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Paul White, known to most as Lord Hanningfield and leader of Essex County Council, is to face six criminal charges under Section 17 of the Theft Act 1968 (Section 17 is the part of the Act that relates to “false accounting”).

He, along with three Labour MPs (Elliot Morely MP, David Chaytor MP and Jim Devine MP), have been summonsed to appear at the City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court at 2pm on 11 March 2010. The maximum sentence that could be applied under Section 17 is seven years’ imprisonment.

As these cases have been investigated by the police, the authority responsible for prosecuting is the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Interestingly, although defence lawyers for those charged have raised the issue of Parliamentary privilege, the Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer QC is clear in his statement that “the applicability and extent of any Parliamentary privilege claimed should be tested in court”.

Parliamentary privilege is an ancient privilege granted to parliamentarians, however the extent of its protection is both widely misunderstood and fiercely contested. When the Speaker made a statement to the House of Commons on 3 December 2008, regarding the arrest of Damian Green MP and entry into his offices, he reminded Members of Parliament  that, according to Erskine May (Parliament’s authoritative companion guide to procedure), parliamentary privilege has never prevented the operation of the criminal law. He also restated the position of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege in its 1999 report that “the precincts of the House are not and should not be ‘a haven from the law’”.

In respect of the specific charges against Paul White (Lord Hanningfield), Keir Starmer QC said:

“The charges allege that between March 2006 and May 2009, Paul White dishonestly submitted claims for expenses to which he knew he was not entitled, including numerous claims for overnight expenses for staying in London when records show that he was driven home and did not stay overnight in London.”

According to the BBC, Lord Hanningfield has resigned his front bench position as Conservative business spokesman and stood down as leader of Essex County Council. David Cameron also requested that Lord Strathclyde, the leader of the Conservative opposition in the Lords, suspend the Conservative whip with immediate effect.

Keir Starmer QC’s closed his statement with the following:

“Can I remind all concerned that the four individuals now stand charged of criminal offences and they each have the right to a fair trial. It is extremely important that nothing should be reported which could prejudice any of these trials.”

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Following my post on “Progression” and “The Woodsman” I made contact with the artist Michael Condron, the sculptor commissioned by Basildon Council to make “Progression”. I thought it courteous to draw his attention to the fact I was blogging about his work. His response – which he is happy for me to share – is an extraordinary and depressing indictment of the lack of courtesy and general ignorance of Basildon Council (and by extension its Conservative administration) in its dealings with artists and issues of public art:

“The attitude Basildon DC has shown towards it’s public art is pretty extraordinary, and fortunately not the kind of behaviour I’ve come across elsewhere.

The relocation of my Progression sculpture was not something I was consulted on.  Whilst I’m not entirely happy with the new situation, it is better than the artwork rotting in a storage yard somewhere.

You mentioned NYC’s percent for art programme in the blog, and I wonder if you’re aware that Essex County Council also has a percent for art policy.  Many commissions have been funded by developers through “section 106” planning requirements, including my recent Life Cycle installation at Hanningfield reservoir.

Generally speaking public art is vibrant in Essex!”

What is particularly depressing is that, whilst Basildon’s Conservatives neglect and rip out our public art, the record of Essex County Council, another Conservative administration, is a national leader when it comes to supporting public art. As Condron notes, Essex does indeed operate a percent policy for art. Art in the Open singles out Essex as its case study for best practice in “embedding public art within Council-led capital projects”. The page on commissioning guidance states:

“Essex County Council (ECC) has been commissioning art in the public realm as part of its Capital Development Programme and Essex Design Initiative for many years.  It was the first County Council to develop and adopt the principle of a public art policy in the late 1980s.  In 2002 it adopted a Percent for Art policy and, more recently, has developed a central budgeting process to create a new fund, the Public Art Common Fund, that draws money directly from ECC’s capital programmes budget, enabling the public arts team to plan longer term.  This has lead to the development of a three-year programme of more substantial commissions under the banner of ‘Genius Loci’ (‘Spirit of Place’).  These commissions are predominantly permanent but also include some temporary work to help highlight and pave the way for the permanent.”

What’s more, Essex demonstrates that it truly understands the purpose of public art:

“ECC seeks to commission art in the public realm to:

  • Improve the aesthetics of the built environment
  • Enhance a sense of community and place
  • Foster community pride and ownership
  • Celebrate artistic achievement
  • Reflect a ‘spirit of place’”

To demonstrate how serious Essex is about supporting public art, Art in the Open explains how the County Council organises the staff that support public art:

“ECC believes in an embedded and informed approach to commissioning art in the public realm.  It runs workshops and organises study trips to support internal development and understanding; the public art team sits within the built environment department, ensuring a close working relationship across planning and development teams; a Public Art Strategy Group, chaired by a cabinet member and including officers from across the council, helps keep an informed overview; occasionally, external organisations are brought in to provide additional commissioning support.”

And the big question in local government is always the money:

“Funding streams:

  • Percent for Art: up to 1 per cent of almost all capital builds across the council. This has been consolidated for 2007-2010 as the Public Art Common Fund where 0.74 per cent, £2.14 million, has been designate for Genius Loci. The continuation of the Common Fund beyond 2010 is subject to approval by the Council and is depended on a successful bid from the Public Art Team.
  • Money can also be brought in through section 106 (however, this mechanism is dependent on the policy of the local planning authority not the County Council).”

To be honest, it is a pretty extraordinary commitment from a local authority and I applaud Essex’s seriousness in making public art accessible and relevant – not shoved away in corners as museum pieces to be visited.

So why is it, with such a leading example so politically and geographically close to home, that Basildon’s Conservative Party acts like a Neanderthal collective when it comes to  public art? I can’t answer that. However, I can only think that the “pretty extraordinary” attitude identified by Condron was a principal contributing factor to the appalling ruin of “The Woodsman”.

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“The Members of Essex County Council are very concerned that the Government is only undertaking a very limited public consultation on Bradwell being a suitable site for a replacement Nuclear Power Station. Members call upon the Government to widen this consultation across Essex so that all our residents have the opportunity to make their voices heard on this very important issue.”

This was the motion put forward by Essex Liberal Democrats at the meeting of Essex County Council on 15th December.

It looks pretty measured doesn’t it? It doesn’t indulge in party-political posturing. It doesn’t even pompously declare that “Liberal Democrats are very concerned” but uses the neutral “Members of Essex County Council are very concerned”. It doesn’t require the spending of large sums of taxpayers’ money or force the County Council to do something (heaven forfend!). It simply requests that the Government – the Labour Government – extend its very narrow consultation on a potential new nuclear power station at Bradwell to the rest of Essex (the existing Bradwell nuclear power station was decommissioned on 28 March 2002). The motion doesn’t put pro-nuclear supporters in a difficult position by offering an opinion as to whether nuclear power is a good thing or a bad thing. Rather, it simply makes the point that on an issue this big the whole of Essex should be consulted.

As motions go, particularly those designed to attract support from across the political spectrum, it’s pretty darn good. So more on the motion in just a moment.

First, it’s worth taking a moment to examine quite how appalling the consultation referred to is. Or rather – was. I think. To be honest, it isn’t so clear. On 9 December, the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) issued a press release entitled “What does new nuclear mean for Essex?” It boasts:

“Residents of Essex are this weekend being asked to have their say on proposals to a build a new nuclear power station in the area……The announcement on new nuclear sites was made as part of a planning overhaul for big energy projects and ten potential new sites for nuclear energy were named in the draft Nuclear National Policy Statement. These sites are Bradwell, Braystones, Hartlepool, Heysham, Hinkley Point, Kirksanton, Oldbury, Sellafield, Sizewell and Wylfa. Bradwell was nominated by EDF, who are currently seeking to sell the site to a credible nuclear operator.

Following the nomination of the sites the Department of Energy and Climate Change is conducting a 15 week consultation to hear people’s views about the proposals.

The new Infrastructure Planning Commission will use the National Policy Statement when considering planning applications for new nuclear power stations. This consultation is an opportunity for local people to influence what the IPC should take into account when considering whether to grant consent or not.”

It looks promising. There is a fifteen week consultation. There is an opportunity for local people to influence what should be taken into account when considering whether to grant consent or not. In fact, the press release begins by saying “Residents of Essex are this weekend being asked to have their say on proposals to a build a new nuclear power station in the area”.

  • On Wednesday 9 December DECC issues its press release including consultation details.
  • On Thursday 10 December there is an exhibition in West Mersea.
  • On Friday 11 December there is an exhibition in Maldon.
  • On Saturday 12 December there is an exhibition in Bradwell-on-Sea.
  • And there were two “two public discussion events” – but no details were provided in the release. (They clearly weren’t intended for non-locals who I assume – hope – were at least leafleted.)

And… Er… That’s it.

Residents of Essex, eh?

Even though DECC describe the site in their press release as “near Chelmsford” there isn’t a consultation in Chelmsford. Despite it being a fifteen week consultation, Essex gets five highly localised events in the three days immediately after the press release going out. I may be atypical of your average Essex resident, but even despite my political interests, I don’t keep tend to keep track of Government department press releases day by day.

Good luck to those of you who do and managed to get there.

According to the website of West Mersea Council, West Mersea has a population of 6,925 people. According to the website of Maldon District CouncilMaldon has a population of approximately 60,700. The website of Bradwell Parish Council doesn’t provide any information on population – but Wikipedia lists the population as 877. According to the website of Essex County Council, the population of Essex is 1,396,400 (excluding Thurrock and Southend-on-Sea – though in the event of disaster, I am not convinced fallout is as discriminating as the Boundary Commission).

Of course the residents of those places should be consulted. However the Labour Government (DECC) and the Infrastructure Planning Commission think that consulting 0.05% (I am rounding up here) of the population of Essex is somehow giving residents of Essex the chance to have their say. As for the time given over to consultation, the DECC press release highlights a paltry three specified days in a fifteen week consultation.

It is nothing short of outrageous – a complete scandal in a 21st century liberal democracy.

And you would think that the Conservative Party, a national party of opposition, that controls the County Council, would want to stick up for the right of local people to be heard, regardless of its own policies on nuclear power.

Back to the motion…

Did the Conservatives support the Liberal Democrat motion?

Not a chance. The Tories voted against. They opposed the extension of the consultation to the rest of Essex and, by doing so, have effectively said our views don’t matter.

Essex County Council doesn’t record how people vote as a matter of course. Why should they – after all, you are not interested in what your elected representatives are doing, are you? Therefore, finding out which way your local representatives voted looks like being a case of emailing them directly.

You can find your way to the contact details for Essex County Councillors here. For those readers in Basildon, the following Conservative councillors may well have voted to prevent you having more information:

I have emailed each of them to ask if they were there on 15 December and, if they were, how they voted. If they opposed the motion, I have asked why they don’t believe the Government should consult the people in Basildon that they are elected to represent.

You might want to do the same.

I would be interested to know the reasons people vote as they do – so please add a comment to this blog piece!

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The sheer arrogance of Lord Hanningfield is unbelievable.

The leader of Essex County Council clearly thinks he is running his own version of Essex Bank, rather than leading an elected local authority. The latest venture from the Bank of Essex – surely the greatest testament to personal ego of any initiative in local government in recent years – is to offer a £100,000 overdraft facility to eligible businesses.

Excuse me?

Admitting you are no longer capable of running public services and handing them wholesale to IBM is one thing, but doing so as you extend the commercial operations of a bank that only exists because of your elected mandate is something entirely different. At no point do I recall my local successful candidate at the County Council Election, Cllr John Schofield, informing voters that he intended to be a party to such speculation with public funds: public funds provided by hard-working Council Tax payers.

According to the Frequently Asked Questions on the Banking on Essex website, all profits from the venture will be used to cover potential losses and protect taxpayers’ funds.

Where has Lord Hanningfield been for the last eighteen months?

Banks with a hundred-year tradition of providing commercial services haven’t been able to get this right in the current economic climate. How on earth can taxpayers have any confidence that self-aggrandising politicians will succeed where self-aggrandising bankers failed? More importantly, how can politicians, with little or no experience at running a bank, guarantee that the profits will cover the losses? I am not sure that assuring voters that you are working in partnership with a large banking organisation gives much confidence these days…

I suppose you could have a little more confidence if some care was taken with the presentation. However, that is clearly no concern for this commercial operation. Here is how the guarantee appears in the Banking on Essex FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) at the time of writing:

“Will the initiative put tax payers’ money at risk?
The County Council is using all additional income earned to cover potential loses [sic] and protect tax payers’ funds.”

The italics are mine.

Essex is the Education Authority.

Essex is also attempting to generate a sense of commercial confidence.

The example above demonstrates why politicians should put their determination to write themselves into history to one side and stick to what they were elected to do: represent the interests of the people who put them in office.

Here is a reminder for Conservative councillors  John Schofield and Lord Hanningfield of matters that should be the priority for Essex County Council over the next few weeks:

Path to hospital at junction of Nethermayne and the Knares, 24 December 2009

Path to hospital, 24 December 2009

These two pictures were taken of the main footpath to the principal site of Basildon and Thurrock University Hospitals on Christmas Eve 2009 – exactly one week after the heavy snow falls that caused chaos in South Essex. It was still iced over even when the snow on surrounding banks had melted and the roads had been gritted.

In the NHS Foundation Trust’s own words:

[We] primarily serve the almost 400,000 population of Basildon and Thurrock in South West Essex, plus some residents of the neighbouring districts of Brentwood (for whom we are the main provider of cardiology services) and Castle Point.

With a annual budget of £250 million, the Trust treats 63,000 inpatients and day cases, provides 270,000 outpatients consultations and attends to more than 90,000 Accident and Emergency (A&E) patients.

And pictured just above is the path people had to walk to reach that hospital, should they not be fortunate enough to drive a car.

I met an elderly constituent of mine as I walked to town that Thursday. He was incandescent. He is usually a charming conversationalist, but that day he had only three words for me as he gestured unsteadily with his walking stick at the ice: “It is wicked”.

The Basildon Recorder was forced by Essex County Council to issue an apology when it ran a story criticising the county for inadequate salt supplies. Apparently, there is no shortage:

“The county council would like to assure residents that Essex County Council continues to be fully prepared for icy winter conditions with more than sufficient supplies of gritting salt for the bad weather.”

So if there was no shortage, I can only assume that Essex County Council simply doesn’t care about pedestrian access to the major health facility in the south of the county. Surely, if there was salt, and it gave a stuff, Essex would have taken the time to grit this major pedestrian route? Winter 2008/2009 saw the highest excess winter mortality rates for ten years. It is hard to believe that figure will be lower for 2009/2010 if this Winter is harsher. Respiratory illnesses are just one set of conditions that are exacerbated by conditions in the winter months. (If you are really interested, there is a superb paper on the website of of the Centre for Public Health at the Liverpool John Moores University entitled Weather forecasting as a Public Health Tool). People need to be able to get to hospital – and that includes by foot.

This is the Met Office weather warning for the East of England, for Tuesday 5th January, issued on Monday 4th January:

“There is a moderate risk of severe weather affecting east and southeast England.

Outbreaks of sleet and snow will become heavier during Tuesday afternoon and evening, with an increasing risk of disruption to transport networks.

Issued at: 1124 Mon 4 Jan”

Sky News is warning Heavy Snow Set to Bring More Travel Chaos.

The question I have is: will Essex County Council heed the warnings and make an effort to ensure that key footpaths are snow and ice free this time around?

To finish, three simple things:

Stop throwing the taxes of hard-working local people at self-indulgent, speculative schemes.

Stop criticising the press for reflecting local concerns.

Start delivering a basic level of service: grit our roads and footpaths, especially where they provide access to major facilities such as hospitals.

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Francis Maude has made the bold statement that the Tories will ban IT projects that cost over £100m. It looks good in the headlines. He said:

“Labour’s IT procurement process has been marked by a catalogue of failures, late deliveries and cost overruns.

“We need a freeze on signing up to yet more failed projects.”

You can read the full story in the Telegraph by following this link.

A week is clearly a long time in Tory politics.

On December 22  I blogged about the £5bn proposal by Lord Hanningfield‘s Tory administration in Essex to hand over the running of services it is unable to provide effectively itself to IBM. You can remind yourself of the story here.

Contrast the Tories’ willingness to talk tough on cash limits on  IT projects at the centre (probably quite sensible knowing how badly some of them have failed), with their example in local government in Essex. Unlike other local authorities, Essex are off-loading services that they clearly believe they are no longer capable of delivering. It strikes me as a comprehensive admission of political failure to deliver. If Maude’s boast is to have any credibility, the sheer untested lunacy of Hanningfield’s project demands robust intervention from Cameron et al.

Just as irresponsible spending on projects in Whitehall needs clamping down on, so local authorities, including Tory Essex, should not receive carte blanche to experiment with innovative IT projects at vast public expense.

Headline-grabbing opportunism is one thing. Dealing with your own IT cowboys is something entirely different.

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IBM takes on services in Essex as part of £5bn privatisation deal

It is one of those headlines that makes you wonder where on earth it will lead. I’ve spent the past hour wondering if my immediate Tweet in response was over the top and a misinterpretation of what is going on:

Essex Tories begin revolutionary dismantling of public services – with Cameron’s full support

It wasn’t.

This is a deal that has the potential to fundamentally alter the nature of local government in England. A Cameron win in 2010 could see a revolution in the provision of local services that strangles political differentiation, subjugates community priorities to an ideology of technocratic efficiency – and all whilst reassuring voters that these changes are merely efficient and (of course) apolitical.

Superficially, the attraction is obvious.

Politicians are held in contempt on a national and local level. (Ironically, Lord Hanningfield bridges the gap between the national expenses scandal and the crisis in local service provision in extraordinary fashion, with reports that detectives have sent files to the Crown Prosecution Service alleging fraud, just at the point that Essex County Council, which he leads, is condemned for its appalling record on children’s services.) What better way to score a political victory than to tacitly acknowledge that distrust by placing the delivery of services in the hands of a non-political and widely-respected industry leader such as IBM?

IBM has considerable experience of public service delivery in Canada, as the Times article linked in the headline shows. There is an impressively detailed exposition of its objectives and relationship with Canadian public services in IBM’s paper Service Canada – A New Paradigm in Public Service Delivery. Even a cursory reading demonstrates that IBM’s engagement in Canada is very, very different to what is being reported has been agreed with Hanningfield. Prioritising 21st Century public service delivery in a mountainous, multi-lingual country, that is the second largest in the world, yet the ninth least densely populated, is rather different from the Essex experience (Langdon Hills may boast “one of the most astonishing prospects to be beheld“, but. let’s face it, we’re not exactly talking the Rockies here). Yet even with these laudable objectives, the project has attracted criticism on a variety of levels, for its effect on women, its impact on health care and even concerns for national security. (A google search consisting of “public services” “wholesale privatization” and “canada” is revealing.)

I have no ideological objection to the delivery of public services through the private sector. I believe that the well-considered and appropriate out-sourcing of services and the importation of industry best practice have led to genuine improvements in service. The key to its success is the accountability that comes from having contracts that are carefully scrutinised, regularly reviewed and competitively tendered for.

At the same time, I am very conscious that public services are exactly that: services provided to the public by authorities that should be transparent, prepared for detailed scrutiny and, ultimately, held to account. There is a balance to be struck and the job of local politicians is to strike that balance, serving the needs of those they represent as best they can. Those in opposition draw attention to deficiencies in current services and offer an alternative programme for local priorities.

Ultimately, the people who pay for and use those services decide who they want in charge.

Hanningfield’s wheeling and dealing should send a chill through anyone who still places a value on choice, transparency, accountability, competition and social justice. Companies like IBM don’t invest in technological infrastructure to run services for a couple of years. They expect to be the partner of choice for many. The contract we are told is for eight – well beyond the date of the next County Council elections. And as many will have noticed,  it is measurably harder to extract detailed information from private sector partners, council officers nervously explaining that such information is restricted due to the need to observe commercial confidentiality (actually it isn’t, a lot of the time, but that’s another story).

Couple the Essex example with Tory-run Barnet’s attempts to experiment with ‘no-frills’ local government services – two-tier services that lead to extra charges or rebates depending on how much you need them – and everyone involved in the political conversation of the country should take note:

The Cameron revolution is under way before a single vote has been cast and it shows every sign so far of being as ideological, divisive and destructive as Thatcher’s.

We in Essex and Barnet may be living in Cameron’s sandbox today, but the results of these experiments could inform the local services of everyone tomorrow – for years and year to come.

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They’ve gritted. After two days. And 6″.

On Twitter this would be tagged #toryfail.

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