Monday, January 29, 2007

Another Council Assembly

Last Wednesday saw the first Council Assembly of 2007 - and as I have not posted for over a month it seems appropriate to catch up with events from that evening.

Three deputations raised important issues about services in our community from violent crime to post office closures. Residents from Camberwell came to address Council Assembly about their fears for the increase of violent crime in the area. Camberwell Community Council Chair Ian Wingfield proposed an excellent motion following the deputation which called on the Council to publish its Violent Crime Strategy. Although there appear to be a number of action plans in place there is currently no strategy - and whilst the objects of any strategy may be fairly apparent it is important that residents of Camberwell and the borough generally should be reassured that the Police and Council are working together for a common goal.

Teresa Priest led a deputation of users and supporters from the Maudsley Emergency Clinic. The South London and Maudsley NHS Trust have taken the decision to close the clinic which provides a 24 hour emergency service for those suffering from mental health crises and has proposed that they receive treatment at the Kings College Hospital A & E department. The decision has been endorsed by the Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt. It was quite apparent from the deputation that the service provided by the Clinic is unique and provides a real life-line to its users. There has been widespread cross-party support for the campaign to keep the Clinic with all local MPs and Councillors backing Teresa and her team. Cllr David Noakes worked hard to preserve this cross-party support and his motion received unanimous support.

As I said during the course of the debate, it makes me angry that at a time when there is record investment going into the health service the only headlines which we seem to read about concern department closures and staff redundancies. I hope that the Government has got its priorities right, because when a Clinic such as the the the Maudsley's emergency department is forced to close alarm bells must start ringing.

The meeting gave rise to two examples of absolute hypocrisy from the Conservatives, and particularly veteran councillor Toby Eckersley, who has been put in charge of the Council's finances under the unpopular Tory/LibDem coalition. For years Toby has argued that the Council should work harder to improve its council tax collection rate, and in 2004 proposed that it should rise to 97.5% - a level it has remained at since. The anticipated collection rate determines the amount of money the council budgets for in the forthcoming financial year. So what an amazing turnaround that on Wednesday Toby should be proposing a cut in that collection rate to 96% - effectively condoning the failures of Southwark to collect its council tax. A Labour amendment to maintain the rate at 97.5% was defeated.

But perhaps the biggest hypocrisy of the evening, and perhaps the most shameful vote, concerned changes to the Council's constitution to vary the management structure. Last October announcements were made which effectively deleted the role of Strategic Director of Housing Management. The announcements were poorly handled and the whole restructuring had the impression of being drawn up on a post-it note. Permanent measures became interim, and consultation which had originally been deemed unnecessary was suddenly found to be required good practice! In fact, the changes required amendments to the Constitution, with the Constitution providing that all changes having to be considered first by the Council's Standards Committee. Amazingly although the Standards Committee had not met to consider these changes the proposals were brought to Council Assembly. Shame-faced officers and Executive members sat silently as their unconstitutional proposals were introduced, but proceeded to vote them through nevertheless. Cllr Eckersley has always been a supporter of the rights of backbench councillors and the importance of the constitution, but he was amazingly silent on this subject. Isn't it curious how hypocritical politicians become when they hold Executive office!

Cllr Richard Thomas made the telling comment after the vote that now the Council could get on with delivering services for its residents. Well said Richard, but it is equally important that the democratic process is followed - otherwise why should we bother with elections at all?! It is no good for council officers simply to do whatever they want with no regard to the political impact of their actions - or for politicians to let those officers get away with it.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Council Assembly

The Council Assembly on 6th December truly was a marathon event - finishing after 1 am. It is probably not the best way in which to conduct democratic debate, but we were left with no choice after the Mayor ruled that our emergency motions on the recent changes to housing management should only be considered after the end of the usual business.

There were no great shocks in the outcome of any of the votes: Cllr Humphreys survived our censure motion and the LibDems quickly fell into line behind their Tory bosses. We received really superb deputations from SETAA which provides adult education learning and skills advice in Peckham, and the Southwark Pensioners Forum. I was particularly pleased that we adopted the Southwark Pensioners Manifesto, the result of a great deal of work and commitment by Charlie Cherrill and his colleagues. It is worth noting that 3 of the 5 members of the deputation are South Camberwell residents - our Ward helping to lead the way again!

Perhaps the most emotive debate came after the deputation from the Newington Reference Library Campaign. I have set out the concerns of the campaigners in an earlier entry, but it was truly startling to see again last night the way in which the LibDems have lost touch with the concerns of people who should be their core constituents in Walworth and Newington. For standing up for the residents of the borough who want to see improved access for ALL to the reference library, the Labour Group was condemned for "pandering to local campaigners" by the current Leader of the Council! He went on to describe his many happy hours studying in "The Bod" when he was at University - that's the Bodleian Library for those of us without an Oxford degree! - completely missing the fact that his plans for the Newington Reference library will deny many people in Southwark the opportunity to experience some of the joys of learning by browsing through the shelves of books currently available.This really is a case where the need to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act must be balanced with needs of the current library users. It really does seem that the DDA is being used as an excuse to close a large section of the library to members of the public.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the debate on Newington Library and the other issues which we discussed last night was the complete lack of humility exhibited by the Tories and LibDems. Despite the fact that no party won an outright mandate to run the borough in last May's elections the Tory/LibDem coalition who run the Executive seem to demonstrate no appreciation of this fact and appear to take pride in their confrontational style of politics - turning their anger and posturing against members of the public who are only doing their best to have their voice heard. Perhaps the attitude of the Tory/LibDem coalition was summed up best by my colleague Cllr John Friary - "ill-informed; hypocritical; conceited and condescending"