Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Just another night at full council...

Well, the fact that the first news tonight was that all of the Conservative Questions to Council were sucked into the giant IT black hole at the council kind of set the tone of what was to come.

We kicked off with the installing of Judge Jacobs as an honourary recorder. Cllr Morphew, Leader of the Council, did a very bland speech and Cllr Cooke, LibDem Leader, did an almost too political speech. I feel they should have aimed somewhere in between. However the speech by Judge Jacobs was pitch perfect and brilliant to listen to - actually one of the best efforts in a very long time. If he judges as well as he speaks, then the City has a great new ally.

We then had an interesting question time with the public; a representative from Amnesty really took Cllr Ferris apart over charges for stalls in the City - her defence was pretty poor and it is evidence that the public can really make a point at these question times. My favourite part was one lady who listened carefully to Cllr Morrey's craefuly crafted answer about the danger to cyclings of glass on the road, only to respond: "Errr, does that mean you are actually doing to do anything?"

Then community campaigner Niall Baxter submitted our congestion charge petition. Niall did very well - speaking to council is a nerve racking experience and I rememer shaking with fear when I first used a question to then-Council Leader Ian Couzens about the threat to Ellacombe Care Home in Thorpe Hamlet. So Niall managed to get through his speech with clarity and purpose (which is more than some Councillors do). Some LibDems, accepting the implict criticism of them, didn't manage to stay for the whole thing. I know he's an opponent and I shouldn't say this by Cllr Morrey did a very good job in responding; with one factual slip - the Norwich Conservatives opposed the C-Charge before Labour, remember my motion of June 06? His joke at the end about facing both ways was well timed and really bought the house down. About time Cllr Morrey put in a good performance. It almost makes up for his normal pisspoor efforts at Question Time.

Talking of which ... this was spectacularly dull ... Cllr Wright (LibDem, Eaton) asked about the No. 25 bus stop at Castle Meadow, Cllr Read (Green, Wensum) asked how up to date the electoral maps were and Cllr Jago (Green, Mancroft) asked when the old elections office in City Hall would be re-let. Cllr Wyatt (Con, Bowthorpe) asked again about the relationship between the UEA and her neighbours. Nothing really to report; sadly.

Then, a really rare sight - the next motion was to make the wonderful Cllr Hooke (LibDem), Thorpe Hamlet's one-vote wonder - the Lord Mayor elect. This movement at great speed and shockingly I hadn't made it from my seat to the water cooler back to my seat in time and totally missed the vote. Bugger! Because I had planned on voting against him! ;-)

Cllr Bearman (Green, Town Close) then moved a very worthy motion about allotments, which was supported by Cllr Brociek-Coulton (Lab, Sewell) - in remarkable amounts of detail - and also by Cllr Lubbock (LibDem, Eaton) - in a bumbled speech she clearly hadn't prepared - and Cllr John Wyatt (Con, Bowthorpe) - allotment holder-in-chief of the council who somehow managed to blame the government for overgrown weeds. Well done him.

The up stepped Cllr Morrey to ask us to join the rest of the world in switching our lights off for an hour 8pm-9pm on 29th March (a Saturday). Cllr Cooke (LibDem, Lakenham) made a classic speech urging us to door more interesting activities in the dark - a superb piece of oratory and the like that the council will be poorer for when he leaves. Needless to say it got passed.

Finally the awarding of the Freedom of the City to RAF Marham. Again Cllr Morphew made the dull-but-worthy speech in favour and left the really good stuff up to LibDem Deputy Leader Cllr Watkins (Eaton). Cllr Watkins was passionate, informative and thoroughly decent. We had the pleasure of several excellent speeches tonight and this was one of them. I followed up by suggesting that although this was the FotC for the RAF it should be taken as indicative of our support for all of our armed forces. I suggested that Norwich was proud of the RAF - which didn't recieve support across the chamber. Whilst Labour, Conservatives, LibDems and some Greens voted in favour it was notable that Cllrs Stephenson (Nelson), Llewelyn (Wensum), Read (Wensum) and Gledhill (Nelson) all abstained. Are we not backing the RAF then, chaps?

All in all not the most important meeting and certainly no worlds were set on fire. But we did experience some really good speeches and no real foul ups tonight. Maybe, actually, council at its best?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Budget Debate

Yesterday was the longest and hardest council meeting of the year; both physcially in terms of the lenght and stress of the meeting but also because of the issues involved. Nobody in the council is an expert on every section of the budget and, despite our claims, no party leader has a total grasp even given all the extra meetings we've had on this recently. Our meeting saw some robust exchanges and some honest views being set out - given that most of the budget was thrashed out well in advance, god knows how long we'd have been there if we hadn't of done that!

Firstly the Leader of the Council, Cllr Morphew, moves the budget framework; that is the high level strategy direction that the budget will follow. Cllr Morphew couldn't resist turning it into a kind of two-year review of his administration; incuding battering the poor LibDems - the first of many batterings and their party must have left the chamber feeling very down indeed. Cllr Morphew set out changes to the financial regime, improvements in housing, CCTV extension ... in fact, I accuse dhim of sounding like a Stalinist Minister reeling off the tractor production figures. Outgoing LibDem Leader Cllr Hereward Cooke took an open shot at Cllr Morphew but seemed to be leaving his best fire for later. LibDem Cllr Carl Mayhew (Mile Cross) joined us in abstaining on this item, against his own party decision to vote in favour.

Then the budget itself is moved. Cllr Alan Waters, Executive Member for Finance, made a decent and amusing stab at justifying the budget - including some very amusing powerpoint slides and a pre-emptive attack on other budget amendments. My only feeling was that Cllr Waters spent too much time knocking the alternatives rather than saying why his budget was the best. Then came the LibDem budget amendment...

... they wanted to have a council tax rise of 2.95% and give an extra £32,000 to Visit Norwich Ltd - and to pay for it, they'd cut the wardens programme by £92,000. I have to say on first hearing this I couldn't believe our political luck. The wardens are popular, hard working and successful - the LibDems wanted to sack some of them in favour of tourism???

Cllr Cooke seemed like a man who knew his time was up and hardly flourished on his last big occassion. He put forward the amendment but did so in a quiet way, almost hoping this might take the edge off the atatcks from other parties. A shame - Cllr Cooke is, despite his party's difficulties, one of the best orators on the council. This should have been his moment to really make one last stand before standing down. It feel flat; not a disaster but without any spark. The same can't be said for his Deputy, Cllr Brian Watkins (Eaton), who led with a clenched fist in a passionate defence on VisitNorwich. Cllr Watkins has long been an advocate of a strong tourist strategy and he clearly had the bit between his teeth. However, a good speech went bad when he slipped and said the LibDems wanted to give "32 million" to VisitNorwich rather than just £32,000. Oh dear.

The LibDem amendment cut little ice with other parties; I'm afriad I couldn't sit by and watch all this go through without making a fuss. Whilst I'm sure Labour would be happy just to let the votes roll through, Cllr Ramsay accused the LibDems of "throwing good money after bad" and suggested they were writing "a blank cheque" for VisitNorwich.

I was rather less kind. I said it, "looks like a visionless effort from a leaderless party ... it has the desperate smack of a party who knows its time is up ... we're dealing with a failing organisation who don't seem to be able to fulfill their purpose, wandering lost and trying to find some measure of support (that's the LibDems, not VisitNorwich) ... perhaps this is about undercutting Labour, well I tell you they aren't going to undercut the Conservatives; we'll deliver tax cuts because we believe in tax cuts ... thousands raised, thousands spend, thousands wasted but only now do the LibDems realise that tax is too high ... no ideas, no vision, no leadership and quite frankly, no hope!"

Cue LibDem groaning and plenty of cheers; I'm told even clapping from the public gallery. The LibDems lost their amendment 7 votes to 17 with 11 abstentions; including their very own Cllr Mayhew.

Then came our amendment. We would have;
Reduce spending on Unitary by £500,000
Use £300,000 to reduce council tax
Use £200,000 to support community projects through the People's Fund

In my speech, I said that this "was not an attempt to de-rail unitary - believe me, we've tried that - ...now is the time to say that the project has gone on long enough and cost more than enough ... other districts will be paying out just £300,000 so why can't we just spend what everybody else will ... this isn't about unitary, it's about unitary without the waste, it isn't about council tax, it's about a signal that this council won't accept ever higher bills, this isn't about extra funding for community projects, it's about the best use of our limit resources."

I have to admit to not knowing quite what the opposition arguements were. Cllr Waters was so nice and charming that I totally lost what he was saying. He did use a typical Labour trick of plucking a figure out of the air and claiming we'd cut service. Errr, no. There's only 2 cuts - the unitary budget and then everyone's council tax bills. We were then told that council tax bill cuts would only benefit the middle classes. I'm sorry, does everybody else not pay council tax? Finally Cllr Waters assured us that the rise was only 3p per week anyway. Well, that's OK ... if it wasn't my 3p in the first place and I can still spend it better than the council can.

The other-Cllr Little (Green, Town Close) made an incoherant and bizarre speech of which I can remember little (no pun) other than being accused of electioneering. I'm surprised that Cllr Read could contain himself, but it took Cllr Collishaw (Con, Catton Grove) to come to my aid. I then surprised the council by revealing that I am a conservative, favour a small council and tax cuts; one mans electioneering is another man's political principle.

After our sound defeat (31 votes to 3!) Cllr Ramsay, Green Leader, clearly felt his own side had missed their chance so tried to come back to our amendment which, needless to say, I had to stop using a Point of Order. Come on, chaps, let's do this right!

In the final vote on the budget, it was left to Labour and the Conservatives as the other groups chose to sit it out. The final result was 13 votes to 3; we voted against Labour's 3.7% tax hike.

A good debate, well natured and largely good fun. We all had our say, votes were taken and I suppose the will of the city was heard. Roll on next year...

... one pleasing footnote was that during another topic, I managed to force te delightful Cllr Lubbock to storm out of the chamber. Half a dozen other councillors congratulated me afterwards, saying they had always wanted to do the same thing!!!

More tomorrow ... a friend in the galery wrote some pen portraits which I will publish.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Norwich Tories 0% council tax rise bid

Norwich Conservatives will today launch our alternative budget ahead of Tuesday’s crunch council meeting. The budget will see more investment into key areas such as recycling but will trim the unitary spending of the council to deliver an overall freeze on council tax.

Taxpayers in Norwich have been hammered by Labour year after year. Once again we are looking again at inflation busting rises that will see senior citizens and low income families suffer.

That’s why, as Conservatives, we believe in keeping council tax low. Conservative run South Norfolk Council has led the way in setting a freeze on council tax and now we hope to do the same in Norwich.

Clearly much of the spending is good, but unitary stands alone as being Labour’s great white elephant in the City. We’re picking up the bill for Labour’s political vanity.

It is ridiculous that when services are in need of extra investment and people across Norwich are being told there is no money available, we are planning to spend £800,000 of taxpayers money on Unitary. This brings the bill for Unitary well into the millions for the people of Norwich.

Clearly the council needs to do some preparation work so we are suggesting a compromise – that £300,000 be taken out of the unitary budget and be used to cut tax for thousands of hard working people across the City.

However, we would go further than that – trimming another £250,000 off Labour’s unitary bill and putting that money directly into future community projects, making the lives of people around our City better.

The unitary debacle has gone on long enough and cost more than enough. It’s time people knew that at least one party is willing to put them, their families and their services first in all this. The Conservatives are willing to take tough decisions and say that tax is too high and must now come down.

Residents can also use the elections this May to send Labour and the LibDems a message – if you want to pay less tax, spend more on services and less on political bureaucracy you have to vote Conservative.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Safe Play Teams - meaningless jargon or something better?

The news that Bowthorpe's parks are to be covered by a Safe Play Team is clearly to be welcomed. There is so much more we can do to make these areas safe, clean and attractive for families. Very good news in fact, because this formed a central plank of our election manifesto in the last few years.

Yet, drilling down on what this actually means leaves me rather disappointed. It means linking the wardens and lottery-funded play rangers. Well, erm, why hasn't that been happening and also why does this require a new name and a media launch?

Local Councillors have been doing this work, on the ground, for some time. The real improvements made in the Three Score Park, between Caddow Road and The Runnell, has ben achieved thanks to work of the police, PCSOs and wardens. Isn't that the same as the Safe Play Team?

Or is there something else we don't yet know about the work of these teams? There is a lot of scope for these teams, and I suppose that development will tell us if these teams are there for headlines or actually improving life.

Come on Council - what's the vision?

Should a Tory candidate have to do his own gardening?

The lack of posts this week says something about the pace at which the parliamentary campaign has taken off. Between ward work, the media and canvassing there hasn't bene much time for blogging. However this week is Half-Term and Louise has forced me to address the total disaster zone that is the garden.

Hence, this morning I could be found in old jeans and scruffy top lugging whole sections of my garage and garden into a skip. As I was pulling one of my least attractive faces, pushing the last of what once passed as a buddleia into a tiny crack between a brick and a plank of wood with nails sticking out, a friends who lives at the end of the road passed by.

"Ey, what have we here?" he proclaimed, as if it wasn't blatantly obvious enough. "Our local Tory candidate doing his own garden? Can't see Mr Clarke digging his own plot!" - no, I thought, launching a plot or whispering one, but never digging it. I then took a few moments of abuse before he finished with, "at least I can vote for somebody who knows how to get their hands dirty!".

I didn't know what to be more shocked about; that he was voting for me after admitting previously to being a LibDem, or the fact that he was genuinely amazed I did my own DIY and gardening.

Do other candidates get away with this? I also wash clothes, clean baths, put out the bin and even go to work. Is the land stalked with other PPCs who don't do this sort of stuff anymore? Or has the public's perception of politicans now moved so far from the truth that we are all tarnished with the nose-in-trough stereotype of the worth excesses of the Westminster MP?

Iain Dale is Human

The wonderful Iain Dale's Diary, probably the most readable and important Tory blog going, is fast becoming an all-in-one, one-stop-shop Iain Dale website; promoting the many facets of the talented Mr Dale, including his blogging, speeches, TV and radio work. In fact, it seems like Iain is beocming the media friendly Tory.

So it is fantastic that, on clicking to read about his writing, the first thing he does is make a spelling mistake! Thank God he's human too...

Iain is attracting a reputation as one of Britain’s most informed an incisive political writers.

Frank Field: Right theory, Wrong practice

Labour MP Frank Field has had to put up with a lot over the years - not least being ousted from Blair's first government for being too radical and since then being treated by his own side as if he's about to defect to the Conservatives.

Well, today Frank launched rather interested reform plans that would charge people who earn over £150,000 a year an extra 10% tax which could be offset totally through donations to charity. You can read the BBC report here.

I am a great believer in charity; that some things are beyond the state and that people working together can do wonderful things for society. Much lamented US President Herbet Hoover once remarked that a single dollar given by free will was worth ten dollars given by the government. I happen to agree, and I think thats one of the aspects that makes me a Conservative. The act of giving is as much an important act as the amount itself.

So, anything which encourages greater giving has to be good - especially as this type of giving normally goes to projects ignored by the government. However, to force rich people at a financial version of gunpoint to give to charity rather defeats the point. I'm sure that, if introduced, this would net the government no money at all - most rich people would still rather give to a favourite charity than this unpopular goverment.

Frank Field is spot on in asking how we get more people, particularly the rich, to give to charity - but this plan is not the answer.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Challenging Clarke

On Friday night I was honoured to have been selected at the new Conservative parliamentary candidate for Norwich South - it was a packed meeting, much larger than for the 2005 election and I have to say that the overall quality of candidate was very good and I hope that both Martin and Will go on to find good constituencies.

Everybody who wants to become an MP, I think, dreams of doing so in their home City. I live here, work here, my kids go to school here ... I have a real stake in this community and am dedicated to making it working better. Norwich is a fantastic City and, above all, I am going to run a positive campaign. I think that this City and its citizens are really going places and above all, I want to be a part of that; hopefully as our MP. I reserve the right to highlight failure and criticise, but when I do so I will always offer a positive alternative for people.

The Norwich Conservatives go from strength to strength locally; our canvass in Chapel Break, Bowthorpe, and also in Eaton yesterday show us that more people prefer a new Cameron Conservative government to the old failed Labour one under Brown. People weren't just anti-Labour but they were becoming pro-Conservative again.

Why is this? Because whilst we may getting richer as a City in material goods, there are still real concerns when two local High Schools are under OFSTED scrutiny, when our flagship hospital doesn't have enough beds and when anti-social behaviour still impacts on our estates. I've written in detail about my response to those problems here and I hope that when Cameron launches our manfiesto, it tackles those issues. And, before you ask, I won't be employing my wife or any other member of my family - mostly because the girls are too young to be of any real help and I don't think Louise would want to spend that amount of time with me!

So now's the time to get on with the job - I've got a campaign team to put together and a plan to create. I like to think I have shown the dedication to this City and have the experience to really make a difference. Given the positive reaction of friends in the City and party members, I think this may well be a really fun election to fight!

So Mr Clarke, who has this week been worrying about a Conservative revival, ought now to be worrying about the Conservative revival in his own back yard!