Thursday, 23 March 2017

Super Council Scuppered? What Next?

Last night Canterbury, Dover, Thanet and Shepway councils met to vote on whether or not to hold public consultations about  merging to become a super council. It appears that this ambitious, some might say over-ambitious, plan to create the largest district council in the country serving over 600,000 people, has now been scuppered.

According to reports, Councillors in Shepway voted 18 to 8 to reject the proposed consultation on the 4-way merger. Councillors in Canterbury decided not to vote at all; an indication of their serious reservations about the plan. Councillors at Dover voted narrowly (22 votes to 18) to go ahead with the consultation. And it is reported that Thanet councillors voted by a large majority to hold a consultation, although the actual number of votes for and against have not yet been published. But with 2 out  of the 4 councils (Shepway and Canterbury)  having in effect vetoed the public consultation exercise on the super council, I can’t see how Dover and Thanet can  go ahead with what would now be a pointless and expensive consultation exercise.

My understanding is that the main reasons why Shepway and Canterbury councillors appear to have got cold feet about the merger is because they were concerned about the restricted nature of the proposed public consultation about the plans and the democratic deficit which would result from the culling of a huge number of elected councillors which, it was argued, might result in the new organisation becoming out of touch with the communities it served, just like Kent County Council. However the main reason for reticence, I have been told, is the astronomic debt which would be inherited by the proposed super council.

Working with colleague bloggers at ShepwayVox we exclusively revealed, in an article we jointly published on 18 February 2017,  that the estimated total debt which would have to be managed by the new super council would be in excess of £1billion. Canterbury, Dover, Thanet and Shepway councils have never challenged our figures because they know that they are correct. There’s a link to this  article and the debt figures at the bottom of this  post.

Huge inherited debt was the reason why Ashford Council pulled out of the merger talks  earlier this year with its leader councillor Gerry Clarkson reportedly saying he was concerned about the “financial woes” of the other 4 councils. I have been told by someone who was there, that discussions at the meeting of Shepway Council last night also raised the spectre of the, as yet unquantified, compensation payment that Thanet Council will have to make to the former owners of the Margate Dreamland Amusement Park.  My understanding is that the former owners of the park have submitted a compensation claim in excess of £20million and that Thanet Council has appointed barrister Mary Cook to head up of a team of CPO experts to resist the claim at a cost estimated to be approaching £100k.  I can perfectly understand the reluctance of councillors from Canterbury, Shepway and Dover to sign a blank cheque for a multi-million settlement deal which is likely to have to be picked up by their constituents.

My view is that the proposed super council was a badly conceived, hastily put together, undemocratic, dogs breakfast of plan which deserves to be booted out by east Kent councillors. However, I’m on record as supporting radical local government re-organisation in East Kent and my views haven’t changed. I firmly believe that Kent County Council should be abolished and its powers devolved to a series of new unitary councils based upon mergers of no more than three district councils. These new unitary councils should have councillors elected on the basis of proportional representation and the voting age for electors to the new councils should be reduced to 16. I also believe that the such changes should, unlike the prosed super council,  include the fullest  public consultation and a binding referendum of people in the affected areas.

Link to super council super debt article

Thursday, 16 March 2017

No To Ramsgate Parkway Station!

Ramsgate Parkway Station is a massively expensive white elephant which, apart from enriching greedy property developers, serves no useful purpose whatsoever. I am totally opposed to granting planning permission for the station and will be submitting objections to the second round of public consultation which closes on 19th March. Here’s the reasons why I am not supporting this hare-brained proposal.

Cost. The original, 2014, cost estimate for Ramsgate Parkway Station was £11.2million.  These costs were reviewed again in April 2016 and estimated to be £23million. That’s a staggering 109% increase in less than 2 years. But it’s almost certain that the final construction costs will be much higher. Taking into account inflation,  Brexit-related cost increases, and any changes to the construction plans resulting from the second round of public consultation, my guess is that the actual cost of building Ramsgate Parkway station will be approaching £30million. That’s a massive 3 times the original estimate!
So where’s the money coming from? Well £10million has already been allocated by the Government from its Local Growth Fund scheme and according to documents presented to the Kent and Medway Economic Partnership in January 2017 a bid has been submitted to Network Rail’s New Station Fund for £8.77million. If the bid is successful then almost £19 million will have been raised towards the 2016 estimate of £23million - that’s a shortfall of £4million – but in reality the shortfall is more likely to be £6-8million, which will probably have to be paid for by Thanet and Kent County Council tax payers. Is it any wonder that the South East Local Economic Partnership (SELEP) , which is overseeing the development of, and  manging the fundraising for,  Ramsgate Parkway Station, has flagged this project as being high risk because of funding uncertainty.
Value for money. The original purpose of Ramsgate Parkway station was to service Manston Airport. When it became clear that Manston Airport was unlikely to re-open, the justification for building the station suddenly shifted. Planners began to argue that Parkway would help to support the growth and development of Discovery Park, Manston Business Park and the proposed Stone Hill Park which is to be located on the former airport site. This is utter nonsense. The overwhelming majority of people working at, or visiting, Discovery Park and Manston Business Park are local to East Kent and travel to the sites by car using the new dual carriageway system not the train. I’m certain that exactly the same situation will prevail at Stone Hill Park when/ if it is built and becomes operational.
The other justification for building Parkway station is supposedly to relieve the stress being placed on Ramsgate station by the increase in passenger numbers following the introduction of HS1, and to tackle the difficulties faced by commuters wishing to park near the station. Once again this is nonsense. Rather than spending somewhere in the region of  £30million to create  a new station with a massive 350 space  car park, surely KCC, it’s planners and consultants, would have saved  a small fortune by looking at local solutions to  manage and reduce  pressures on Ramsgate station instead. There is plenty of spare land near Ramsgate station which could be used to provide more car parking such as the disused railway sidings and nearby former industrial land which is not being used. Some of the commercial and industrial premises located near to the station could also be compulsorily purchased by KCC and the businesses relocated elsewhere to create new parking capacity for the capacity for the station. Investing in improved bus services to and from the station and developing safe cycling routes and secure cycle storage facilities would actually reduce the need for parking spaces at Ramsgate station.
Last but not least is the fact that that Ramsgate Parkway station makes no contribution towards reducing the journey time from Thanet’s railway stations to Canterbury, Ashford and London. In fact it actually makes journey time longer. Surely, from an  economic regeneration point of view,  it would be much more sensible to invest   £30million into  improving tracks, signalling, etc to cut the journey time from Ramsgate to London to one hour or less, instead of spending it on station which adds no, or little, value to Thanet and its residents. Even the SELEP which is overseeing the development of, and managing the fundraising for, Ramsgate Parkway Station has its doubts about whether this project generates value for money and has categorised the project as high risk because of the “current funding gap, value for money uncertainty, key risk issues currently unresolved

Environmental issues.  It’s not just the spiralling costs and the doubtful value for money which has led me to oppose Ramsgate Parkway station, but the massive environmental damage it will cause as well. The Kent branch of the Campaign to Protect to Rural England (CPRE) says that “this station will be a significant generator of car journeys as it encourages out-commuting”. These additional car journeys will add to the air pollution in and around Thanet and Ramsgate which is rapidly becoming a serious threat to public health and is the cause of  tens of thousands premature deaths every year.The other, equally important threat to the environment is the loss of a large (2 hectare) area of previously undeveloped farmland, which will be concreted over to make way for the station.
But the loss of greenfield land will not be restricted to the station site itself. The prospect of new station on the HS1 line to London will unboundedly attract greedy property developers from far wide hoping to make huge profits by building houses on the open land surrounding the station.  Sadly this process is already beginning. According to Thanet Council planning records 4 planning applications have been verified in the past 12 months, one of which has already been approved, to build a total of 157 new houses in and around Cliffsend. If planning permission for the station is granted then I fear that we will see many more planning applications. In fact the SELEP estimates that one of ancillary “benefits”  of building Ramsgate Parkway station would be the building of 800 new houses in the vicinity of the station and Cliffsend. There is no doubt in my mind that granting planning permission for Ramsgate Parkway station would be the beginning of the end for Cliffsend. It would almost certainly become absorbed into Ramsgate’s rapidly expanding urban conurbation, losing its separate and historic identity as a village. And in the process valuable and irreplaceable top grade agricultural land will be lost forever, along with the habitats and protection this land offers to our wildlife.
Politics. Ramsgate Parkway station is a Kent County Council project. I am unware of  Ramsgate’s two UKIP Kent Councillors, Trevor Shonk and Martin Heale, having made any public statements about this costly and controversial  development in their own backyard. They said nothing during the first 2015 public consultation and 2 years later during the second 2017 consultation they have said nothing again. Considering that plans for the station were widely opposed in 2014 and appear to be strongly opposed again, surely Ramsgate’s KCC councillors should be playing an active and vociferous role in supporting their constituents in stopping this damaging scheme getting off the ground. Sadly, I think the truth is that UKIP actually supports Ramsgate Parkway station and is looking forward to the 800 new houses it will cause to be built in and around Cliffsend and the £2 million or so in extra council tax payments they will generate each year for the cash-strapped Thanet Council.  
But UKIP doesn’t stand alone in supporting Parkway station and turning their backs on the plight of Cliffsend and its residents. Tory KCC candidates Marc Rattigan and Paul Messenger have remained silent on Ramsgate Parkway making no statements  in the media about this important issue. Labour candidates Karen Constantine and Raushan Ara have also been silent.  Not surprisingly when you consider  that Thanet Labour Party executed a massive U-turn, from opposing the station on environmental grounds  to supporting it in 2014. Here’s the link to an article I wrote at the time.

I’m deeply saddened that UKIP, the Tories and Labour all appear to be supporting the Ramsgate Parkway Station and are arrogantly unconcerned about the massive waste of public money on a station that serves no useful purpose; a station that most people don’t want; and a station which will cause considerable and significant harm to Thanet’s  environment and the village of Cliffsend. Hopefully a KCC election candidate might come forward who will fight this scheme and put the wishes of residents and the protection of our environment before misguided party loyalty.   

Monday, 6 March 2017

Breaking! Ramsgate Labour Candidates Election Fundraising Deceit?

Last week Ramsgate Labour Party’s candidates for the forthcoming Kent County Council elections, Karen Constantine and Raushan  Ara and their election agent Kaz Peet, were exposed by the BBC, The Daily Mail and the  Thanet Extra  for trying to sell  off  Lush cosmetics intended for homeless and deprived people, to raise funds for their election campaign.  Not only were their actions morally and ethically repugnant, but it’s now emerged that Constantine and Peet,  might also have tried to mislead the public about the purpose of their Lush sale at the Churchill Tavern on 18th February.  
In an interview on BBC Newsroom Southeast tonight a woman who was working at the Churchill Tavern on the day of the Lush sale, Natalie Garrett, said that she was asked by Constantine to make a large display sign advertising the sale of the Lush products and to include on the sign a message saying that they were being sold for charity. Here’s a picture of the advertising sign which Natalie Garrett made and which was prominently  displayed on the day of the Lush sale .

Whilst requesting Ms Garrett to make the sign advising passers-by and Churchill Tavern customers that the Lush sale was for charitable purposes, Constantine and her agent Kaz Peet were simultaneously  posting messages on Facebook aimed at their Labour Party colleagues and friends, saying that all proceeds from the Lush sale would be going to the Labour Party. Here’s some Facebook screen shots dated the 18 February which support my claim.

Ms Garret says that some of her friends and family were misled into buying the  Lush products because they believed they were being sold to help charities. Had it been made clear to them that the products were being sold to raise funds for the Ramsgate Labour Party’s campaign to elect Constantine and Ara to Kent County Council then, Ms Garrett,  said it was unlikely  that  they would have bought them.  Ms Garrett’s claim of deceit about the real intention of the sale in the Churchill Tavern is supported by a Facebook post made last week. I’ve edited out the name of the poster, but it would appear that some  people were led to believe that the sale of the Lush products was for charitable purposes  and not for Ramsgate Labour Party’s campaign to get Constantine and Ara elected to Kent County Council.  

So what we appear to have here is an appallingly unethical effort by Labour candidates Constantine and Ara and election agent Peet to sell off charitable donations, intended for homeless and deprived people, to raise funds for their election campaign, whilst at the same time allegedly deceiving passers-by and customers of the Churchill Tavern that the proceeds of the sale would go to charity not to the Labour Party. If this is true it’s an utterly despicable and dishonest way to raise funds for an election campaign.

There is no excuse for election candidates to behave in this way, especially experienced candidates like Constantine, who also claims to be a magistrate. No amount of apologies can excuse what seems to have been a deliberate effort to deceive and mislead the public about the real intention of the Lush sale at the Churchill Tavern on 18 February.   It was not until 20th February  - 2 days after the Lush sale,  and after she and Constantine had been contacted by a journalist from the national press, that Kaz Peet announced that the proceeds from the Lush sale would be donated to local charities. Until then everyone involved, apart from hoodwinked customers of the Churchill Tavern, clearly understood that the cash was destined for Constantine and Ara’s election campaign.

Writing today on the Kent Online website political correspondent Paul Francis says  that at a meeting of the Ramsgate Labour Party held last   Friday, Constantine gave an account of the Lushgate scandal and reiterated her apology.  Party members accepted her explanation of the events and voted to take no further action. I wonder if Constantine included in her explanation of events any reference to allegedly having misled and deceived the customers of the Churchill Tavern about the destination of the cash raised by  the Lush sale on 18th February. I wonder if she had done so, whether her Labour Party colleagues would have been prepared to accept her explanation  and agree to take no further action?

Paul Francis goes on to say that the  line has not been finally drawn under what appears to be an  appalling example of election fundraising abuse. He says  that regional and county Labour Party officials are examining the Lushgate  events. I wonder whether or not the regional and county officials will do what in my opinion is clearly necessary – to force Constantine, Ara and Peet to stand down as elections candidates/ agents. I’m not holding breath.

Constantine is employed as a paid official of the GMB trade union which has a lot influence in the Labour Party. She is also very influential in south east region Labour Party politics being a regional board member  and a national policy forum member for Labour’s south east region. I’m sure that because she is so high profile in south east Labour she is very likely to be treated with kid- gloves. But then I’d like to believe  that south east Labour is not so morally and ethically bankrupt  that it would tolerate as members and occupiers of senior positions,  people who appear to have hijacked charitable donations, sold them  off  to fund their political careers, and deceived many of the customers at the sale about where the cash was going. Surely the south east region of the Labour Party could never endorse such alleged actions?    What would Jeremy Corbyn say if they did?  
Here's  the BBC report. I'd like to pay tribute to Natalie Garrett for being so brave to speak out. Unlike others I could mention she is a woman of integrity and principle.