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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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