I was invited to a meeting of Labour Councillors with Hazel Blears the Cabinet Minister with responsibility for Local Government. Kent is well represented with my fellow councillor Dave Green, plus Mike Eddy and Angela Harrison from Kent County Council and Liz Green (here with Hazel) wearing both her Thanet and Kent hats.
I've been a fan of Hazel for a long time. She always speaks with passion, frankness and optimism. Whenever I see her speak I always walk out with more energy to campaign. Hazel was a councillor for 8 years so she knows about front line service delivery.
During the Labour Party Deputy Leadership campaign she came down to Ramsgate and gave a very impressive performance.
Hazel gave a brief talk on current issues emphasising the need for more recycling. She spoke about needing a "can do" local authority that responded to what local people wanted.Showing an awareness of Thanet Hazel said how Tories had put over an image of being Green but had actually done very little to deliver on this agenda. She wanted the UK to work with Obama investing in green technologies.
Hazel highlighted how Tories were advocating cuts in services and further housebuilding. David Cameron's view that cutting spending rather than fighting the recession reminded her of Thatcher's "Unemployment is a price worth paying". The "Let the recession take it's course" line was reminiscent and would hurt the most vulnerable most.
Angela Harrison from Sheerness opposed the Boris Johnson proposal for an airport in the sea. Mike Eddy picked up how Kent County Council claimed credit for the Labour government funded school building programme. He also questioned why Kent CC spends so much money on its press and public relations.
I asked about Manston Airport and why London and Kent Tories were advocating airport expansion in Kent at the same time as the national Tories were opposing Heathrow. This was inconsistent and I asked for a coherent regional strategy for London and the South East on airports.
Hazel emphasised that every single secondary school in Britain was being refurbished. On Kent's publicity Hazel said that if that was the local decision on the best way to spend money then Labour councillors should campaign to expose cuts and increased charges whilst publicity budgets remained large.
On Tory plans to expand airports in Kent while opposing a third runway at Heathrow, this was just hypocisy. Pretending to be Green in one place but pushing airport expansion elsewhere. Airports were necessary for economic growth, the Tories were trying to ignore this fact.
More questions from other Labour councillors.....
Bus passes for retired people welcomed but it was noted that Tory authorities were complaining about the cost. (I note this again is Tories not welcoming a Green initiative). There was a call for more work with young people to engage them more with Civic society. The idea of a quota of council seats for people under 40, say 5-10% was suggested. (A big problem for Thanet councillors if this was brought in!)
Hazel wanted more representative councils and recognised how unrepresentative most councils were of their local communities. She wanted accreditation and certificates for people giving skills in the community such as school governors. Hazel noted how Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea had vibrant campaigns on getting councillors from different parts of the community to stand for election. Hazel also wanted Youth Mayors in every authority so that politics could engage more with schools and colleges.
Hazel said the introduction of free swimming was simple and popular, as was the free bus campaign. These should be more publicised as great Labour achievements. They also helped the poorest most, that was why the Tories opposed them.
More questions from councillors
Desire for better websites and information, plus better publicity on the Keep Warm programme. Slough wanted better census figures to get more accurate grant settlements from central government. Liz Green complained about Tories taking credit on schoolimprovements and new schools like Ellington, when the money was from the Labour government and had been opposed by Conservatives. She talked about Thanet Council allowing shops to move to Westwood Cross and doubling the whammy by hitting High Streets with parking charges.
Hazel asked for further information on the High Streets, and the nonsensical attempts to blame it on the credit crunch when Tory Councils kept parking charges and didn't use their planning powers to influence development.