Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Merton Full Council meeting

Wednesday night saw the last full council of the year and a number of successes for the Labour opposition against the minority Merton Tory administration.

With the support of Merton Park Residents, a Conservative motion on older people was successfully amended (30-29). More significantly, a motion condemning the recent stock transfer letter was passed, on the motion the Tories decided not to vote knowing that they were going to lose. The meeting was full self-justification for the letter from Cabinet member Cllr Diane Neil-Mills. The letter also received strong condemnation from Cllr Peter Southgate leader of the Merton Park Residents for bypassing scrutiny.

The motion passed was as follows.

This Council regrets that the letter sent to housing tenants entitled 'The future of the Council’s housing stock', ostensibly to warn tenants that the matter was to be
reconsidered, also argued the case in favour housing stock transfer:

(i) in apparent contradiction of a Cabinet decision of 13th June 2005;
(ii) before the issue had been discussed in Cabinet or Scrutiny; and
(iii) purported to present a 'Council' view on the issue of housing stock transfer.

The effect of this letter has been to pre-empt the proper involvement of scrutiny and
place ward councillors in a difficult position.
This Council expresses its concern at the approach taken and states its determination
not to allow such pre-emption in future.

This was the first meeting that was not 30-30, as one Conservative councillor was absent and a number of Tories including cabinet member Tariq Ahmad turned up late.

The questions brought a number of interesting responses. On allowances, Cllr David Williams did not rule out a significant increase in allowances which in certain cases could be a 100% rise for a Cabinet member with total allowance being increased from £15,000 a year including special responsibility allowance to £40,000 a year as recommended by the London Council report.

In terms of the allocation of resources question, Cllr David Williams defended the remarks of Stephen Hammond MP of an unfair allocation of resources to the east of the borough (which means Mitcham) at the expense of Wimbledon. Completely untrue, but given their lack of representation in the east of the borough, an unsurprising remark.

Also it seems that the previous campaign for St Helier is not much of a priority for the minority Conservative administration. In a written response from David Williams little support was given by the minority administration for the Council's previous support under the former Labour administration to refer to the Secretary of State the decision to site the Critical Care hospital at Sutton Hospital (miles away from Merton Borough and in a very affluent part of Sutton). The whole initiative was described by David Williams as "an initiative inspired by Siobhain McDonagh"(another misleading statement as the then Labour controlled Merton Council scrutiny commission referred the matter to the Secretary of Stare) it is clear that if they had been in power nothing would have been done and they would be backing up their Tory colleagues in Surrey on the site of the critical care hospital.

In terms of the motions, I seconded the amendment on the GLA powers motion but it was lost as the residents backed the Tories. In Merton, the Tories would prefer that housing powers remain with the Government office for London instead of being under the democratic control of the mayor. Most of the claims the Tories were making were complete nonsense. The whole motion was a Tory model motion circulated round the boroughs and part of their campaign to oust Ken campaign in 2008. After thei dismal failure of the tories to find a candidate first time round (or none of sufficient calibre) they are still searching. They also had a question on Ken Livingstone's last visit to Merton from Tory Henry Nelless, it was stated, as 2003 but I know he has been in the Borough many times since and was in Merton earlier in 2006.

With us deciding to spring a surprise on the Tories by withdrawing a motion on Council budget powers (and the Tories had even prepared an amendment) the meeting finished half an hour early.

E-mail sent from Nigel Farage to Merton Labour councillors

Nigel Farage, the Leader of UKIP today sent an e-mail out to Labour
councillors in Merton and I presume it has been sent to councillors across
the country, sending out SPAM seems to be one of his pastimes.

The thought of ever joining up with this far right bunch of oddballs and loonies is beyond me, though with Cameron's so called drift to the left they may enjoy greater success with Tory Councillors and no doubt a number share their views
of Britain.

With less then 10 councillors nationally they have a lot of work to
to to gain any meaningful representation.

What is also interesting it that they have sent the e-mail out from the
European Parliament domain which is a clear breach of the rules
and to have .eu at the end of the e-mail when they claim to want
out from Europe shows their hypocrisy. I have no doubt the complaints will soon be flooding into the European Parliament.

Anyway I enclose below a copy of the e-mail

-----Original Message-----
From: FARAGE Nigel []
Sent: 29 November 2006 16:51
To: Councillor Martin Whelton
Subject: Making a difference

Dear Councillor,

There does not seem to be very much difference between our three main parties these days. This is hardly surprising as 75% of our laws are now made by the EU with little or no input from Westminster.

As you must realise local government is in a poor state too with a new unelected layer of Regional Assemblies and voter disenchantment.

In UKIP we believe that it is essential for the UK to become self-governing again and for voters to want to participate. We are developing as a broadly based real party of opposition, the only one saying what most people think. (See for a full range of policies)

With the local elections in May we intend to build up on local government representation and would welcome a conversation with anyone that might consider working with us or joining us. It is time to stand up and be counted.

We give you an absolute assurance that you can contact us on a completely confidential basis.

Yours sincerely,

N. Farage

Leader of UKIP

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Rewriting History

My response to the letter of Debbie Shears letter in the Wimbledon Guardian.

In the Wimbledon Guardian of 23rd November, Debbie Shears Cabinet member for Children Services published a letter claiming the credit for academies in Merton. Seeing the letter, it was a clear attempt to re-write history given the Tories record on the establishment of academies prior to the local elections in May.

Before the election, the Conservatives were busy opposing the plans of the then Labour Council for academies in the Borough. Indeed, Cllr Ooonagh Moulton now the Conservative Cabinet member for Secondary schools stated in a Life Chances scrutiny meeting "that the case for academies was not proven".

Following a motion at full Council, which was defeated by the then Labour majority to delay the start of academies till January 2007(bascilly to stop academies going ahead) they put out a leaflet in my ward Pollards Hill where one of the academies is now based saying, "Labour Councillors voted to hand the schools over to private sponsors and give away millions of pounds of Council taxpayers money . . . .The Labour Government shower the sponsors with knighthoods and peerages."

The peer who sponsored Tamworth Manor(now Harris Academy) happened to be Lord Harris, an ally of the Tory leader David Cameron who had been awarded his peerage under a Conservative government. Whatever my disagreements with the politics of Lord Harris, he had a genuine commitment to improve the life chances of students in the area and his support was invaluable.

The reason that we now have academies in East Mitcham is due to the actions of the then Labour Council and Siobhain Mc Donagh MP. This point was admitted by the Conservative MP for Wimbledon Stephen Hammond in a recent leaflet that "the establishment of two academies in Merton was the action of the previous Labour administration."

Since the establishment of the two academies in East Mitcham, both are now oversubscribed for next year and ethos of the schools has changed completely. While I welcome the late support of the Conservative minority administration to academies, it has to be be remembered that if the Tories had been running Merton Council prior to May, we would have had no academies in East Mitcham and the tremendous opopportunities from having academies would not have been available to students. From speaking to people in the area, people now want to sent their kids to the schools instead of trying to find alternatives schools many miles away from the local area.

St Helier Hospital

Well it seems that the Conservative MP for Wimbledon Stephen Hammond's support for St Helier Hospital is lukewarm to say the least judging by the latest edition of In Touch with Merton Park ward. Within the front page he has launched a campaign against NHS cuts and within the article he says "This is scandalous; first Patricia Hewitt delayed the process by he unnecessary review of the critical care siting. And now she has delayed the whole process further by asking for yet another reviews to be undertaken".

Well in relation to the review on the siting of the critical care hospital, it was caused by the then Labour controlled Merton Council calling in a decision made by the trust to locate the critical care hospital at the Sutton Hospital and not St Helier, a site that is a considerable distance away from the area of greatest health need and inequalities. Clearly judging by this article, he seems to believe that the decision made about St Helier was the wrong one as it has delayed the Nelson Hospital. I support both the Nelson and Wilson Hospital in Mitcham becoming local care hospitals, but I believe the decision to call in the decision on the critical care hospital was correct as it could have had a huge impact on the surrounding area and the Borough of Merton.

The question I ask the Merton Tories is do they support St Helier? or do they share the views of Stephen Hammond, clearly the Tories do not seem to see St Helier worth fighting for in Merton.

Windmill Trading Estate Inquiry

Today I attended the first day of the Windmill Trading Estate Planning Inquiry. This is the first day of the inquiry that is scheduled to last four days though judging by the first day it could go on longer, it was tedious to say the least. The best part of the day was the residents raising their objections about this application which is completely out of sync with the surrounding area. While I'm not against any kind of development on the site, what is proposed is not the best use of the site, it overlooks an envrionementally sensitive area Mitcham Common with blocks of flats five story high and it is cramming far too many flats into one small area. This has been a long running saga in my ward for the past three years and hopefully when the Planning Inspectorate delivers his report next year he will uphold the decision of the Council in turning down this application.

The Ashes

The first test did ended in defeat, thankfully the final part of the test was a big improvement on the first three days. Despite my scepticism of a few days ago, all is not lost. Back in 2005 we lost the first Ashes test and then went on to reclaim the Ashes. England need to re-group, we should not be giving wickets away with rash shots like in the first innings, some of the dismissals were avoidable. While the batting in the second innings was much stronger, the first innings was appalling and being bowled out for 157 will not win us any test match.

The bowling is worrying, Australia only lost 10 wickets the whole test match, if they had enforced the follow on we would have lost by an innings and the players would no doubt have been demoralised after being bowled out for 157. I hope Monty Panseer plays in Adelaide, he has great potential and could really cause some damage. With Harminson out of sorts, he could help turn the situation around for England.

England hopefully will learn the lessons of Brisbane, Australia are a fantastic side but if England believe in themselves they have a chance, if their heads go down then it will be curtains and a long hard series down under. The Australia are hungry to re-gain the Ashes, we have to be even hungrier!

Alan (fluff) Freeman

The news that Alan(fluff) Freeman has passed away is very sad news indeed. As a teenager I used to greatly enjoy his pick of the pops with the new tunes mixed in with the old, I first heard it on Capital Radio then on Radio 1 back in the eighties. Indeed in many occasions it was first time I had heard some of the great tracks of the seventies and eighties. He will "Not 'arf" be missed and he was one of the greatest DJ's of all time

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Take That comeback

I heard tonight that Take That have again topped the charts with Patience after an absence of ten years from the music scene. It is amazing how bands seem to make a re-appearance(I suspect in this case because they needed the money), All Saints and East17 have also re-surfaced of late though have not quite enjoyed the same success. In the case of Take That, band members like Gary Barlow and Jason Orange who had brief solo careers after the first split did not enjoy great success. The exception in Take That was of course Robbie Williams who had left the band before the split and has not felt the need to return to Take That(not surprising given his massive success in the music industry) and as someone who has enjoyed more success then Take That ever managed as a solo artist.

The people who download and buy the music of Take That are mostly now in their late twenties, early thirties and it seems that many of their fans have a nostalgia for the past. Given the success of their concerts along with their greatest hits album it seems to have paid off in a big way.

No doubt we can expect to see The Spice Girls, Bros, Boyzone to make a re-appearance soon. Of course the biggest revival if it was ever to come would be Abba reforming though I doubt that will happen but who can tell, stranger things have happened.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Cumin McDonagh (1924-2006)

This morning I attended the funeral of Cumin McDonagh father of Siobhain McDonagh MP(my local MP) and Margaret McDonagh. The service in itself was very moving especially Bridge Over Troubled Water and the eulogy by David Cairns MP(and former Merton councillor) about his life and his many traits.

Cumin had lived a very full life, it is clear to see that he was a great inspiration to both his daughters in achieving what they have within the Labour Party. Having left Ireland at a young age(like my own parents)to seek a better life he knew the value of hard work in life and the importance of family. He will be sorely missed.

May he rest in peace.

Little hope for England

Over 600 behind Australia, skittled out for 157 in a devastating spell of bowling by Glen McGrath and an all round woeful perfomance. Heading for a huge defeat and it does not look good for the rest of the series, only hope is if some of the dismal weather in London spreads to Brisbane though little hope exists of that happening!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A day to remember

Well I have always remembered this day well since 1990 and the announcement that Maggie Thatcher was to resign as Prime Minister. I was told the news just after I had started a mock English GCSE exam by a teacher who was a Labour sympathiser, I was jubilant at the news but it was very hard to concentrate for the rest of the exam. Even at that age, I had a keen interest in politics though it would be a few years before I took a more active involvement or even join the Labour party.

For me, Maggie Thatcher was the only Prime Minister I could remember and up until then she had been Leader of the Tory Party since just before I was born. Love or hate her and there was little in between she did change the course of this country and how it worked and she had a significant influence in changing the direction of the country. While the Labour party was opposed to issues like the right to buy, it was the right thing to do in hindsight and gave many the opportunity of owning their own home.

However, as a Prime Minister she did immense damage to many parts of the country and the effect on public services was huge and it took until the election of a Labour Government in 1997 for things to improve. Through her economic policies, it was a Britain that went from bust to boom and back to bust and comparing the economic record between 1979-90 compared to the record since 1997 shows how much of a better state Britain is in economically.

The day is also memorable for being the 3rd anniversary of England World Cup win in Australia(and may be the last for some time judging by recent performances) and of course it was also the day that John F Kennedy was assissinated in Dallas.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Motions to Council/ Agenda length and paper trail

I include below the next paragraph motions submitted to Merton Full Council on 29th November which includes a motion from the Tories about the proposed changes to the Mayor of London powers. The Labour group have submitted three motions on the Housing letter and two relating to the Budget process.

Currently the agenda is at 258 pages and this will no doubt grow by the Council meeting. I do wonder sometimes why we do not go more environmentally friendly and have the main body of papers sent by e-mail and are able then to access laptops in the chamber/committee rooms(with wi-fi access), it would certainly save a lot of trees and cut the amount of paper that will end of up in a recycling bin and believe me Merton Council creates a huge paper mountain. It might even save the Council a few quid though no doubt some of my colleagues would be up in arms, only a thought but after 4 1/2 years as a councillor the paper mountain is thing I hate most about being a councillor.
The link to the Council agenda is below.

Signed by Councillors David Williams, Diane Neil Mills, Debbie Shears and
Samantha George
“This Council believes that the Government’s proposals to grant the Mayor of London
greater powers will undermine the authority of London’s boroughs and damage local
democracy in London by taking decision-making away from local communities and their
locally-elected representatives.
“This Council further believes that the Government’s proposals giving the Mayor
greater powers over planning and housing will erode the role of boroughs’ planning and
development control committees in making decisions about what is built locally, will
reduce the extent to which local people can influence what is built in their own
neighbourhoods, and will see planning decisions imposed on communities by the
Mayor of London.

“This Council resolves to:
(a) make representations about its concerns and opposition to the Government’sR>proposal to grant further powers to the Mayor in the formal consultation process;
(b) write to the local MPs and GLA member to ask them to raise these concerns in
Parliament and at the London Assembly; and
(c) work with the other London Boroughs through London Councils in lobbying against
these proposals.”

Signed by Councillors Andrew Judge, Mark Allison and Martin Whelton
“This Council regrets that the letter sent to housing tenants entitled 'The future of the
Council’s housing stock', ostensibly to warn tenants that the matter was to be
reconsidered, also argued the case in favour housing stock transfer:

(i) in apparent contradiction of a Cabinet decision of 13th June 2005;
(ii) before the issue had been discussed in Cabinet or Scrutiny; and
(iii) purported to present a 'Council' view on the issue of housing stock transfer.

The effect of this letter has been to pre-empt the proper involvement of scrutiny and
place ward councillors in a difficult position.
This Council expresses its concern at the approach taken and states its determination
not to allow such pre-emption in future.R>

Signed by Councillors Mark Allison, Andrew Judge and Martin Whelton

“This Council believes that it is key to the democratic process in Merton that the
Business Plan and Budget processes recognise the political will of the people of
This Council also notes that as a No Overall Control authority, it is unlikely to pass a
Budget or Business Plan without the consent of at least two political parties; and
agrees that the democratic will of the people was that at least two political parties
should be key drivers for the Budget and Business Plan.
This Council notes that Cabinet has approved papers on the Budget and Business Plan
stating that:
"8.1 There are a number of key drivers which will influence and shape the development
of the Council’s new Business Plan. These are:-
"Putting You First” - the Administration’s manifesto objectives;
.... "
This Council notes that no other party's policy objectives are recognised as having
been key drivers in this process.
This Council instructs Officers to formally recognise that an additional key driver to the
Business Plan and the Budget must be the policy objectives of at least one other
political party. In the first place, this will be the Merton Park Ward Independent
Residents Party, with whose consent the Administration was formed.

This Council instructs Chief Officers and DMTs to go through the Business Plan and
the Budget with a representative of at least one other political party to ensure that their
manifesto adequately influences the final outcome. In the first place, this will be the
Merton Park Ward Independent Residents Party.
This Council further agrees to there being a report back at its next meeting from a
representative of the Merton Park Ward Independent Residents Party on how
satisfactorily their views have been incorporated in the Business Plan and the Budget.”

Signed by Councillors Mark Allison, Linda Kirby and Martin Whelton

“This Council notes that its current Budget was agreed following a democratic process
lasting several months, and was only approved at a full Council meeting dedicated
wholly to a debate on the Budget.

This Council takes pride in its adherence to democratic principles, and believes that a
whole year's Budget, with any proposed amendments, should be considered at a
meeting of all Members.

This Council recognises there is a distinction between management action to ensure a
Budget is balanced, and amendments to Budget that result from a change in policy.

This Council notes that the current Administration wishes to bring forward several items
from the 2007/8 Budget to January 2007 in order to supersede the existing Budget, and
believes that this represents a change in the agreed Budget policy.

This Council believes that any attempt to amend Budget policy early should go through
the same rigorous democratic procedure as any Budget would have gone through.
This Council believes that the proposals to amend the 2006/7 Budget in order to bring
in items from the 2007/8 Budget early reflect a change in Budget policy, and are not
simply management action.

This Council therefore agrees that if any Budget policy changes are to be made, they
must go through an agreed democratic process, including a full Council meeting
dedicated wholly to a debate on those policy changes.”

London Olympics

Well as usual the habit of knocking success has come back to the fore, from the day London won the 2012 games on 6th July 2005 it was inevitable that the scare mongers would soon be out along with people who are determined to criticize the whole event as a waste of money.

Yes the costs have arisen but some of the figures being banded around are of course completely over the top, Brian Coleman the Tory Chair of the London Assembly who is always publicity junkie was quoting £20 Billion which was obviously said to maximise publicity for himself. The games will cost more then budgeted, securityand rising building costs have seen to that, but no other city in the world has had an Olympic games come in at the original budget. Also included is the massive regeneration of East London in one of the most deprived areas of the country, since winning the Olympics leaving a legacyand integrating regeneration has been an integral part of the scheme and this has contributed to the increased costs. London should not be left with a pile of unused white elephants after the games like many other cities and the strategy adopted is the right approach.

As a Londoner, I'm immensely proud of my city and would swap it for no other city on earth. This is the greatest city in the world and having the right to host the games will see London being the centre of attention throughout 2012. In terms of sport it gives motivation to many of our youngsters to aim for success, one of my favourite Olympic moments was Cathy Freeman winning gold in 2000 Olympicsfor Australia in Sydney which was an embodiment of the Olympic dream and how you can achieve.

In 2012, London will put on the best ever Olympics and it will be a resounding success and as someone who is passionate about sport I cannot wait and I believe that it will leave a last legacy for future generations of Londoners and act as a catalyst for regenerating further East London and Thames Gateway.

Celtic success

With my Irish roots I have a soft spot for Celtic and I was ecstatic at them tonight beating Manchester United in the Champions League. The icing on the cake was Saha missing the penalty in the 89th minute, still they are through to the next round and Manchester United have still to qualify.

Mixing up numbers

Reading through the latest edition of My Merton(the Council bi-monthly magazine) I came across the Tory Leader David Williams column, reading it brought a smile to my face as it seems that he is getting his budget numbers mixed up by claiming we will pass the budget for 08/09 in March instead of 07/08. If he cannot get this simple fact of the years right how on earth will he get the budget right!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Overview and Commission Meeting

The end of another long night at the Civic Centre with this time the meeting lasting till 10-45 at night.

The main item discussed tonight was the proposed Budget for next year. This meeting discussed the various recommendations made by the Panels last week. The proposed deletion of the Cabinet Secretary by the Way we Work Panel was again carried at the Commission on the casting vote of the Chair, Merton Park Resident Peter Southgate with the Tories voting against. A saving of £30,000.

However, the main budget issue was the proposed closure of the Bond Road Centre in Mitcham and it's replacement by Children Centres. While it has been stated previously by the Director Dave Hill that five of these centres will be up and running by April 2007, my colleague Maxi Martin today received an e-mail from the Head of Education at Merton Janet Martin(no relation) that "it is just possible one or two may open before 2008", not very optimistic at all and if it closed as planned in April 2007, it is unlikely that any children centre will have opened by then. No project plan as of yet has even been produced by the Council. In terms of the feasibility of the proposals, it is also likely that many of the children at Bond Road will require support assistants in mainstream provision, reducing any proposed savings. The argument for keeping the centre opened was outlined by my colleague Maxi Martin in a previous blog entry and nothing was said tonight that justified the closure of the Centre. At the meeting the motion moved by Labour members rejecting the closure was rejected by one vote with the Chair Peter Southgate abstaining. An alternative motion by Conservative Cllr Gill Lewis-Lavender who clearly had some concerns was passed which stated "We agree to this saving subject to an appropriate alternative being provided", the Labour group mainly abstained on this matter as clearly an alternative is unlikely to be provided by the closure date of April 2007 and we cannot agree to a cut that affects the most vulnerable of children.

In terms of other budget issues, the Panel wanted further information about £300,000 worth of savings in SEN Transport and doubt exists about whether this is a saving or transfer of cost to another Council department. The issue of SEN reviews which also brought up which would see the budget slashed by 40%(£135K) this was deferred as concern was expressed about the consultation process and this is seemingly not part of the Council SEN review. The New Year will no doubt see further debate on the issue as quite clearly the many holes in the Tory Budget are plain to see and that is without even scrutinising the Environmental Budget.

Apart from the Budget the other main issue was the recently published Housing letter about stock transfer. The Commission received a letter from Merton Park Resident Councillor Krysia Williams about recent issues at the Regeneration and Public Realm Panel and the controversial press release(see previous blog entries). A quite heated discussion involving Deputy Leader Sam George a;ong with her Tory colleagues on the panel(mainly Rod Scott) against the Labour members sought to justify this blatantly biased letter supporting stock transfer before it had even been considered by Council and scrutiny.

The Chair of the Commission Peter Southgate and a Merton Park colleague of Krysia Williams proposed a motion as follows "Where policy decisions coming forward will be subject to scrutiny and decision making by full Council, any press release and material shall be subject to approval by the three party leaders". This of course went down with a lead balloon with Sam George who attempted every trick in the book to try and get the motion stopped, it was passed on the casting vote of the Chair after the Labour members supported the motion. The motion rerecognised that we are a no overall control council with 30 administration members and 30 opposition. The issue is also to be discussed at full Council on Wednesday 29th November this should be another entertaining debate.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Proposed closure of Bond Road early years unit

Cllr Maxi Martin has passed on to me the issue of the Early Years Unit in Bond Road which will be discussed tonight at Merton Council's Life Chances(covers education, children services etc) and is the one of the proposed savings of the minority Tory administration in Merton. The argument about why it should stay open is below but it quite clear vulnerable children will suffer most and their reason for closing the Early Years Unit do not stack up to scrutiny.

The Early Years Unit in Bond Rd. is part of Merton's response to criticism by Inspectors in 2002 that Children's Services in Merton were not providing targeted early preventive services for the most vulnerable children - those at risk and most in need of specialist support and their parents. One of the recommendations was that the unit should provide day care for those children whose needs could not be met in mainstream provision. The unit is staffed by highly qualified and trained social care workers and is a cornerstone of Merton's Family Support Service which is aiming to prevent children from coming into care. The service has played a major role in reducing the number of LAC in Merton and contributed to the national recognition of Merton as a model of family support and intervention.

Children attending the unit are from some of the most disadvantaged and deprived families in the borough. Their parents are often those least able to speak up for themselves because of the multitude of complex and enmeshed problems they face in their everyday lives. These are some of the most socially excluded families in the borough and form part of the cohort of families under the age of 10 which the government consider require the earliest intervention, including targeted services and support to develop parenting skills to prevent their children becoming offenders.

These families are by definition hard to reach and take a lot of time and effort to engage. This high quality intensive and flexible service cannot be replicated by any other service in the borough and therefore the children who would previously have been referred to Bond Rd will be left even more vulnerable and at risk if they and their families are unable to access this unit.

One of the arguments put forward to support the closure of the Early Years Unit is that in the future the complex needs of children will be met in Children's Centres. Currently the children and families who access service from Bond Rd. are not those likely to use Children's Centres. Children's Centres in Merton are a long way from being up and running. The first 4 (of the proposed 8) are scheduled to open in April 2008 - six months after the proposed closure and cessation of service at Bond Rd. It is still unclear as to what shape the family support service within these centres will take. If the model is to be based on the Lavender Children's Centre then the only capacity the centres will have will be in dealing with children in levels 1 & 2 of the Child Concern Model. Children accessing Bond Rd. are assessed as requiring levels 4 & 5 on this model.

Not only will the needs of these children not be met in mainstream children's centres, the budget proposals suggest that only 9-10 part-time replacement places in mainstream children’s centres will be provided – this is significant reduction in the current 24 full-time places offered at the Bond Road nursery. Both the reduction in places and the reduction in service levels clearly demonstrate that this budget proposal is not in fact a re-provisioning – it is a cut in services both in terms of level and extent, and a cut for the most vulnerable children and families in Merton.

Financial concerns are of course a key argument for ceasing the Bond Road provision. However, a full-time place at the unit costs the council £238 per week, which is comparable to the cost of a private nursery place whilst offering a far superior service. Whilst the cost of a full-time place at Lavender Children’s Centre is £185 per week, the cost saving per week per child is surely outweighed by the significantly reduced care that will be offered to these children who have very specialised support needs. What little saving will be made will be at the cost of children's safety and will be paid for many times over in the future costs of having to offer more expensive and reactive family support measures.

Government is asking local authorities, in the context of the Every Child Matters Agenda, to develop a strategic and joined up approach to the design and delivery of parenting support services and they see support for parents as a continuum starting with early intervention and prevention services. The Early Years Unit at Bond Rd. is part of that continuum in Merton. Its loss will have a detrimental effect on vulnerable children and families in Merton and will result in increased social and financial costs to the council in future years.

The whereabouts of Tariq Ahmad revealed

Well I now know why Tariq Ahmad Tory Cabinet member for Environment and Street Management in Merton has not been around Merton much of late, he has been busy seeking selection in Cheltenham over 100 miles from Merton. He failed to be selected in that seat tonight so it's back to the grind of Merton until the next opportunity comes along, still how who can blame him for seeking to move on from Merton given the dismal record of the Tories in Merton since taking over in May. Anyway better luck next time!

Letter from Stephen Hammond MP

Despite having stood down as Chair of Licensing in May of this year, I today received a letter from the Tory MP from Wimbeldon Stephen Hammond in my former capacity as Chair of Licensing. Today the Licensing Committee Chair is Conservative John Bowcott, former ward colleague of Stephen Hammond in Village ward, the changes have obviously not been communicated to Stephen who still seems to think that I still chair the committee. The letter he sent is also interesting is that he is calling for longer opening times for the Aviary restaurant in Raynes Park.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Way We Work Budget Panel

I tonight chaired the Way We Work Budget meeting which lasted for three hours and scrutinised closely the actions of the Conservative minority administration and their draft budget in relation to the Corporate Services Department and Chief Executive's unit in the Council. The meeting was presented with another set of budget papers which funnily enough had revised further the papers published earlier, paper duplication did not make the meeting any easier to manage. Some of the amendments made from earlier papers seemed to involve a radical change of thinking this included the items on the print service and the deletion of a committee administrator post. Various questions were raised about aspects of the Budget including the proposed savings from 1st January and whether they have to go through Council.

In terms of amendments, we raised queries about various aspects of the budget which will be answered further by officers. In terms of amendments the meeting passed a motion to delete the post of Cabinet Secretary(extra 30K), this was of course opposed by the Tory members of the panel who seemed to like spending money on themselves but not on vunerable people as illustrated by their cuts elsewhere in the budget(we were only considering the Corporate Service and Chief Exec part of the Council tonight). Although growth in scrutiny budget was 15K this was half the amount proposed by the Leech report that reported last year to Council on scrutiny. Various queries were also raised about the viability of some of the changes proposed including pay slips sent by e-mail and delivering the post in the afternoon. The points raised in the meeting will now be feed into the meeting of the Overview and Scrutiny Commission next Monday.

Overall the meeting did hold the administration to account even if by the end Sam George the Cabinet member was desperate for the curtain to come down on the meeting.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

I'm a celebrity back again

Well another few weeks of banal TV is on the offing with the usual load of long forgotten celebrities or ones who are are publicity mad. Try not to watch it as some of the tasks are just so revolting and stomach churnin,g though will no doubt will tune in occasionally when nothing else decent is on the TV. Who is my tip to win, I'm going for Myleene Klass.

I also have to say what a professional Ant McPartlin was given the loss of his gran last weekend. To continue with the show under the circumstances was the sign of a true pro.

Area forum meetings & Neighbourhood Governance

Tonight I attended the North West Mitcham Area Forum meeting in my capacity as a member of the Neighbourhood governance task force. In terms of attendance it was again very poor, six members of the public, both councillors and officers outnumbered both.

Last week at my own forum we did slightly better with about 20 members of the public but this after widespread distribution of publicity to the local area.

Across Merton attendance has generally been very poor with the exception of North Wimbledon area forum. The problem is also not unique to Merton, it is an issue in many other authorities about how to increase engagement.

In my own ward I've had attendance of over 100 at public meetings, if an issue is big enough people will get engaged and come along. Maybe issue based meetings a more sensible format?

As a Council we do have to ask ourselves questions about the future of area forums and whether it would be better to just have ward level meetings. This is just one of the options we will need to consider. As a Council, area fourms have been used for consultation purposes, one of the main issues tonight was Mitcham Area forum was the revisions to the Mitcham planning guidance, I do not think asking six people is a good way of conducting consultation or a wide cross-section of opinion.

I would be interested in hearing about views from other areas where Councils have engaged people, the model is clearly not working in Merton and we need a better system.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Goodbye Dessie

Very upset to hear of the passing of Desert Orchid one of the all time greats of horse racing. I saw his last ever race back in 1991 at the King George at Kempton(he fell that day) and the crowd were enthralled by his presence espcecially as he had won the race four times previously. Racehorsing has lost a a legend and I mourn his passing.

Regeneration and Public Realm Panel report

My sources on the Regeneration and Public Realm have advised me that it was another interesting meeting last Thursday. The main issue was the proposed stock transfer ballot and the recent controversial letter that basically inferred that the Council supports this option and blamed the Labour government for the lack of money.

At the meeting Tory councillor Cllr Marc Hanson justified the letter on the grounds that we would have gone to the press about the matter and the letter was an attempt to pre-empt our move. Well in response to that point, the Labour group is listening closely on the matter and is having a consultation with residents and of course if the letter had been a neutral letter instead of heavily biased we would have had less to attack them on. To be perfectly honest the letter was not particularly good PR given the cynicism that many Council tenants have about the Council and their motives behind stock transfer(justified given the record of Diane Neil-Mills).

Another interesting comment came from Cllr Diane Neil-Mills who seems to be no stranger to controversy given her first six months on Merton Council. Her message to Labour members on the issues was "you do agree, don't you type response" inferring that we are in favour of stock transfer as we had a ballot under the previous administration. Well the answer to that is no, all options do need to be considered. This will be a major decision for the Council and it is important that listening to residents plays a crucial role in all of this.

The most interesting moment of the night was when Merton Park Resident Councillor Krysia Williams attacked the minority Tory administration on the letter and how it had gone out without any consultation with the relevant bodies. At least with Krysia she was saying it from a neutral perspective, while we can be attacked by the Tories the same cannot be said of the residents who do carefully consider the issues and are not in our pocket. Given the delicate balance on Merton Council with the administration consisting of 30 councillors against the opposition of 30 councillors, you would think they would be trying to win their support given their precarious position on the Council and that they hold the balance of power.

Another point noted is that Cabinet member Tariq Ahmad failed to show up at the meeting again, he seems to have gone missing of late, another Parliamentary selection must be in the offing. Given the poor media coverage recently on the his decision to abandon moving to wheelie bins in Merton despite large public support, it is probably not suprising that he is keeping a low profile. I also noticed that he is to get a pay rise in his position as Deputy Chair of the Transport and Environment Committee and he will be getting an extra £5,000 a year on top of his Merton allowance of £16,000 a year. Shortly I will also be publishing a record of the Tory administration first six months measured against their manifesto and it will make very interesting reading espcially in relation to Tariq's portfolio of Environment and Street Management. I have also been closely looking at the budget proposals especially in relation to Environment and Street Management more of which is to come shortly.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Another defeat for Liverpool

The dismal away form of Liverpool shows no sign of let up with another defeat away from home this time at Arsenal. Our form this year away from home has been nothing short of abysmal, one goal scored away from home in the Premiership with five losses out of six away from Anfield though it has not been helped by having had to play Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea away from home plus the Mersyside derby against Everton which was another defeat. The home form for Liverpool is superb, in the Champions League we continue to produce the goods but our form in the Premiership is poor and at this rate this best we can hope for is 4th place in the Premiership.

What I do find worrying is that people are calling for the head of Benitez already, after all the success we've enjoyed in the past two years to hit the panic button now would be wrong. I believe Liverpool are still an evolving team and that matters will improve significantly before long including the abysmal away form, keep the faith!

US Elections and the next President

Well I got my predication wrong that the Democrats would fail to gain the Senate, though in terms of the House, I was fairly accurate in terms of the seats they would win in the House of Representatives. The resignation of Donald Rumsfeld was the icing on the cake.

In terms of the results, whilst it was a shift to the Democrats it was not the same across the country, the south is still Republican dominated and for the first time ever the party governing the House will be without a majority in the southern states. While the balance has shifted in the 50/50 nation, a large part of the country still looks like remaining Republican for the foreseeable future. Where the Democrats have made advances seem to be in mid-west states like Ohio, Missouri, Iowa which voted Republican in 2004.

Obviously attention will now shift to the 2008 Presidential Race. In terms of the candidates Hillary Clinton has to be the favoured candidate for the Democrats and for the Republicans John Mc Cain would have to be the favoured though the race is wide enough for other candidates to emerge which has happened in the past.

How do I view Hillary Clinton? I like and respect the woman and believes she has many positive attributes. However I also think she is a divider not a unifier, in America you either love her or hate her, with little in between. If she is the candidate, I believe she would struggle to get elected, for a start she would motivate the values voters to come out and vote like in 2004, this is a grouping that is mainly anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion, anti-gun control and evangelical Christians(though not exclusively). This is a major part of the American electorate especially in the South, but also in many mid-west states that are key to winning the presidency. Likewise her appeal to independent voters who make up a sizable part of the electorate may be limited.

After the turmoil of the Bush years, I believe the American electorate will be looking for a unifier rather then a divider and will be a looking to elect a president that can be portrayed as one. John Mc Cain and Rudy Gulliani would fit this model for the Republicans, though I have my doubts whether they could carry the loony right which is a sizable sector of the Republican party. It may be that they decide on another right wing loon which will be a golden opportunity for Hillary Clinton if she is the candidate. If it ends up being someone like Newt Gingrich and it is rumoured he is running, her task will be made much easier as he is firmly a divider and in the far right category.

Personally, I would like to see Al Gore running again and if he does I will be right behind him. He was cheated out of the presidency in 2000 through the action of Geroge Bush's brother Jeb, Katherine Harris(who was thankfully thrashed this week in Florida senate race) and Republican sympathisers in the US Supreme Court. Recently on the way to Dubai, I watched the Al Gore documentary film An Inconvenient Truth, this was one of the best films I've seen in long time and made me real think hard about environmental issues and the threats facing the planet. In recent years his view have become a great deal more Liberal though backing Howard Dean's bid for the Democratic nomination back in 2004 may now in retrospect be seen a s big mistake.

The other candidate who could come through is Barack Obama, a senator from Illinois who made a barn storming speech at the 2004 Democratic convention and of late has refused to rule out a bid for President. A candidate like Barack Obama is far more likely to unite the nation then Hilary Clinton and carries none of the baggage of political office that she has accumulated over the years.

In terms of the rest, John Kerry may bid again though to be honest he is uncharismatic and is probably far too Liberal to win, that he came so close in 2004 was probably more down to the weakness of George Bush rather then any of his political skills. John Edwards may bid again but his profile has been fading and potentially much stronger candidates exist who will probably beat him. Another potential is Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana who is pretty centrist and Governor Tom Vislack the outgoing governor of Iowa where the first caucus will take place in January 2007. They both lack name recognition but cannot be ruled out entirely.

Everything is all to play for in the USA and with politics in the US being so unpredictable, predicting the future is no easy task. With Bill Clinton being a pretty much unknown before seeking the presidency, the 44th President may be even be somebody that is hardly on the radar scheme at present. Let battle commence

Remembering our fallen

This morning I attended the Remembrance service at Mitcham Cricket Green. The service is always very moving service especially when the trumpeter plays the last post. In remembering the fallen, we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude for those who served in both World Wars but also all those who have died serving the country in the sacrifice they have given in serving the country. On a day like today, we also remember the sacrifices they give to ensure we are the democracy we are today. In terms of more recent conflicts it also important to remember those who have died in both Iraq and Afghanistan

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The end is nigh for Andy Robinson

Three years ago England celebrated winning the Rugby World Cup, today we get beaten at home by Argentina and the dismal run continues. If this keeps going we are set for a disastrous six nations and as for the World Cup, it is likely to be a disaster if this form continues. Seeing Andy Robinson been interviewed after the match tonight it is clear that the end must be nigh, if he stays on I cannot see things improving, with morale probably now rock bottom we need a change of direction and a new England coach, bring back Sir Clive all is forgiven!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

US Election Results

Well the Democrats have taken control of the House by roughly the margin I predicted. In terms of the Senate it is down to Montana and Virigina, the current score is the Democrats are ahead by 4000 in Montana and 8000 in Virginia(and over two million votes have been cast). It is a knife edge and if I was to call the resul,t I will say now that I think the Democrats will win the senate though it could end up in the courts again.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Britney Spears Divorce

Well another celebrity marriage has hit the rocks and it heading for the courts and as it is the States no doubt the attorneys stand to make millions out of the whole matter and multi million pounds settlements will be floated around. Along with the ongoing McCartney/Mills divorce saga in the UK it promises to keep the tabloids full of the on-going battles.

In all of this I hope the welfare of the children is considered by both parties, divorce happens it is part of life but at the end of the day if parents have an acriminous divorce it does nothing for the welfare of that child.

General Purposes/Way We Work Panel Report

At the meeting of the General Purposes Committee tonight it was agreed to retain the figure of £100,000 above which variances in the budget have to be reported to Cabinet. The officers had sought to increase this to £500,000 and with no limits on the number of budget variances. If this proposed amendment has to the constitution had been approved it would have potentially delegated huge powers to the officers in budgets. This also has a crucial outcome for scrutiny, if this figure has been increased to £500,000 it could have potentially weakened the role of Way We Work Panel in scrutinising budget variances. At the end of the day Cabinet members should be accountable for their decisions, officers are not accountable and we should have every right as members to ask the Cabinet about budget variances and to scruitnise the actions of the Council.

I did wonder tonight whether the minority Tory administration had sougt themselves to increase the limit to reduce their accountability on the matter and hide behind officers for their incompetence. After Cllr Peter Southgate who holds the balance of power along with his two Merton Park resident colleagues spoke against the change, the Tories on the committee led by Deputy Leader Sam George may have backtracked as they realised it would not get through Council where it has to approved and where they have no majority.

The other matter at the meeting was the abolition of the Staff consultative Committee which was a forum between staff and members to air grievances. With changes in HR practices in recent years the body had turned into a talking shop and had no powers. With decisions on HR delegated to Head of Paid Service(the Chief Exec) it made sense given the changing nature of a councillors role which should not be the day to day decisions on Council personnel matters these are best left to the officers.

Last night I also chaired the Council Way We Work Panel where we agreed to set up a taskforce on income generation. The meeting also discussed single status within the Council which I cannot discuss publicly as it was in closed session, all I can say is that negotiations are continuing on the issue and have not yet been resolved. A report was also given on consultants employed by the Council and the meeting also asked for a report to be given on legal fees occurred externally by the Council which should make interesting reading given all the outside legal advice the minority Tory administration have been seeking in the last six months. Finally the meeting also agreed the Age Discrimination Report.

US Elections

Over the past few weeks I've been watching the US Mid terms elections closely and being the political junkie I am been reading what is for me the best source for US Politics on a regular basis.

From watching a large amount of CNN when I was in South East Asia(the choice is pretty limited) it is clear that Americans are turning against the war and many Republican senators are voicing concern at how the war is being conducted and the strategy. In the States it is clear that people are losing patience with Iraq and the on-going daily toll of casualties, with over 100 US soldiers killed in October the War is the main issue at the moment in the States.

While the Republicans prospects have been affected by the conduct of the war, it has not been the only issue which will define this election. The on-going spate of scandals that engulfed the Republicans this year, the Jack Abramroff case and then the Rep Mark Foley case with the associated cover up have contributed to their problems.

Tonight will hopefully see the beginning of the end of the Republican hegemony in America which has been in the asecendency since Reagan coming to power in 1981, apart from a few optimistic moments like Bill Clinton winning the presidency, the Republicans have dominated the White House winning five of the last seven elections and having dominated congress since the Gingrich revolution of 1994(apart from a brief period when the Democrats ran the Senate between 2001-2).

How do I think it will go? I think the Democrats will win the House with a majority of about 23 and will break 229D to 206R. In terms of Senate races I think the Republicans will retain control, Democrats will pick up Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and Missouri but fail to win in Tennessee and Montana. That will make the Senate the Senate 48 Democrat, 50 Republican, with two independents likely to be elected in Joe Liberman and Bernie Sanders who have both said they will caucus with the Democrats it will make it 50-50 with the Vice President having the casting vote. The same outcome as 2000 which funnily enough is also took place on 7th November and when these seats were last up for election, it is also the 6th anniversary of George Bush winning the presidency(well the courts won it for him). The race could even end up in the courts if some of the results are ultra close. Anyway tonight will be an interesting night and I eagerly await the results.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Council advice to Merton tenants

The following information has been issued to officers for those who ring up Merton Council about stock transfer letter that has been issued to tenants(and the phones are bound to be buzzing). The information is very biased in the extreme, the policy has not even been determined by Merton Council and it all sounds like a done deal. Whatever happened to consultation and evaluating options, all seems to have gone out the window under the minority tory administration in Merton. Indeed Putting you first seems like a distant memory.

We are sending the letter to residents so that they hear about our plans from the Council directly, rather than simply reading about it in the paper. This briefing note is being sent out to staff for the same reason - we want you to hear about any plans from us first.

The letter to residents may well generate enquiries. If a resident contacts you with any questions or concerns they key points (as set out in the letter) are:

We don't have enough money to improve the stock to the standard that both we and residents would like or maintain it above our basic legal obligations this is mainly because we have to pay a lot of money back to the Govt each year in Housing Subsidy (£6.4m this year)

RSLs don't have to pay this money back and can also borrow money (which we can't), so they have more money to spend on service improvements and modernisation of the stock
for these reasons we believe that stock transfer is likely to offer the most benefit to residents as the way ahead for the housing service

We believe it is an exciting opportunity that would result in better services, better maintained and improved homes, for what is likely to be the same rent as tenants would pay to the Council (because of rent restructuring which applies to both LAs and RSLs equally)

No decision has yet been taken - the report will go to full Council on 31/1/07

If the Council decides to go ahead with the proposal, there will be a long period of consultation, ending in a ballot of tenants

So the message is positive - we strongly believe that tenants have a lot to gain through stock transfer.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Sporting Weekend

Well Liverpool seem to be back to winning ways again which is a relief, through to the next round of the Champions League with two games to spare and a covincing win against Reading on Saturday. If only our away form was better we could have been challenging for the Premiership.
Arsene Wenger provided some great entertainment today in the showdown with Alan Pardew, though losing at West Ham must be pretty hard to take given West Ham recent poor form. Chelsea slipping up against Tottenham was also fun to see and of course the referee was to blame for the result according to Muriniho.

In terms of the Rugby, Eng;and played ok even if it was a record home defeat but New Zealand are in another league and I doubt anyone will stop them winning the World Cup next year. The chances of England winning again are getting remoter by the day.

The future of the Council’s housing stock letter

Merton Council has sent this letter out to tenants about the future of the Council's housing stock. The content of the letter is that we are not 'putting your first' or listening to your views but we believe our way is the best way and the only way forward.

The issue has not even gone through Council scrutiny yet but it is clear to see that the Tories on Merton Council have come to a view are seeking to blame the Government for the lack of investment in housing(false as usual). In any decision it is important that the views of residents are listened to and taken into the account along with exploring all possible options. The very content of this letter will no doubt fuel mutual suspicion of the Council amongst tenants and their motives. Still given the track record of Merton minority Tory administration over the last six months and the actions of the relevant cabinet member Diane Neil-Mills since taking office they have every right to be wary of the motives of this administration.

Dear Resident,

The future of the Council's housing stock

You may see an article in the local press this week about the future of Merton’s homes. We think that you should hear about important issues like this from the Council first, so we are writing to you to tell you about our plans.

The amount of money the Council has to spend on its properties is falling. This is because we have to pay back to the Government each year more of the money we collect from you in rent. This year we have to pay back a quarter of the rental income - thats £6.4 million. Next year, this will increase to around £7 million. This means that we cannot afford to carry out much needed improvements to your homes and we will find it increasingly difficult in the future to maintain the stock to a standard above the basic legal requirement.

We have been considering the options open to the Council and we think the proposal likely to offer most benefit to residents would be to transfer the stock to a Registered Social Landlord (RSL) - often called a Housing Association. We believe the advantage is that RSLs can keep all the money they receive in rent and from Right To Buy sales. This means they have more money to spend on service improvements, repairs and modernisation of the stock. They can also borrow money to make further investments; an option not open to the Council.

We believe that stock transfer would be an exciting opportunity. It would mean that within a few years all your homes would be fully modernised to a standard we know that you want and that we would like to provide. Estate services would be increased and you would benefit from improvements such as new windows, central heating, lifts and roofs. RSLs have to set their rents in the same way as the Council, so the amount you would pay to an RSL is likely to be the same as you would pay to the Council.

If the Council decides to go ahead with this proposal (a decision is expected at the end of January 2007) there will be a long period of consultation, ending in a ballot of all tenants and leaseholders. A transfer to an RSL can only take place if the majority of tenants are not opposed to it.

We will be in touch again as soon as we have more information to share with you.

Yours sincerely,
Jo Williams
Head of Housing Services

Saddam Hussein verdict

The verdict in the Saddam Hussein trial is unsurprising news given the amount of evidence stacked against him and the crimes he had committed as a dictator. The nature of his human rights abuses, along with mass murder committed under his despicable regime are reason alone to welcome the bringing to justice and conviction of this evil dictator. While I'm against the death penalty, I'll not be mourning his demise if he does get hanged and I'm sure many Iraqi people will be rejoicing at the news.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Merton Housing Stock Transfer ballot

The minority Tory administration in Merton are planning to undertake another ballot on stock transfer in Merton. The last ballot that took place back in 2002 resulted in a narrow defeat for transferring stock to a RSL(registered social landlord)

This will be developing issue within the Council over the next few months and I post the agenda of the Council Regeneration and Public Realm Panel. In any decision it is vital that they views of the tenants are listened too and taken into account, any decision taken on stock transfer has to be in the best interests of the tenants.

It's cold outside!

A week ago I was basking in the humid of South East Asia, this week it is the cold of London with temperatures only a little above zero, oh how I wish for Summer and it will get even colder!