Thursday, November 29, 2007

Turmoil at Merton Council meeting

The Merton Council meeting was very lively last night with the most contentious issues left to the end.

One of the issues related to Assistant Cabinet members, an issue that’s been on-going for a number of months and was finally resolved last night despite the opposition of the Labour group. Our opposition to Assistant Cabinet members is that we see no need for their introduction and that they're a waste of money, we lost on the matter but were joined by Conservative councillor Angela Caldara. At a recent meeting of the Standards Committee, Cllr Anglea Caldara had also claimed "that Conservative councillors had been pressurised into accepting Assistant Cabinet members along with being railroaded and bullied into accepting them"; Cllr Peter McCabe repeated these remarks at the meeting last night and clearly some dissension exists in Tory ranks.

The allowance issue and the proposal to increase cabinet allowances along with officer holders(and I was one of them as a panel chair) by 25% was next on the agenda and we reached the agenda item at 10-13 leaving just two minutes to debate the issue before the guillotine at 10-15. Labour Councillors called a procedural motion to adjourn the Council meeting as we believed this motion needed more time to be discussed and that we should not be starting a debate at this time given the nature of the proposals. This procedural motion was defeated. After this motion, various points of order were raised and we were informed by the Head of legal that it could only be voted on or referred back to the committee that made the recommendation, a motion was then moved "to refer back to General Purposes committee", this was passed by 31 votes to 28. In voting for the motion we where again joined by Tory councillor Angela Caldara and more surprisingly Cabinet member for Schools Oonagh Moulton(she tried to correct her vote but it was too late) the Merton Park Independents also voted for the reference back.

No doubt the issue will be back - but given the current position of council finances with cuts of over £10 million proposed the increase is unacceptable. Labour councillors are opposed to any increase above inflation. The matter will be debated again at the next General Purposes Committee before its likely re-appearance at the next Council meeting in February. If the Tories had any sense they'd drop the proposed rises and given the current balance of council it would probably be a wise move, it is unacceptable for the allowance increases of 25% for Tory cabinet members and other office holders at a time when the council faces serious budget issues.

Earlier in the meeting, public users of All Saints Centre asked questions about its future and handed in a petition against possible closure plans. The future of the centre does not look good and it’s likely that it will close or the service re-provided, we’ll know more about its future following the conclusion of a service review in December by the Tory administration on 17th December.

I also asked a question about the implementation of the new IT system in Housing Benefits and Council Tax. Since the introduction of the new system, Council Tax collection has dropped by 2% and processing time for Housing Benefits has increased. In order to clear the backlog, the Council spent over £100,000 in staff overtime and used Hull City Council to help clear the backlog. Service levels are still not back to the level they were previously and the new system has now been in place for over a year.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Labour Party funding

There is no getting away from the facts that the last few days have been a challenge for the Labour Party and clearly the laws governing party funding had been breached. Our decision to return the donation to David Abrahams is of course quite correct given the circumstances surrounding his donation along with his use of aliases.

Peter Watt, the former Labour General Secretary was correct in his decision to resign over the matter and admit responsibility for not following the law. I do however feel desperately sorry for Peter as I've known him for a number of years and long before he became General Secretary of the Labour Party. I know what a dedicated servant of the party he's been and I can remember him helping me many years ago when I was an election agent in Lewisham, he is a great loss to the party.

In terms of funding, it's an issue that does to be dealt with and I believe that regretfully that a case may now exist for some kind of state funding of political parties. Given the level of scrutiny that exists, no-one would want to donate to a political party given that their background will be looked over for potential impropriety(especially labour donors). Indeed, I understand that a donation of the Leader of the Merton Labour Group Andrew Judge of £1,000 was thought to be newsworthy(Daily Mail), thankfully Andrew will not be unduly worried by this but a lot of other people would be put off by this level of scrutiny and an underlying suggestion of impropriety.

Funding reform is important given the cost of elections and the need to raise large sums of money. Increasingly parties will find it harder to attract donations to their party and if parties are to have the ability to compete at elections then funding reform is crucial. At this rate funding donations from private benefactors will dry up and evidence exists of this being the case.

Finally, it also has to be remembered that the Labour Government introduced the transparency laws in relation to donations. The Conservative party never revealed when in power who donated to their party and their benefactors. We were right to introduce these laws as transparency is important and the public has a right to know who funds political parties along with donations made above a certain amount.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Australian Labor party wins General Election

Congratulations goes to Kevin Rudd on winning the Australian General election for the Australian Labor party. From the results that have come in they've achieved a huge win and the Prime Minister John Howard seems to have even lost his own seat of Bennelong in the Sydney suburbs. I know many of my Australian friends will be delighted with the result.

In Australia the policies of John Howard have been rejected, this includes refusing to sign up to Kyoto, introducing anti-union laws through work choices and broken promises on interest rates.

Over the years John Howard has enjoyed some great success in winning four elections but had also come back in a Lazarus like fashion after being kicked out as Liberal leader in the late eighties. His impact on Australia has been huge but clearly after 11 years in office they've had enough and brought his long career in politics to a close.

In terms of Kevin Rudd he has remarkably turned around the fortunes of the Australian Labor Party who looked down and out just a year ago when he took over. Hopefully he'll go on to prove himself as Prime Minster and make Australia a more progressive country.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Egeli Rasta

The tragedy of the Egeli Rasta murder last Summer has been resolved with the conviction of Gareth Davies for murder(who was also a resident of Pollards Hill). This was a shocking incident and thankfully justice has been done in this case.

Mitcham Common is an oasis of greenery in my ward and this murder shocked the whole community last summer in what is generally a low-crime area. For someone who had come to the country in the hope of a better life her brutal murder was a tragic event.

Egeli is at peace now and the person who so brutally ended her life is behind bars and hopefully for a very long time to come.

England football calamity

Yes tonight was an absolute calamity for the England football team especially for the keeper Scott Carson(though I have some sympathy for the young keeper) fumbling the first Croatia goal.

After England receiving a get out of jail card by Israel last weekend, this was their opportunity to qualify and given home advantage should have been accomplished with ease. The first half performance was lamentable and after coming back from 2-0 down we looked on course to got through until we gave away a third goal and it was all over.

Where next for England? Steve McLaren should certainly be sacked as manager as failing to qualify for a major championship is unacceptable. In terms of his replacement maybe it's time to re-appoint El Tel, OK he was assistant to McLaren but he was a pretty successful coach last time he was in charge of England and has the pedigree - the English alternatives are also very limited. If they go outside England, Jose Muriniho would be my choice or maybe Fabio Capello.

England also have to face facts, the current team consists of many second rate players. Whilst we've many world class players we've no strength in depth and this was brutally exposed tonight. The current situation in the Premier League with the large number of foreign players is not too helpful either and limits the choices considerably in terms of English players

Although next Summer will be barren on the football front we now have to prepare for the next World Cup, hopefully we'll qualify for this tournament and get our act together by then. Given present form not going to Euro 2008 has probably saved us from complete and utter humiliation and we need to re-group and learn the lessons from our abject failure.

Given our disasters at international level at least at club level English teams are performing well but it does not make up for our failure to qualify for a major international tournament.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Death of Ian Smith

Although a relative unknown today, back in the sixties and seventies Ian Smith received a huge amount of press coverage following the then state of Rhodesia declaring independence unilaterally back in the sixties. This led to an on-going dispute over sanctions that lasted many years including many negotiations that collapsed

Like apartheid South Africa this caused a huge amount of strife within the country. Thankfully it was eventually resolved and that free elections took place(though unfortunately we now have the obnoxious Robert Mugabe). However the system of government practised by Rhodesia was unacceptable and treating people on the basis of the colour of their skin is abhorrent.

Thankfully the era of discrimination as practiced by Rhodesia and South Africa is over but it's also important to remember that many people were denied the vote on the basis of race, democracy should always be open to all and not just the few. The record of Ian Smith is denying that right for so long was unacceptable. Likewise the behaviour of Robert Mugabe today against white people in Zimbabwe is just as abhorrent.

Missing Child Benefit data

Like any IT story this one is a massive nightmare given the potential implications for fraudulent transactions if the information has fallen into the wrong hands. The fact that 25 million numbers were on sent by unrecorded post and not by a secure method make the whole situation even worse in the way that the information has been handled.

Of course, this is of huge concern to millions and the Government have taken the right steps in re-assuring people. Clearly something has gone dramatically wrong and that it's right that the matter is fully investigated and that lessons are learned from this incident.

Although no doubt people will be calling for the head of Alastair Darling he can't be held responsible for every error on operational matters. Clearly issues of concern have to exist with the running of Revenue and Customs and the resignation of the Chairman Paul Gray is a step in the right direction.

I just hope that nothing untoward has happened and measures that are in place to protect against fraud work. At the end of the day there is no need for mass panic given the banking code that is in place, but given the coverage this is receiving it will not be of comfort too many people who'll of course be deeply concerned about this very serious security breach.

A day in Paris

On Monday I travelled on the Eurostar train direct from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord.

For a long time I've been waiting for the new high speed link to open and with its opening the previous week I took the first opportunity to travel on the Eurostar to Paris in just 2 hours and 15 minutes.

The service itself was extremely efficient, though security at St Pancras could've been slightly faster. The train itself left on time and arrived in just 2 hours and 12 minutes from London to Paris. Going out from London the train effectively is in tunnel the whole way from London-Dagenham apart from the Stratford box, unlike the journey into Waterloo it's not very scenic but you certainly gain on the speed side instead of slowly traversing the railways of South London. On the way back the train was again on time and arrived in just 2 hours and 10 minutes. Compared to the airlines there is no comparison in terms of the time you can get from city to city. With the project now complete its an incredible engineering feat considering the large amount of tunnels that are passed through but also the Channel tunnel which made it all possible.

My day in Paris was also eventful and the current on-going strike on the Metro did impact on my journey. My journey back from the centre of Paris to Gare du Nord was a nightmare due to the on-going strike, metro's were infrequent and when they turned up they were impossible to board due to the sheer number of passengers. I ended up having to negotiate the back streets of Paris and eventually got an RER train from St Lazare to Gare du Nord, I got to the station with 10 minutes to spare, way below recommended limits of 30 minutes; it seemed lady luck was on my side. At the moment the strike is certainly having an impact and could go on for a lot longer, Sarkozy is prepared for a battle and France could be in for a few rocky months. My advice - avoid Paris when strikes are about though given the nature of the country they're sometimes hard to avoid in France.

Paris itself is a stunning city, having been there a number of times it's a city that is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and has retained its traditional features throughout the city. Most of the boulevards as well are still cobbled and the buildings is architecture at its best, Haussmann certainly got it right when he planned modern Paris. My favourite part of Paris is Sacre Couer, the view over Paris is amazing and its worth climbing up the hills of Montmarte just to see the view. The weather was slightly overcast yesterday but on a clear day it's a stunning view.

My other observations of Paris is the price of drink. Now I find London expensive but compared to Paris its a bargain, a pint in Paris is cannot be found for 7 euros and in most cases it's over 8 euros, cheap it certainly isn't. The food makes up for it in many instances.

The other thing I observed across the city in metro and train stations is bins, long ago they disappeared from our tube stations but in Paris no such thing has happened and they're freely available. In fact in most cities I visited this is the case, it seems in Britain we're just that much more security conscious though the cynic in me sometimes thinks it's used as a cover for saving money. Still with terrorism being major threat erring on the side of caution is probably advisable.

All in all a great city though I'd not want to go there again when a stike is on.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Trip to Edinburgh

After visiting many places around the globe, I finally visited Edinburgh and saw this historic city and capital of Scotland for the first time. The city itself has a wonderful vista with Arthur’s seat and the Castle along with Pentland hills overlooking the city.

During my time in Edinburgh, I visited the Scottish Parliament building designed by the late Spanish architect Morales. This controversial upturned boat designed building (build on a maritime theme reflecting Edinburgh’s great tradition as a port) ran significantly over budget and came in at over £400 million. Despite my support for devolution, the Parliament building itself is a truly hideous design and not in keeping with the surrounding area, how this design ever came to fruition is beyond my comprehension. Whilst the inside is not so bad and does have some more redeeming features then the outside, it would certainly not be a building I would regard as a modern architectural masterpiece.

In terms of Scottish politics, the first budget from the minority SNP administration was announced last week. Within the budget, it included a three-year freeze in Council Tax but also u-turns on commitments made in their manifesto including class sizes and university tuition fees. The SNP of course has blamed this on a lack of funding by the Westminster government. Alex Salmond is a very canny politician and any promise he cannot deliver will be blamed on Westminster. This is despite a generous block grant settlement from London. At the end of the day, they’re pushing for a referendum on independence and over the next few years, we are bound to have more of these arguments. The real truth is that the SNP promises did not add up in the first place, having spent their while time in opposition they're are now having to take difficult decisions’ and it's proving to be a major challenge for them.

One of the other places I visited was the Royal Yacht Britannia. At Leith, this has been made into a tourist attraction and it was worth visiting. Looking back it's hard to believe that it was in service until ten years ago - it seemed like a bygone age. The ship itself was opulent especially the royal quarters. The staff quarters were primitive to say the least except if you were of a senior rank. While there was a time and a place for Britannia and other royal ships; given the number of staff needed to run it while the royals were on board (300) it was an extravagance. However, it did represent as well Britain at its finest and with the many receptions held throughout the Queen's reign on board for visiting world leaders along with other dignitaries it was a great advert for Britain.

England back from the brink

Well I predicted it last month that England still had a chance to qualify for the European Championship after losing to Russia and tonight that prediction proved correct when Russia lost to Israel. Even if they'd lost to Israel tonight the result in Macedonia which saw as 2-0 victory against Croatia would've left the group wide open.

After all this England can't surely mess this one up and fail to qualify? Stranger things have happened but they should get through to the finals.

My commiseration also go to Scotland on losing narrowly to Italy, I've been up in Edinburgh for the past few days and there was a real buzz about the place and high expectations, sadly they just missed out but it was a brilliant effort in what was an extremely difficult group.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Opening of new St Pancras station

Working as I do in the Kings Cross area, I've seen over the last five years the transformation of the area along with the huge amount of regeneration that has taken place. For weeks I've been waiting to see the inside of the St Pancras and today I finally got the chance. To put it mildly the station is awe-inspiring and has been wonderfully restored to its former glory. This is a station that has to be one of most magnificent stations in the world and is a credit to our country.

The 30ft Paul Day statue of a man and woman embracing is a wonderful addition and coupled with the huge clock adds to the ambiance of the station Underneath the station they've also created a huge array of shops many of which are still to open but the cloisters have been bautifully restored..

Next Monday I'm off to Paris on the new high speed link, this really is the railway of the future and it's hard to believe that you can reach Paris now in just over two hours. The high-speed and a huge infrastructure project that has come in on-time and on-budget. Europe has just become that bit closer!

One other bit to note is that Greenpeace have hung a huge banner from the front of St Pancras saying no a third runway at Heathrow, along with a parade of cyclist protesting about access. With so much press around in the station they could not have picked a better day for some publicity.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Brian Paddick selcted as Lib Dem London mayoral candidate

I note with interest that the Lib Dems have selected Brian Paddick as their London mayoral candidate. Before he took up his position as police commander in Lambeth Borough which made him one of the high-profile police officers in the country he was in the same position in Merton though it was just before I became a councillor.

Whilst Brian Paddick has achieved some notoriety from his previous time as Lambeth commander he faces an extremely difficult time in London up against Ken and Boris. With two such high-profile candidates it will be very difficult for the Liberals to make much headway. Last time round they selected a high profile candidate in Simon Hughes who did very badly, whilst Paddick has achieved some profile he is still an unknown to the vast majority of Londoners.

Despite some strength in parts of London for the Liberals - this will be race between Ken and Boris. Brian Paddick whilst an extremely experienced police officer has very limited political experience, in the cut-thrust world of London politics this may well be very telling by the end of the campaign and in making a successful transition to politics.

Councillor allowances in Merton

The issue of increased councillor allowances is on the agenda for the General Purposes Committee on Wednesday. The Tory administration have come forward with proposals to increase the total allowances by 21.7% which will equate to an extra £156,000 at a time when Merton Council have to make cuts of up to £14 million pounds.

In last weeks local Guardian the Tory leader of the council David Williams sought to justify the proposals on the grounds that we were bringing them in line with neighbouring boroughs and that we've the second lowest allowances in London. In terms of the Labour group on Merton Council we do not favour these increases given the financial climate the Council faces and that restraint that is needed in terms of Council spending(we favour an increase in line with inflation). Now is not the time for voting ourselves huge allowance increases including a proposed 37.&% increase in cabinet allowances along with Chair of Planning and Chair of Scrutiny, 28.5% increase for the Deputy Leader, 23.9% increase for scrutiny panel chairs(including myself) and 10.2% increase for Leader, Leader of the opposition and all other councillors.

I do not doubt for a moment that councillors from across all parties in Merton work hard but now is not time for 'Putting Ourselves First'. I would much rather this money is spent on protecting services some of which are facing massive cuts under proposals brought forward by the Tory administration.

The decision will be discussed at General Purposes committee tomorrow night and Council will be taking a final decision on 28th November.

Monday, November 12, 2007

In remembrance

This year saw Remembrance Sunday actually fall on 11th November(the armistice of the The Great War) and as I've done every year since becoming a councillor I attended the service at the War Memorial in Mitcham. At this time, we remember all those who gave their lives in both World War's but all those who've lost their lives in more recent conflicts.

Many people died in defence of democracy and to allow us the freedoms we have today, we owe them all and many others a tremendous debt of gratitude for what they done in serving their country.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Eastfields Station & construction

I enclose some information from this weeks Transport Briefing www.transportbriefing.co.uk about the new Eastfields Station. The latest is that it will open in June(though it say New Year in the below article) and it's hoped that both Southern and Thameslink services will both serve the station. Below is some details about the station contruction and the the buildings connected with the station.

Network Rail to assemble first prefab station kit
Filed 06/11/07

Contractors are preparing to assemble the first of an off-the-shelf station design which is to be rolled out across the rail network in a bid to cut construction costs and speed up new station developments.

Civil engineering firm Dean Dyball is close to completing preliminary works for the new Eastfields station near Mitcham in the London borough of Merton. The station kit - which includes platform and canopy modules - will then be assembled on site to allow the station to open early in the New Year.

Network Rail has already approved the design, a trial version of which has been erected on an industrial estate in Ringwood near Southampton. The modular system can be put together in 36 days and is expected to be used for a new station at Cranbook in Devon and to upgrade existing stations at Greenhithe in Kent and Effingham Junction is Surrey. Network Rail's business plan, published last week, includes a commitment to spend around £150m on station improvements as well as plans to allow step-free access to trains across the entire rail network.

The prefab station initiative follows criticism of the multi-million pound cost of opening new railway stations that has seen many schemes flounder due to funding difficulties. Of the successful recent projects Coleshill in Warwickshire, which opened to passengers earlier this year, cost £8.7m while Gartcosh in North Lanarkshire came in at £3.25m when it opened in 2005. Network Rail is under pressure to deliver more affordable new stations to meet the growing demand for rail travel and the infraco believes the prefab kits can also be used to upgrade existing neglected stations, which would otherwise require expensive renovations.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Unbelievable

How I'd describe Liverpool's victory tonight and what a turn round from just a few weeks ago. Achieving a record Champions League result of 8-0 is testament to the performance of the team tonight. Just when Liverpool looked down and out, the spirit of Istanbul was with us and the victory tonight was petty amazing to watch.

Hopefully it will be used as a stimulant and improve our Premier League form, we're still unbeaten but need to win those crucial games and not draw them.

A few exciting months could still be ahead for the reds!

Travellers off at last

Finally and after four weeks the travellers on Mitcham Common have finally departed. This has been a long drawn out process which has consumed a vast amount of councillor time along with causing inconvenience to the residents' enjoyment of the Common caused by their encampment on Watneys Road. I have no doubt this could have resolved a great deal earlier if the will had existed but there you go - better late then never.

In terms of the barrier the Council are in the process of replacing the barrier that was broken, concrete bollards have been installed as an interim measure.

The downside is that they've now seemingly moved onto the Mitcham Golf Club car park which is in Cricket Green ward - hopefully they'll be gone a great deal quicker then the time it took them to leave Mitcham Common.