waite investing almost £2.5 million last year in upgrading and modernising the berths, dredging the port and employing a “shipping industry expert” in the forlorn hope of attracting new ferry operators to the port.

The duo also unsuccessfully tried to secure a £4million government grant to upgrade port facilities and expand its traffic handling capacity up to 1 million heavy goods vehicles a year. Something which would hardly be good for air pollution in Ramsgate and the promotion public health. Astonishingly these hugely polluting HGV plans were not opposed by the Conservative and Labour oppositions at Thanet Council. Why? Because on the basis of their shameful track record on the port, they probably supported the 1 million HGVs! 

Even more worrying, if my many and reliable sources at Thanet Council are to be believed, is that secretive plans are allegedly being drawn about the possibility of developing a major waste processing and transfer facility at the Port of Ramsgate. A subject which I will be writing more about shortly.

The long-standing culture of secrecy surrounding the management of Ramsgate port and the Royal Harbour,  and the total exclusion of the public from this process is, in my opinion, an insult to democracy which speaks volumes about the controlling, top-down, approach of council bureaucrats and their Conservative, Labour and UKIP political bosses. I have long argued that the Port of Ramsgate and the Royal Harbour should be managed by a Harbour Board made up of Ramsgate councillors and independent residents which meets in public, which publishes all its reports, and which consults with local people on its business plans and strategies. This is exactly what has been happening in Whitstable  for the past 14 years. So why not Ramsgate? What do the powers that be have to hide?

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

KCC Tory Councillors = Shameless, Grapsing, Carpetbaggers!

Hypocrites is too kind a description of Kent County Council’s  67 Tory Councillors.

Members  of a party which has championed austerity for almost a decade. Members of party which has implemented  draconian cuts in our schools, hospitals, social care services and town halls; which has slashed benefits for the poor  and vulnerable and imposed 1 percent wage rises for nurses, teachers, ambulance crews etc; these shameless  carpetbaggers were the first in line to get their greedy snouts into the trough  by awarding themselves a massive 15% increase in their councillor allowances.

In an outrageous example  of “do as I say not as I do” double standards these so-called politicians voted to increase their allowances by an extra £247,202 when compared with  the previous financial year 2016/17. Adding in expenses, subsistence claims and pension contributions for  some of the 81 councillors  means that Kent County Council will spend  somewhere close to £2.5 million paying its councillors in the forthcoming year.  That’s  the equivalent of £1.66  for every man, woman and child living in the KCC area.
 According to research conducted by the Tax Payers Alliance, KCC councillors were already amongst  the top 5 groups of best paid councillors in England and Wales so why did they want even more? With a pay rise of over a quarter of a million pounds, they must now surely be the wealthiest group of  councillors in the country! Hardly an accolade to be proud of  when many in the county are struggling hard to get by.
The question must be asked are these councillors worth it, or are they overpaid?  And what sort of message does their greedy grasping behaviour send out to the public? Especially in an area like Thanet with the highest rates of unemployment, child poverty, low pay and  poor housing in south east England. The antics of these councillors, including Thanet KCC councillors  Ken Gregory and Emma Dawson who both spoke enthusiastically in favour of the increase at last week’s County Council meeting, reminds me of the 2010 MPs expenses scandal which exposed the self-serving attitude of many of our politicians and which brought politics into massive disrepute. I fear that those KCC Tory councillors who voted to give themselves a pay rise last week will also bring the County Council into massive disrepute, not that it wasn’t already regarded as unfit for purpose and out of touch by many people, myself included.
On a more positive note I must congratulate the KCC Labour Councillors who opposed the increase, especially councillor Tan Dhesi from Gravesend who gave a great speech and Green Councillor Martyn Whybrow who also opposed the increase.  It’s a shame the LibDems didn’t oppose the rise. But they wanted their own “modest rise” of 3.3%  
Here's my version of the allowances which will be paid to KCC councillors, including the  15% increase,  in 2017/18. This does not include payments for some councillors who are members of the KCC pension scheme. The travel and subsistence is based on 2016/17 figures. Nice work if you can get it.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Thanet Tops East Kent Councils Fat-Cat Pay League Despite UKIPs Promises

According to its draft accounts for 2016-17 Thanet Council employs 5 officers who earn more than £100k per year. The total cost to taxpayers for employing these officers is £597,050. Here’s the breakdown post by post. The salary bill is inclusive of employer pension contributions.

I’ve checked the draft 2016-17 accounts of our neighbouring East Kent councils: Ashford, Canterbury, Dover and Shepway to see how many officers they employ on salaries of £100k or more including employer pensions. I have set out the results in the table below. The comparison reveals that TDC employs 5 officers on more than £100k, whilst Dover, Canterbury and Shepway employ 4 and Ashford 3. TDCs annual cost for employing 5 £100,000 plus staff is £597,050 that’s £116,063 more than the nearest comparator Shepway which has an annual cost of £480,987 for employing 4 staff on salaries of over £100,000.

Each of the 5 East Kent Councils are of similar population sizes and provide identical services. Indeed some of the services such as Human Resources , Housing and IT are shared between the 5 councils. So why should there be such large discrepancies in the top officer pay bills? And why should Thanet, the most deprived of the 5 East Kent Council’s with the highest unemployment and the lowest average wages, be employing the largest number of £100k plus officers? These discrepancies don’t appear to make any sense and I have been unable to discover a logical explanation.

Being top of the East Kent councils fatcat pay league is all the more mysterious when its borne in mind that TDC is run by UKIP. This is a party which in its 2015 election manifesto proudly boasted that it would “Slash excessive pay deals and golden handshakes for council executives” and “Limit the number of highly-paid council employees”. Clearly Thanet Council’s UKIP Leader, Chris Wells has reneged on this election promise, just has he reneged on UKIPs manifesto pledge to end expensive council car parking. Its clear that UKIP and Chris Wells cannot be trusted to keep their promises to voters and this probably explains why they were wiped out in recent County Council elections.

Former Chancellor George Osbourne recently described Prime Minster Theresa May as a dead woman walking. I’m think the same description applies to TDC Council Leader Chris Wells.
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Margate Dreamland Goes Offshore (Part 1)

A week ago insolvency administrators Duff and Phelps published their latest progress report about the failed Dreamland Amusement Park operator, Sands Heritage Limited (SHL). It makes very interesting reading.

The most striking and worrying issue raised by the report is the administrators claim that it is “uncertain whether there will be sufficient realisations to enable a dividend to the non-preferential unsecured creditors of the Company (SHL)”. According to Duff and Phelps the non-preferential unsecured creditors are owed a staggering £5.79 million in unpaid bills. Lots of these creditors are small local businesses who provided goods and services to SHL and who can ill-afford to take even a small financial hit in these difficult times. This is not good news for the local economy.

Many people have argued that this unacceptable state of affairs is entirely the fault of SHL. It was SHL who was running the amusement park and taking the all operational decisions prior to its collapse into administration. It was SHL which had produced a business plan which proved to be wholly inadequate for the profitable running of the park and it was SHL who was behind the wheel when financial disaster struck. Whilst this is true, blame apportionment, especially for the failure of a large and complex project such Dreamland, is not that simple.

I have been arguing for a long time that although SHL may have been the author of its own downfall, the actions of Thanet District Council (TDC) were also likely to have been a contributory factor in the company’s collapse and the consequential £5.79 million debt mountain. My view is supported by SHL itself which in late 2015 is alleged to have threatened to take legal action against TDC for beach of contract which, SHL claimed, had caused it serious financial difficulties. SHL administrators, Duff and Phelps, repeated this claim in reports published on the Companies House website. To avoid an embarrassing court case which may have revealed the true extent of TDCs responsibility for SHLs financial difficulties, TDC made a payment of £950,000 to the company in late 2015. I have now submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request for the release of documents relating to the £950,000 payment, but TDC is claiming that these documents are commercially confidential and will not release them. I wonder what they are trying to hide?

But its not just TDCs alleged breach of contract which may have contributed to SHLs financial collapse. Questions have also been asked about whether TDC should have appointed the the company to run the amusement park in the first place. Less than 2 months before the park opened in June 2015 the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) a major co-funder (over £5million) of the Dreamland project wrote a strident letter to TDCs Chief Executive Madeline Homer and the then Labour Council Leader, Iris Johnston, expressing great concern at the appointment of SHL as the Dreamland Operator and demanding to know on what basis the decision was made and why HLF had not been consulted. In subsequent correspondence between TDC and HLF it emerged that TDC had taken external legal advice about the appointment of SHL, which serves to demonstrate a serious degree of unease about the council’s choice of operator. 

More recently even TDCs own internal auditors have expressed reservations about the appointment of SHL as the Dreamland operator. In a report from December 2016 they say thatThe learning from this, and experiences across the wider East Kent local government umbrella, is that fledgling companies with no track record or accounts, set up for a particular purpose carry a greater risk than is being acknowledged through the due diligence checks being undertaken by these multi-disciplinary groups of officers and members”. So there you have it, what many people believe to have been an unwise choice of park operator by TDC, coupled with alleged contractual failures by the Council, are likely to have been important factors in the collapse of SHL and the astronomic £5.79 million debts which are unlikely to ever be repaid.

I hope that my FOI requests, one of which will shortly be considered by the Information Tribunal in London, will eventually force the disclosure of documents which are likely to proove that TDC badly mismanaged the Dreamland project and that this mismanagement contributed towards the collapse of SHL and the consequent financial mess.

But its not all bad news! The Administrator’s report also includes some very positive information about Dreamland, especially the massive £20 million investment which the Cayman Islands registered hedge fund Arrowgrass Master Fund has made in the park and its surrounds. Having visited the park since its makeover, I must say I am impressed by what has been done. But I do wonder why Arrowgrass Master Fund has invested so much money in Dreamland and why, despite the failure of SHL to make the park a success, it believes it can generate a decent return for its rich investors. Clearly Arrowgrass has spotted what it believes to be potentially lucrative and highly profitable Dreamland related opportunities.

This probably explains why, according the Administrator’s report, Arrowgrass recently acquired almost 99% of SHLs shares from the original shareholders including Nick Connington, John Adams, Robert O’Connor, and Christopher Webster, who all resigned as directors of SHL in May this year.

SHL is now almost 100 percent owned by an offshore hedge fund based in the “tax-efficient”, or as some people might say “tax-dodging”, Cayman Islands. The questions must now be asked who are Arrowgrass and what are their plans for Dreamland? I will be discussing this in Part 2 of this post which I hope to publish soon.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

TDCs £121,000 Boss In “Not on Duty” Rubbish Row

Social Media Mr Howes
TDCs £121,000 a year Director of Corporate Governance and Monitoring Officer, Tim Howes, appears to have become embroiled in an embarrassing social media row. 

Commenting on a discussion about dumped bags of rubbish in Ramgate and the lack of street cleaners to collect them, Howes, or someone purporting to be him says Did the council put this rubbish out in thin plastic bags? We all have to pay for someone else’s thoughtless actions”. When challenged as to whether he was Council’s Director of Corporate Governance and Monitoring Officer he curtly replied “Not at weekends!”.

Weekends or not, photos on the Facebook account of the Tim Howes who commented about the rubbish in Ramsgate bear a striking resemblance to photos on the TDC and Linkedin website of TDC boss Tim Howes. I therefore assume that the social media commentator is the same highly paid Tim Howes who works for TDC. If I am wrong and if this transpires to be a hoax then I will publicly apologies to TDC’s Mr Howes. In the meantime this episode has raised some very interesting questions, particularly about the nature of Mr Howes comments and the impression they create about TDC.
LinkedIn Mr Howes

First of all it’s worth knowing that its extremely unusual for a TDC officer to become involved in a general social media debate about the day to day operation of TDC services. Whilst a TDC councillor, and afterwards, I don’t ever recall a single instance of a TDC employee, especially a very senior employee, becoming involved in general day to day debate on social media debate about council business.

This is because TDC has a well established custom and practice whereby day to day social media commentary about council business is something which is left to elected councillors, some of whom are very active in this sphere of communication. The rationale behind this practice is that council officers, should endeavour to remain politically neutral and that engaging in social media debate about how the council operates could result in ill-considered comments being made which may be construed as being politically motivated.

But that’s not to say Mr Howes has broken any rules. On the contrary, TDC’s Constitution says that Employees' off-duty hours are their personal concern” and Mr Howes is technically correct to say, as he did, that he is not TDCs Director of Corporate Governance and Montoring Officer during his weekend break. So why not comment on Facebook if he feels like it?

Well its not that straightforward. What appears to be a carte-blanche to do as you will when off duty is qualified by a number of conditions set out in TDCs Officer Code of Conduct including the following - The public is entitled to expect the highest standards of conduct from all employees who work for local government” and - Local government employees are expected to give the highest possible standard of service to the public” then - Failure to meet such standards can result in adverse public comment to the detriment of the Council and the service and in certain circumstances can have serious consequences for the employee and put their job at risk”.

TDCs constitution also provides extensive guidance to councillors and officers, such as Mr Howes, about how to engage with the media, including social media, on matters relating to Council business like uncollected rubbish. It says they must “Consider the likely consequences for the Council of their statement”. It says they should “Consult with the Communications Team for the Council in advance of speaking to the press or to the media”. It says they should “Consider whether to consult other relevant members” . I would also image, particularly at at Mr Howes elevated level within the organisation, that there is also an expectation that he would have consulted colleague directors if he was making comments about the services they manage rather than his own, no matter how benign and non-controversial these comments might be. Taking these constitutional issues into account it should be asked -

1) Were Mr Howes comments about the rubbish “Did the council put this rubbish out in thin plastic bags? We all have to pay for someone else’s thoughtless actions” representative of the highest standard of conduct of a local government officer?. Personally I don’t think so. On duty, or off, surely Mr Howes, as one of the most senior officers at TDC should, rather than criticising others, have been proactive and demonstrated leadership by saying instead that he would make contact with the relevant service manager to have rubbish removed at the earliest opportunity.

2) Did Mr Howes “Consider the likely consequences for the Council of his (my insertion) statement. Once again I don’t think so. Bearing in mind his blaming of others and his statement that he is not the £121,000 Director of Corporate Services at weekends I believe that Mr Howes may have generated a negative “jobsworth” impression of TDC which is not something which would normally be expected from one of of its highest paid officers.

4) Did Mr Howe’s comments “result in adverse public comment to the detriment of the Council and the service”? Yes, in my opinion, they did and this is precisely why I am writing this blog post because I believe Mr Howes was wrong to become involved in this Facebook discussion and because I believe his comments were not helpful. I am not alone in this view and others on Facebook were less than impressed with Mr Howes intervention.

5) Before making his comments on social media about rubbish collection did Mr Howes consult , as is constitutionally required, with TDCs Communictions Team? Did he consult with the Cabinet member with political responsibility for street cleaning Councillor Suzanne Brimm? Did he consult with the Director of Operational Services, Gavin Waite, who is responsible for managing the street cleaning teams? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I have a suspicion the answer may be no, which brings me to some much a more serious points.

It is my understanding that the number of street cleaners and refuse collection staff, who are virtually all employed via employment agencies, rather than directly by TDC, have been massively reduced in the past 2-3 years, which might explain why bags of rubbish are often left uncollected in Ramsgate and elsewhere in Thanet. I have now submitted a Freedom of Information request to find out by exactly how much the staffing levels of these services have been reduced over the past 3 years and I will post a blog as soon as I get answers from TDC.

But most worrying of all, recent and extensive media coverage about the aftermath of the appalling Grenfell Tower disaster has focused on an alleged culture of unresponsiveness, aloofness, disdain and a lack of effective team working at higher management levels in Kensington and Chelsea Council. This unacceptable management culture is alleged to be one of the reasons why Kensington and Chelsea Council is said to have failed abysmally to cope effectively and compassionately with the dreadful, heartbreaking, tragedy. It is also said to be one of the reasons why the Chief Executive and Leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council were forced to resign and one of the reasons why the Government was forced to send in outsiders to takeover over the running of many of the council’s key services.

Not that I saying for a moment that TDC is in the same managerial position as Kensington and Chelsea Council. It is not. But Mr Howes comments, if indeed the commentator was Mr Howes, reflect, in my opinion, a lack of pro-activity and sympathy in heeding residents legitimate concerns and an unfortunate “jobsworth” attitude to the out of hours responsibilities of one of the Council’s most senior and well paid officers. Furthermore, his comments about services he is not responsible for managing, if made without consultation with colleague directors and cabinet members, demonstrate a worrying lack of corporate cohesion at the most senior levels within TDC.

Whilst these matters are clearly not on par with Kensington and Chelsea Council it is nevertheless important for the Leader of the Councillor Chris Wells and the Chief Excutive to investigate this incident and ensure similar comments are not posted by well paid senior managers again. As they say its always best for those in charge to nip even the most minor examples of bad practice in the bud before they become endemic within an organisation, preventing it from being as effective as it could be in the event of a major crisis.

Friday, 30 June 2017

TDCs Car Parking Car Crash

Thanet Council’s (TDCs) parking policy is beginning to look like a car crash. According to figures I obtained via a Freedom of Information request the number of vehicles using TDC car parks from the introduction of new parking fees on 1 April until 31 May 2017 has dropped by a staggering 18,794 compared with the same period last year. That’s a 14% reduction in car park usage which is almost certainly the result of the massive parking fee hike.
These figures suggest to me that both visitors and locals are parking in nearby streets which are free, or avoiding town centres and tourist spots altogether, rather than coughing up the exorbitant, rip-off fees (increased in some cases by 138%), which were introduced by the UKIP controlled council earlier this year. If this trend continues throughout the year then its possible that TDC will miss its income generation targets for car parks and may even earn less than last year.

Both the fee hike and the proposed expansion of new fee charging parking schemes across Thanet have generated great public anger against TDC and a petition of almost 900 signatures.  This anger has been fuelled by the fact that UKIP councillors who run TDC and who put forward these plans, stood for election in 2015 on a manifesto which states that “UKIP believes our town centres should be vibrant and profitable and that means encouraging locals, visitors and tourists into town, by removing barriers that act as a disincentive, such as expensive or restricted parking”. Not surprisingly many Thanet residents have now branded TDC’s UKIP councillors as a hypocrites and this might be a factor in their humiliating defeat in the recent county council elections in May. And rightly so! A politician who promises one thing and then does the total opposite deserves to be punished by the voters.

Thankfully, many local politicians are waking to the fact that they may pay a high price for taking the piss out of voters and are now beginning to rebel against TDCs ill-conceived decision to hike parking fees and its hare-brianed plans to massively expand paid for parking schemes across Thanet.

UKIPs Chris Wells gone soon??
At a meeting of TDC’s Overview and Scrutiny Panel on 23 May councillors voted to recommend that UKIP Council Leader Chris Wells and his Cabinet colleagues “revert to the 2016/17 parking charges for the five seasonal car parks” Two weeks later councillors on TDC’s Joint Transport Committee unanimously voted to condemn the parking fee increases and the proposed on and off street parking expansion plans. Both committees argued that the fee hikes and parking expansion plans were unnecessary and unjustifiable. Both committees argued that the fee hikes and parking expansion plans would, as UKIP’s own Manifesto argues deter locals, visitors and tourists from our town centres and leisure areas because of “expensive or restricted parking”.

And its also the case that the new parking fees introduced by Council Leader Wells and his Cabinet colleagues in April make Thanet one of the most expensive places on the south coast to park. A quick internet check of Whitstable, Herne Bay, Hastings and Eastbourne revealed town centre charges ranging from 80p to 1.70 per hour and at Bexhill-on-Sea most car parking is free! Charges of up to £10.00 for 4 hours will undoubtedly deter tourists and locals alike from going to the beach or visiting Dreamland, Ramsgate seafront, or the Turner Contemporary and will seriously undermine the economic revival of Thanet

The stay-away motorists who are not using Thanet car parks, the growing public anger against TDCs parking policies, and the developing political revolt against the massively unpopular measures are beginning to isolate UKIP council leader Chris Wells and damage his credibility much like what is happening to out of touch Prime Minister,Theresa May. And just like Prime Minster May, Wells is becoming increasingly nervous and looking at ways to save his political skin and presumably his £22,600 council allowances as well. So much so that he announced in last weeks Thanet Gazette that “the cabinet will meeting shortly to reconsider this matter”.

And so it should because many people, myself included, believe the massive car parking fee increases and the proposed extension of new off and on street car parking schemes across Thanet are nothing less than an unnecessary and unfair stealth tax on locals and visitors alike. Thankfully this ill-conceived cash-grab has now blown up in the faces of those who thought it was a good idea. I suspect that at the next council elections in 2019 UKIP will pay a very heavy price for this debacle. Those UKIP councillors with any sense will of course already be in discussions with the Conservative, and possibly Labour Party, about changing sides my prediction is that Chris Wells will not be UKIP council leader much longer.