Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Should Thanet Councillors Have Free Food and Drinks?

My previous story on Conservative Thanet District councillors receiving free alcohol and food after Council meetings has attracted a lot of comment.

I raised the issue of the cost of food and drink after Council meetings in late 2008 and early 2009. I have a number of emails from that time on which I base this post. The figures therefore will be out of date, but the principles will remain the same. My motivation for investigating was that I thought the cost could not be justified to Council Tax Payers.

I have also been concerned since my election in 2007 at the role alcohol plays for some councillors. It is my personal view that this is wrong and I have been disappointed at the ‘old school’ councillors who see alcohol as lubricating the political process.

When I first requested the cost of these meetings from Council officers I did not get a very helpful response. I then made requests under the Freedom of Information Act and still received only a partial response. I then spoke to the then Council Chairman John Kirby, and he was very helpful and transparent. As soon as he became involved the previous logjam preventing release of information fell away. I think it interesting to note that officers were defensive about this request.

He advised me (and bear in mind my memory is of a couple of years ago) that it was custom and practice that the Chair of Council provided a reception after Council meetings. The Chair is paid an allowance. They then use that allowance to buy food and drink for councillors after the meeting. So technically the money is the Chair’s personal money, but it is acknowledged that this is expected of any individual carrying out the job. This has been the case for some years. So, technically the provision of refreshments is outsourced to the Chair of Council's personal allowance but effectively as I understand it the money is expected to come from their allowance which is provided by taxpayers.

However, this food and drink are not the only costs, there are other extra costs. These are the costs the Council was reluctant to divulge. There have in the past been council staff who have ordered the drinks, collected the drinks and set up the drinks and food. There is the Chair of Council’s attendant who stays behind and then drives the Chair of Council home after the meeting. There are the security and reception staff, who keep the buildings open and have to remain being paid while councillors eat and drink. In addition there is heating, lighting, motoring and other running costs. These costs were being incurred for a couple of hours after each Council meeting purely so that councillors could enjoy free alcoholic drinks and food, what might be called a private party.

Costs clearly vary from meeting to meeting and the number of meetings in a year but an approximate cost of £2,000 a year in 2009 for all these costs of refreshments, staff and heating, chauffeuring etc seemed about right. An exact figure could not be provided due to the need for confidentiality in relation to Council staff working hours and overtime claims.

John Kirby thought this a worthwhile expense; I thought the money could be better spent in other ways. The newspaper article highlights this. John’s figure was for food and drink, my larger figure for all costs. John also was mindful of people’s perceptions and had changed arrangements. There had been cases in the past where Chairs of Council attended meetings and then had a good “session” knowing they had a Council tax funded chauffeur to take them and their friend’s home. I know John Kirby on several occasions provided his own transport to and from meetings depending on his diary commitments, to minimise costs. He also got rid of the arrangement where council staff were going out and buying alcohol and then distributing it and serving it to councillors – not an essential front line service!

He arranged to go and buy drink himself (from Tesco if my memory serves me!) and deliver it, whereas I’m told Council vehicles had been used in the past. All good reforms but still in my view insufficient.

I still took the view that as councillors we would be better off buying our own refreshments and using the clubs and pubs of Margate after meetings if we wished to socialise. I could not justify the costs of staff, heating, lighting, chauffeuring etc for what was in effect a “private party”.

If officers asked could they please keep the Town hall open for a private party councillors would say ‘No’; why should councillors regard themselves differently?

John Kirby was succeeded by Margaret Sheldrick as Chair of Thanet Council in 2009. She has been similarly transparent about this matter to John Kirby, and operated to the same high standards. She has been an advocate of modernisation and is sympathetic to the idea of Thanet allowing twitter and facebook updating at meetings by councillors. Many other councils allow this as does the House of Commons.

I think it is important to recognise that the issue is not one of the John Kirby or Margaret Sheldrick as Chair of Council having responsibility. Their role is largely symbolic and non-political. They do not authorise the money so that the Town Hall stays open for these social events. It is the Conservative cabinet Chris Wells, Martin Wise, Simon Moores and Roger Latchford lead by Bob Bayford who do so. They are the people who need to be held to political account.

All five of these plead in public there are hard times and there is no money. They then have the opportunity to go and have free alcoholic drinks and food at the taxpayers’ expense. I can only estimate that the cost they currently authorise for this is conservatively £1,000 a year for staff security, heating, lighting, staff and other costs. I think that shows how they prioritise spending for people in Thanet.

In a way it does not matter whether the cost is £100, £1,000 or £10,000 with tight financial times I think there are other priorities. I know some Conservatives agree. I know all my Labour colleagues agree. Like me they would rather see this money spent for the community.
In my Northwood ward both Coleman Crescent Recreation Area (see pictures on left) and Jackey Bakers play area need new children’s play facilities. I think this money would be better spent prioritised for children to play rather than councillors to have a free drink.

My thanks to Cllr. John Watkins who occasionally drinks in the Royal British Legion in Margate at his own expense after Council meetings, for his help researching this.

Friday, 4 March 2011

My New Website and An Expenses Story

My new website on my work as a councillor Align Leftin Northwood is available here.
Please have a look, I would welcome any feedback.

It still has a few small tweaks for me to work out but it is almost there. I still have plenty to add but have taken off the "under development" notice.

There are of course many references to subjects I have covered here. I have linked to press coverage of issues in the Northwood ward I represent. When putting it together one story on expenses caught my eye.
In 2009 Cllr. John Watkins and I complained about the free drinks and food available after Full Council meetings of Thanet District Council. I have only attended once soon after I was elected in 2007. I was surprised to see a generous buffet together with cans of beer and lager with bottles of wine, plus soft drinks. The alcoholic drinks were available on a help yourself basis.
I didn't go back because I couldn't see that having free alcoholic drinks was something I could justify as a councillor. Recently we have heard much about austerity but I argued years ago that councillors should not be enjoying this kind of generous perk.
Labour councillors rarely if ever attend these free refreshement sessions. On one occasion one of my colleagues was returning to their car after drinking in a local hostelry at their own expense. As they did so they encountered several Conservative councillors carrying several plates from the post Council buffet to the nearby Conservative Club.
As they said to me, it was pleasing to see councillors so committed to recycling as the food would only have gone to waste! It did though seem an unreasonable use of council taxpayers money. There is also the question of the staff required to keep the building open, plus lighting, heating etc all at the taxpayers expense.
This is a cost saving that is long overdue.

Labour Slackers Beware!

Thanks to Hopi Sen for directing me to the new Univeristy of Nottingham politics blog Ballots and Bullets from Abraham Lincoln's quote:

"Ballots are the rightful and peaceful succesors to bullets."

Let's hope the Libyan people get some ballots after the current bullets.

Philip Cowley's post yesterday Labour Slackers Beware is well worth a read, click here. He looks at new Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) rules and concludes:

'The aim of these reforms, though, is to try to make it easier for the Chief Whip to target the PLP’s slackers and free-riders.'

Sounds good to me.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Northwood Traffic Problems

Last week's Isle of Thanet Gazette had an interesting letter from Conservative Thanet District Councillor David Lawson who represents St. Peter's:

"Recently the Isle of Thanet Gazette published an article with regard to the nuisance caused by students parking their cars along Northwood Road and nearby roads, sometimes blocking the driveways of residents.

Last week I had a meeting at Canterbury with the vice chancellor and principal of the Christ Church university, Dr. Robin Barker. He was at pains to stress that he did not approve of such action by the students and would be writing to them.

With immediate effect he has instructed that further free car parking spaces within the campus are made available for the students."

This is not a very green response. However, it is a result of the Conservative Thanet District Council not planning properly for the new college buildings.

In October 2007 Your Thanet reported on my work for Northwood residents.

Gridlock fear over new campus

"A NEW campus for Thanet College could lead to traffic problems in Westwood, say councillors.

Richard Nicholson, the Labour Party’s . Thanet leader, has voiced concern that the roads around Westwood Cross could become even more congested if the college moves there, as planned, in 2011

He said: "We are concerned with what amounts to nothing more than promises and doubtless finger crossing that our infrastructure can accommodate this move to the Westwood Cross area."

The new campus, a £43 million project has been given the go-ahead by council members but awaits further approval from the Government Office for the South East (GOSE).

Councillor Mark Nottingham, who represents the Northwood ward, an area that suffers from congestion from Westwood, added: "Residents are concerned with this planned move.

"They are not against a better Thanet College but even now, before a brick has been laid, they cannot get out of their driveways because of the traffic.

"We need to ensure a properly thought out travel plan is produced to deal with this whole question."

The modern campus building has been project managed by Adam Granger who met with staff from the college to ensure the needs of each department are properly met and that the move will go smoothly."

The new state-of-the-art campus building will cater for 8,000 students and enjoy close links with the neighbouring Canterbury Christ Church University."

I remember being told that many students would take the Loop bus to Westwood Cross and then walk through to the University and College. I am sure some do, but far more as I predicted take their cars. This was always likely with a new site that was poorly served by public transport.

Today I still have residents and businesses contacting me who complain about traffic and parking problems. My picture shows an all too typical scene of traffic congestion on Margate Road. For voters in the coming elections though this is a clear lesson of a key issue in Thanet that the Conservatives got wrong and which Labour councillors called right.