Not everyone in Surrey Heath is rich…

The first Surrey Heath Exec meeting of 2016 was an important one covering key local issues. It also showed the difference between Conservative and Labour priorities within Surrey Heath.

External Grants

Starting on a positive, it was good to see that Surrey Heath agreed to support a number of grants to voluntary organisations including a slight increase in the overall budget.  This meant £80k to Camberley CAB, £30k to Voluntary Action, £10k to Age Concern and £5k to Camberley Job Club who all do fantastic work. A further £15k was given to Tringhams  (a day centre for Bisley/West End residents) although they only have 17 regulars at West End and 10 at Bisley and are not adhering to their Service Level Agreement. Whilst this is clearly valued by users, I personally felt that this money could be better used for example to support elderly lunch clubs throughout the whole borough rather than just one.  I know of at least 2 Church groups for older people in other wards offering activities and refreshment and yet receive nothing from the Council. In my mind, it would be better to support many groups and hundreds of older people with a monthly local event rather than throwing £15k at one rural club meeting for 27 people twice a week.

I did express some concern that the grant for the Basingstoke Canal Authority was frozen at £10k for the umpteenth year and the potential impact of flooding that they address.  However, we were advised that the Canal Authority would receive income this year via the Deepcut development and that this would help address long term flooding risks.

Annual monitoring report on development

Surrey Heath have not hit their housing targets and managed to build 710 instead of the 762 target in the four years between Apr 2011 to March 2015. The reason given for this is because of the planning restrictions in Surrey Heath due to the Special Protection Area (this protects three types of rare roosting birds on our commons)

However, during the same period, only 5% of these completed properties were affordable housing when the target was 35%. This is simply not good enough and means many people will be completely unable to afford living in Surrey Heath especially key workers. The excuse given by Surrey Heath was that office conversions to residential development legally do not require affordable housing and that developers claim that developments will not be feasible if affordable housing is included.  They also claim that developers have additional costs in Surrey Heath due to the SPA.  Whilst some of these may act as partial explanations, 5% is so low that it raises very serious questions as to whether the Council are doing everything they can. Sadly, when I asked exactly that as residents themselves would expect drawing attention to the plight of our nurses and key workers, the Conservative leader said that no-one mentions it to her!  Perhaps she should have a wander round her own Council offices and speak with her own staff that do not receive around the £60k salary needed to afford to buy in this area.

Council Tax Support Scheme

Amongst a wider item on Council Tax background, the Council also annually review the Council Tax support scheme. In Surrey Heath, we have a system which I would describe as state sanctioned cruelty where working age claimants have to pay 30% of their council tax regardless of whether they are in full receipt of benefits. So for example, if someone had multiple disabilities and had no prospect of work receiving full disability benefit, their Council tax benefit would only pay for 70% rather than 100%. The Council do have a hardship fund of £10 000 where people can bid for the rest but it is ridiculously complicated involving 20 different criteria, many of which are subjective.

In the committee report, it stated, “the demand for hardship payments is low” so I said at the meeting that is very odd when over 200 food hampers were given by Besom and Rotary to Surrey Heath households in need over Christmas and the CAB helped over 50 households in the last 9 months with council tax repayments. Again, this sadly demonstrates the reality of poverty within our supposedly affluent area. This is particularly ironic as David Cameron claimed that addressing poverty was his number one priority this year! The finance portfolio holder said that he would discuss this all with officers… we will wait and see…

The next item was the Council’s financial position as of 30 Sept 2015. It was reported in the written report that the business portfolio had a budget of £564k but had spent £710k so was £146k under budget. I pointed out before the meeting that this was in fact an overspend not an underspend which apparently none of the officers or exec members had noticed and was excused at the meeting as a “typing error”. These can obviously happen but it does raise questions as to how closely they bother reading or checking these reports.

Outside the chamber, I had a useful induction meeting today with Bill Andrews who is the chair of Frimley Fuel Allotments. I have recently agreed to become a trustee at the charity which allocates grants to local people in need. My role will be to conduct home visits particularly around Old Dean and assess applications which should be really interesting.

December Update at Surrey Heath BC

I have now started to do some regular updates to our Labour members in Surrey Heath to explain a bit more about the role of Cllr so here is a slightly adapted version of this month’s report for the wider public.
On Mon 30th November, I attended the Old Dean Community Group which is a small network of officers and residents. At this, we said goodbye to our excellent community officer, Andy Draper, who has worked hard over a number of years especially with the annual fun days.
The next day, I had a meeting with the Borough Chief Executive. These are an opportunity to raise issues and discuss them frankly and confidentially in my capacity as group leader. Whilst I can’t therefore go onto detail, issues I raised were the temporary closure of Camberley Library, Camberley Town Centre and leisure centre, resourcing of planning enforcement across the borough and Syrian refugees (which have still not been agreed yet at Surrey Heath)
Immediately afterwards was a meeting of the Council Exec where the main item was the Council Mid Year report. This mainly involved a lot of self congratulatory flannel including showing a video of achievements so far this year. Whilst it is right to celebrate success, a mid year report should also prominently include areas that are less good or lessons learnt. I therefore asked why these were missing and also that there were far too many irrelevant areas being reported.  The red areas (off target) were the theatre café income, responding to complaints in 10 days, self service usage at customer contact centre, households in temporary accommodation and length of stay. We also had a report highlighting officer shortages in Planning and there is only one Planning Enforcement officer. I therefore made the point that unless we get more enforcement, applicants could basically ignore the application system as it would be unlikely that anything would be addressed.
On Thursday 3 December, I had the pleasure of meeting the leader of Eastleigh BC who was conducting a peer review of Surrey Heath BC. We discussed a number of areas such as poor financial budget setting and lack of affordable housing built. His team were interviewing officer and Cllrs and it would be interesting to see their final report.
On Tues 8 Dec, I attended a very brief meeting of the Town Centre Working Group looking at forward plans. Again, our working groups are confidential so can’t say more just yet.
Later that week was the Surrey Heath Local Area Committee. There were several petitions that were presented including lights at Frimley Green and a request for a traffic crossing in Portsmouth Road outside the hospital. A review of the A30 bus lane will now be considered as part of a wider review of the town centre. I also spoke about the poor handling of the temporary Library closure and the apparent lack of vision that a temporary small facility with computers had not been put within the council offices.
The final Full Council of the year took place on Wed 17 Dec and during the question time to the Finance Portfolio Holder, I asked the following question, “At this time of year when we are thinking of those less fortunate than ourselves, what is the Council going to do to address poverty within the borough? After a long silence, the answer was that he would consult with colleagues. I will try and get this formally onto Council agendas in the New Year. At the Christmas social afterwards, it was good to meet the Surrey Heath Young Mayor from Collingwood , their deputy from Gordon’s and their parents in a positive venture by the current Mayor.
The last meeting was the following evening’s Audit Committee which sounded dull in advance. However, it was livened up by the unexpected appearance of our external auditors who were basically there to say they could not sign off the Council accounts. After officers tried to blame a new IT system, the auditors made clear that there were more fundamental issues relating to resourcing. In 12 years as a Cllr, I had never seen any auditors speak in this way. I asked for a full report at our next meeting as to how this has happened and this was agreed by the committee. We also had a report about the local govt settlement announced by the Govt earlier that day and the rupture impact this will have.
Finally, I would like to wish all Surrey Heath residents a merry Christmas and happy New Year.
Cllr Rodney Bates
Lab Cllr for Old Dean

Syria – my response to leader e-mail

Here’s my response to the email that Jeremy Corbyn sent yesterday to party members asking for their view on Syria.

“Whilst noting that MPs may wish to consult, any political decision on Syria should be based on the latest evidence and intelligence and not on political dogma. As such, any view put forward by an ordinary party member is inevitably flawed as we do not have this background to inform our view. It should also be recognised that there will be consequences whether or not we bomb and that innocent civilians will die or be injured regardless of whether the UK choose to become involved or not.

ISIS along with all worldwide terrorist organisations must be addressed and their actions eradicated or at least reduced. Therefore, the UK must play a full part in working with as many countries as possible in uniting resources against these and other threats. However, there are many ways that this can be done and there are already many other countries with better resources than us that have been bombing Syrian targets over a long period with little obvious effect. Our involvement might therefore be better used as part of a cross nation ground force (ideally through the UN) for example humanitarian aid, intelligence, use of military bases, logistics and remotely targeting communication systems in order to reduce the spread of jihadists videos and hate preaching of all kinds.

ISIS is a terrorist organisation with cells throughout the world. Any military action in Syria must therefore also consider the wider impact not only to the civilian population in Raqqa but to civilians around the world. We must be sure that military action would weaken and not strengthen ISIS by recruiting more suicide bombers to their twisted cause thus making the situation even worse. There must be a clear short and long term strategy not only for Syria but to jointly address worldwide terrorism in all their forms.”


The only argument for Trident is emotional

I haven’t been to Labour Conference this year but it is no surprise that Trident hit the headlines at some point. Similarly, it can be a surprise to no-one that Jeremy Corbyn has ruled out personally using nuclear weapons as leader as he is a long standing opponent.

The politics and arguments around Trident are quite interesting especially to a former Politics graduate like me that studied political violence as part of their degree.

Logically, there are absolutely no circumstances whatsoever when a UK leader would actually use nuclear weapons.  We never have and we never will and Jeremy Corbyn is merely stating the reality.   The reasons are:-

  1. No logical or sane government would use them against another logical and sane government due to the wider world impact. Let’s imagine that we decided to use them against say Russia – the end result would be our own annihilation via a nuclear war. The closest we got to this was the Bay of Pigs in 1963 between America and Russia and we have never considered using them. Would a logical and sane government really invade us if we didn’t have nuclear weapons? Less than 10 countries in the world have them now. Only America has actually used them 70 years ago although other countries have conducted testing usually to shore up their own political situation at home.
  2. But the world has moved on since the 1960s so what about North Korea or other despots where the argument goes that we need to “put them in their place”. Unfortunately, the deterrent aspect of a nuclear deterrent only works if the opposing party is in their right mind. Put another way, we have to be sure that they care enough about their own people not to see this as a chance to write their name in the annals of history by being the final leader of their country or deluding themselves that they can be ultimate world leader. Nuclear weapons would have no impact to that as there is no deterrent.
  3. Ah, what about ISIL or other terrorist groups – they don’t care about us? Nope they don’t but as any politics student knows, the most dangerous terrorists are those prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice and in their case, martyrdom is seen as a positive.  Even if all the terrorists were in the same geographic location rather than remotely networked all over the world, there are easier ways than attempting to nuke them taking out tens of thousands of ordinary citizens.   In any case, the next wave of terrorism is almost certainly going to be based on affecting the internet, energy sources or water supplies as this would have maximum impact. ISIL would love to get their hands on nuclear weapons regardless of whether we had them or not but reducing availability would make this less likely.

Leaving aside a jobs argument (namely that Trident may be good or bad but at least it provides employment) let’s focus on the only reason for Trident and that is purely emotional and it comes down to this. Having our own nuclear weapon makes us FEEL safe. It makes us feel as if we are still a world superpower and in control of our own destiny. There’s absolutely no logic to the argument but it doesn’t matter because it’s what we think.

If we look to America, it’s a similar psychology which explains why so many ordinary citizens still insist in carrying a gun believing that it is the only way of protecting their family and household. UK culture would scoff at this pointing out the huge rate of gun crimes in the US but nonetheless even President Obama has shied back from upsetting the gun lobby or more importantly the quiet stubbornness of many citizens.

The internal discussion in the Labour Party is not actually about security at all. It’s about unemotional logic put forward by Jeremy Corbyn on the one hand and on the other, the emotional connection to the UK public that many shadow Cabinet members want to build.  Put bluntly, can you put a financial figure on ensuring people feel safe regardless of whether it does?  Probably not which is why Jeremy Corbyn for Labour and Michael Portillo in the Conservatives are unlikely to persuade their respective parties despite the clear logic behind their position.

What next for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn?

The voting has been completed after a long campaign and tomorrow will see Jeremy Corbyn announced as the next leader of the Labour Party probably with Tom Watson (or maybe Stella Creasy) as his Deputy.

I did not vote for Jeremy Corbyn and cannot at this time, see how he can possibly become Prime Minister. In my view, we have ended up with a leader who can “preach to the already converted” but sadly hugely divisive and offputting to those people whose vote we need to win again (just like Ian Duncan Smith was when Tory leader)

However, that argument has passed and we are now in a different stage. Here’s my guide to what may happen next.

  1. The result will be both legitimate and clear. Jeremy Corbyn should therefore be given the opportunity to lead and expect all Labour figures to support him personally in doing that. You can do this without agreeing with all of his views and fully campaign for the party and all our representatives. That is what I intend to do and encourage others to do the same although know many people personally in my CLP and elsewhere who will quickly resign from the party.
  2. All of the Deputy Leadership candidates should accept posts in his shadow cabinet. They all pledged to serve whoever was the leader and their breadth will be a good balance.
  3. Personally, I would advise the other leadership candidates not to accept posts at least for a 12 month period. They can serve in other ways perhaps leading party commissions on particular policy areas or be loyal backbenchers focusing on community issues but it would be unfair for them to have collective responsibility on leadership positions. Similarly many MPs will refuse to serve and they should be allowed to publicly disagree on areas such as Heathrow, Trident, foreign policy and economy so freely as long as it is about policy and not personal.
  4. Jeremy Corbyn should consider scrapping the whipping system for Labour MPs. As he himself rebelled more than 500 times, MPs can hardly be expected to show loyalty whilst in opposition. This would actually cause major problems for the Conservatives too by scrapping the pairing system. If Labour have no idea how many MPs will support a motion, how will the Conservatives do so with such a tiny majority? The end result would be Labour MPs feeling more positive by voting on conscience more regularly with the emphasis on polite disagreement rather than personal rows..
  5. Jeremy Corbyn should consider spending as little time as possible in Parliament. For Prime Minister Questions, he should stick to a few key themes perhaps foreign policy, impact of austerity etc and ask factual questions rather than debating.  His talents are more in communities and he has been elected to give hope to others and therefore needs to tour the whole country starting in marginal and safe tory areas.
  6. He will need to consider how to respond to situations where he could be perceived as hypocritical. For example, the Leader of the Opposition has certain perks and numerous invites (for example to attend state dinners with the royal family) So responsibility on the one hand may not easily fit with anti austerity on the other. It’s no coincidence that there has already been discussion about salary, special protection etc. This will be interesting to see and ironically if played well may end up being his greatest asset.

Even with these first steps, I would currently expect Jeremy Corbyn to last a maximum of two years. MPs will expect to see London choose a Labour Mayor next year and minor progress in Scotland. There will be an EU referendum which may cause tensions for all party leaders but the final key will be the 2017 local elections. If Lab are behind in those polls or do badly, I would expect MPs to act swiftly then and force a leadership contest or perhaps Corbyn himself might honourably resign/retire (he would be 68 then and almost 71 at next general election). The bookmakers are offering Evens that Jeremy Corbyn will be the Lab Leader at the 2020 general election and that seems very low.

Whatever happens, it will be an interesting and challenging time for all of the political parties and not just Labour.

Labour Ballot papers go out this week and this Surrey Cllr picks ….@LizforLeader and @Caroline4Deputy

So .. who are you voting for?” has been the question I’ve heard time and again over recent weeks. Friends, family, political colleagues and opponents and even members of my cricket team have offered their own views but I have been genuinely undecided. To be honest, the idea of a leadership campaign before understanding the reasons why Labour lost did not enthuse me at all.

However, as time has gone on, the campaign has become far more interesting in part because it defines the discussions taking place “on the left” and also challenged mainstream political thinking.

Jeremy Corbyn deserves some credit for that. He was a reluctant candidate from the “Left” of the party and narrowly scraped enough MP nominations. It is true that many of these were lent and that some now regret this but nonetheless MPs did this because he is commonly recognised as a decent, principled man with friends across the party and in other parties. I doubt that any other candidate from this wing of the party would have gone anywhere near to securing 35 nominations. Around half of his nominations was because he was a friend rather than because of his political views. There is no doubt that Jeremy Corbyn has re-energised many Labour supporters and it’s certainly true that membership has shot up especially from younger people. Surrey Heath has seen an increase of around 50% since the election and there is a similar picture around the country.

But having spent numerous hours campaigning in various areas, I can categorically say that Labour did not lose the election because it was not left-wing enough. Throughout all the door knocking, there were around 5 to 10 people in total that expressed this view but some of them still voted for us anyway with the odd person going to UKIP, Green or didn’t vote at all.  In contrast, hundreds told me their issue was fear of economy changes, our leader and the SNP in government. The idea that Ed Miliband was too right wing to be elected is ludicrous and yet some people still believe this in Labour circles.  A victory for Jeremy Corbyn would appear to make all 3 issues even worse in key marginals which is why few PPCs in key marginals support him.

Labour can only win a future election by taking votes from the Conservatives and I simply don’t understand how Jeremy Corbyn would do this so can’t vote for him. If he does win, I suspect his leadership will last 2 years at most and then the party will move to replace him as the Tories did with Ian Duncan Smith.

Turning to the three other candidates, Yvette Cooper was the choice of our Surrey Heath members. I can see why – she’s a unifying, competent and experienced performer and would do a steady job if elected. However, I personally am not sure that a steady job is what is needed now as a steady job would probably get a similar result to now. Whether the public would be willing “to put Ed Balls into Downing Street” is something I doubt but she would have 4 years to work on this.  I will be voting for her as 3rd.

Now it gets harder… I have met Andy Burnham and he is extremely down to earth, very friendly and has great empathy with people. There is no doubt that without the unstinting intervention of Andy, the Hillsborough Justice for the 96 campaign would not have been successful. To gain huge respect from bereaved families as someone who was both a politician but also a massive Everton fan is an achievement that few politicians can ever match. If Andy Burnham does win, the Party will move forward fairly united and bridge all strands.

I have never met Liz Kendall and yet I keep hearing the same message from those who are floating voters that she is “saying the right things”, “what she says makes sense”, “she’s got something about her that I like” and “,I voted Tory this time but would definitely vote for her”. Political opponents on the Tory side seem more cautious if she was elected than other candidates. On the downside, some see her as “a bit young” and less polished and would have internal party issues to resolve.

If there was a general election tomorrow, my choice would be easy and for Andy Burnham but there is no election tomorrow. The choice for me is therefore which candidate in an election taking place in 5 years time is the most likely to win over Tory voters.  It has to be Tory voters and Tory seats that are the key because there are far more than those of other votes and other seats.  If Labour had won every seat in Scotland and those of UKIP and Green, the Conservatives would still have won the election. It seems incredible to me that so few Labour supporters seem to have grasped this fact.

A party led by Liz Kendall would be a huge gamble that may be beyond Labour members but yet it seems clear to me that she offers the best chance of winning in 2020 or at least denying the Conservatives a further majority. She may not win this contest but the more votes she gets shows that the party are grasping what the electorate rather than what party supporters are saying.

For that reason, I am going to plump for Liz but would be happy if Andy won and content if Yvette did so.

Turning to the Deputy, I am a massive fan of Ben Bradshaw as my first general election campaign was spent in Exeter. Similarly, Stella Creasy is a real star with a fantastic understanding of community working and campaigning which the party must implement. Angela Eagle is well respected across the party and Tom Watson is well known for his vigorous campaigning against powerful figures.

However, Caroline Flint has a powerful personal story and is comfortable with both the powerful and powerless. I have pounded the streets of Woking with Caroline and she has a great knack of energising others. More importantly, if Corbyn does win, she would be a good counter balance and if he doesn’t then she would be an asset for every other candidate.

My vote will be 1) Caroline Flint 2) Stella Creasy  3) Ben Bradshaw 4) Angela Eagle 5) Tom Watson

Welfare means being “well fair”

There’s been lots of chatter across the Labour Party today about the proposed welfare cuts and whether to support or oppose them. The issue here is not quite as it seems as actually the political parties and the public want pretty much the same thing but the issue here is different views about perception and the actual reality.

The British public want a system where the clue is in the name “well fair” but that of course means value judging who should and who should not receive this.

So in the yes group are generally the disabled, the elderly and those who have worked hard in their lives but are now on hard times “through no fault of their own”.

Whereas the no camp basically consists of those who are healthy, able to work but “choose not to” and then a separate category of people whose personal circumstances are value judged by others (as one example, someone with several children and/or from different relationships) claimed as “their fault”

The problem is that whilst these generalisations sound great and you will find large numbers articulating this view including for political soundbites, it doesn’t make sense when applied to reality.

So let’s pick one example – the benefits cap where people are given a total amount of benefit to ensure that “work pays”.  This sounds a very fair idea – why should people on benefits get more than someone who works hard and £20k is a lot for “doing nothing”?

However, most people don’t realise that there are two aspects to benefits namely amounts of actual money that people receive and then monies that they don’t receive and never actually see but pays for a service or facility.

The biggest amount of “benefit” that people get is usually housing benefit which is either paid directly to their Council, Housing association or more commonly now, private landlord.  The level of rent is set by landlords and tenants have no choice as they are generally placed there by agencies. This system is proposed to change under universal credit so the tenant does receive the money first but that is not what happens now.   In effect, the tenant has nothing to do with this at all as the money goes straight to landlords.

On the other hand, people do receive a variety of financial benefits such as child benefit, disability benefit and others relating to being out of work and these are paid into bank accounts. How they spend this money is up to them but the amounts are not generous.

The problem with an overall cap is that tenants have absolutely no way of reducing most of this expenditure and have no choice in the matter. They cannot downsize and in fact there are now very few properties that come within the housing benefit cap anyway. If the overall cap is therefore reduced, all that will happen is that vulnerable tenants would have to be evicted as their housing benefit would not cover their rents and means merely shifting a “welfare” budget to a “local government” budget at much greater cost to the public purse.

Rather than getting into a tangle during a leadership contest about whether to support or oppose an overall benefits cap, a better option for the Labour leadership would be to agree the principle of a welfare cap per household but exclude housing benefit from this cap and then exclude from universal credit calculations. This would be politically clever because they could argue a lower headline cap of say £10k for households whilst pressing the government on reducing private and social rentals and therefore housing benefit. Both of these policies would be popular in the party and nationally by attacking profiteering landlords whilst giving extra protection to those in need. The Govt would find this harder to refuse bearing in mind that the recent budget has already intervened on rents by a proposed reduction.

Wonder if any of the leadership candidates will cut through the issue and propose this?