Friday, 17 July 2009

Scrutiny, It does what it says on the tin.

I woke up this morning with a sharp stabbing pain in my side. No doubt somewhere deep in Northampton Lib Dem HQ a loyal yellow belly peon was busy sticking pins in their Tony Clarke effigy as punishment for my involvement last night in co-authoring a call-in of the Local Lib Dems plans to "Market Test" (privatise) all of the main public services in Northampton, and in doing so deliver them in partnership with Daventry District Council.

I was very grateful to Labours Joy Capstick in sponsoring our joint request for a call in and I felt she performed extreemly well last night and she will have gained herself a lot of deserved credit both in the eyes of council and also those she serves in her ward and those still loyal to Labours traditional values and roots.

Our shared concerns (which were upheld) were that the administration had been less than truthful over their intentions and contrary to all their warm words about "only investigating the options" and "the need to test best value" and our preparations for the call in exposed further their plans for what they really are.

Backbench Councillors (including many Lib Dems) were annoyed and angered to be told by the press and by myself at full council on June 29th of the plans, as up to that point their had been no discussion or now inkling of what the executive had planned for the Council. The item didn't appear on the Councils Forward Plan until June 30th and then only appeared as a 'Non Key' Decision.

The cabinet decision on the 8th July was accompanied by soothing assurances that nothing was set in stone and that the "in house team" would also have the time and the right to bid. So imagine the surprise on some faces last night when I was able to tell them that the whole process started way back in April 2009, and that the tender document had already been written, printed and advertised in the EOJU (European Journal) on the 9th of July. And that a project manager was already in post, and that the contract for all services was proposed for a period of 14 years ( 7 + 7 by agreed renewal) and that despite not being told of their involvement that Northamptonshire County Council were also part of the partnership.

Imagine the thoughts running through the head of the Lib Dem Portfolio Holder for the services to be tended when I reminded the Committee that she had told Council only last Monday that no advert had been placed and that no meetings with other councils on the tender had taken place, and yet I produced a copy of the advert placed on the 9th July and minutes from the meeting with other councils agreeing the partnership and announcing the appointment of the project manager?

And why they even want to go down this road god alone knows, a cursory glance at refuse collection costs (as but one example) shows that Northampton Borough Council has the second lowest per household cost for refuse collection in the East Midlands at £46, against a national average of £56 when Daventry District Council (our chosen partner) has the highest cost in the East Midlands at £84 !

The success of the call in (on the grounds that the leader says it was wrongly designated as a Key Decision and should have been a non key decision!) now means that this report must be revisited at the next Cabinet meeting in August andthat will give us another opportunity to further expose the folly of these plans and the underhanded deceit that has dogged this project to date.

The administration will say we were simply opposing for opposition sakes and risking the financial Security of the Council.

I say that we were simply doing our duty, I don't want all our services contracted out, and then delivered in tandem with a rural council until 2023 without this Council or those which follow in 2011, 2015 and 2021 being able to reverse the decision.

I don't want Councillors of any party including the administration left in the dark as to the Councils true intention, and I don't want Northampton Borough Council reduced to the status of the largest Parish Council in England on the back of partnership arrangements with surrounding Councils pushing us nearer and nearer to a Unitary County Council run by the Northamptonshire Squirocracy.

And do you know what? I think a large number of the Lib Dem group agree with me, and I also believe that in 6 months time even the Cabinet members will see that this call in saved them from their own folly rather than simply exposing them to cold truth as to what has gone on in their name and without their full knowledge and consent.

So we live to fight again. We have more revelations to come, more call ins to write, and more opportunity for Councillors of all party's to do what they were elected to do, take decisions based on all the information being available to them in order to guide that decision, not sold a line and then forced to go along with the decision out of blind party loyalty.

The other positive outcome from last nights meeting was that the opposition party's acted as one in defence of the common good, long may it continue.

We all want what is best for the Council, and the people we were elected to serve, but we do not expect the decisions to be taken for us, or on our behalf by officers working behind the scenes and committing expenditure and enacting decisions before the authority has been given to them through the votes and decisions of 'all' the elected members.

All Councillors of all Party's should be able to agree to that.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Here is the News. Or not as the case may be.

Counter terrorism detectives investigating plots in Yorkshire have seized the largest suspected terrorist arsenal in England since the early 1960s. The haul includes over 300 weapons, ranging from rocket launchers to firearms and pipebombs.

They have been found in the last six weeks during raids of over 20 properties. Some People have been arrested. Several have been charged and reports suggest more arrests are imminent.

The police investigation is linked to arrests in Europe, New Zealand and Australia. The police are examining allegations that many of the guns were manufactured or reactivated, then sold over the Internet.

Detectives have also discovered maps and plans of target buildings in the the homes of those arrested.

All of the above took place in a series of raids and arrest in Yorkshire in the last 6 weeks.

So why hasn't it hit the media in a big way? Surely the biggest arms cache seized in nearly 50 years, including the discovery of rocket launchers is big HEADLINE news at a time when terrorism is such a national concern and obsession?

And the media have not been shy in the past at exposing Britain's "Home Grown Terrorists" and the threat they pose to our country.

But the difference here is a simple albeit inexplicable one. You see all those arrested were far right extremists, the investigation was part of a campaign against Neo Nazis, and amongst the finds less dangerous but more worrying were membership details of the BNP.

In addition to the finds reports of attacks on Mosques (the focus of those discovered maps and plans) are on the increase.

All this points to a concentration of far right terror activity set in Yorkshire, where the BNP won a seat in the European parliament last month. A Whitehall official said: "We are not picking them up anywhere else in the country like this and it may be related to the strong support for the BNP."

And it also suggests that todays conviction of NF member Neil Lewington for the manufacture of improvised bombs and last years conviction of fellow Nazi Martin Gilliiard are just the tip of a very nasty iceburg.

So why the news clamp down? why do the media publish Lewington's conviction and yet seem keen to hide the evidence of even worst planned atrocities in Yorkshire?

The only national politician seemingly willing to speak out seems to be my old work mate and fellow once expelled Labour Party member Ken Livingstone!

Ken is now chair of Unite Against Fascism and he was clear in stating his concerns when he said

"It is extraordinary that the entire national media are not galvanised by the discovery of the largest terrorist arms cache in Britain since the 1960s and clear statements by the authorities that there is a rise in violent far right terrorism.

"This is clearly a threat to every Black, Asian, Muslim and other minority ethnic and religious group in Britain, as shown by the firebombing of Muslim targets which could easily have led to deaths. This shows the reality behind the election of the BNP to the European parliament and the effects of the drip, drip, drip of Islamophobia in the media.

"We need an all-out campaign to politically defeat the extreme right, the media to expose the threat of far right terrorism and the police to relentlessly pursue those responsible for every attack."

I agree with him wholeheartedly and perhaps some of need to be asking some serious questions as to how our broadcast news is selected and transmitted. It seems not a week goes by without news reports of suspected Muslim Terrorists being led away from their homes for questioning, usually set against a framed backdrop of the local community carrying out tasks that are little more offensive than shopping or playing in the street or simply going about their daily business.

If we are going to win the war against terror, and ensure that the 'Prevent Violent Extremism' agenda is successful then we need to ensure that equal attention and focus is given to the obvious dangers coming from the white supremacists and the far right in our own back yards instead of only focusing on Muslim Communities and fueling further the Islamaphobia that exists almost unhindered in our country.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

A role model, but to whom?

At this afternoons County Council Cabinet the local Tories nodded through without dissent their latest plans to push forward with Academy status for Unity College in Northampton.

Those unaware of the recent history may be surprised to hear that they dropped the last failed plans just 3 months ago following protests from parents pupils and staff as to a lack of meaningful consultation and also a plea from all for some stability at the school and a hope for a period of relative calm in which the school can improve its performance and the pupils can prosper.

A new executive board had been agreed for the school and yet before it has even had time to meet, the County Council are once more throwing the school into a period of further uncertainty, and a consultation period that once again coincides with the School Summer Holidays (really helpful)

So here we go again......................................

This time step forward their new preferred partner the David Ross Foundation, and let us give praise for this mans entrepreneurial spirit. This afternoon at County Hall Cllr Michael Clarke (Hackleton) reminded us that this was the man who was responsible for the mobile phone! (Hardly he simply was a co founder of Carphone Warehouse) and that he was someone that would inspire pupils and someone they could look up to.

Unfortunately for Michael I had to inform the chamber that David Ross has another less palatable and less celebrated side to his character.

Mr Ross is a close friend of David Cameron and a big donor to the Tory party he hit the headlines recently for rather different reasons to those trumpeted by local Tory Cllrs. For instance the Guardian of 11th June 2009 tells us that

"Ross was forced to resign as a director of a number of companies, including Carphone, Big Yellow and National Express, after breaching stock exchange rules. He had admitted using his personal shareholdings in the businesses as security for millions of pounds worth of personal loans, but failed to notify his fellow board members. Under the rules governing directors' disclosure, any director must notify the company's chairman of any share dealings, including the use of shares as security for loans. Ross also quit his prestigious role advising the London mayor, Boris Johnson, on the 2012 Olympics"

The American Hedge Fund Millionaire was a key member of Boris Johnsons Olympics team where he oversaw the Olympic budget and advised on legacy issues for the Mayor, but he quit his position following his shares difficulties in December 2008.

The Financial Times indicates possible trouble ahead for Mr Ross when it reported on the 12th June that:

"Mr Ross had a Gilbraltar-based commercial property joint venture with Morgan Stanley called Kandahar Real Estate, but he has bought the investment bank out for a nominal sum. Accounts filed this month for Kandahar Group Limited, a British subsidiary of Kandahar Real Estate that funds several UK property interests, show that auditors have highlighted uncertainty about the company's ability to continue as a going concern. Directors of Kandahar Group expect it to be in breach of covenants on its £247m loan facility with HBOS if the company's property portfolio is valued next month."

So, all in all he sounds like a great role model for our secondary schools kids, I hear you all cry!

The other school the David Ross Foundation manages is the Havelock Academy in Grimbsy where Mr Ross's father built his frozen food empire. It has recently published GCSE results 3% below the national average. Life at Havelock however sounds spiffing with the school broken up "Public School" style into various houses, Tiger, Eagle, Archer, Vanguard, Ramalies, Illustrious, Jaguar and Fortune. The Academy takes its name from the folk-heroic legendary figure called Havelock who was saved by Grim, a Danish fisherman.

But whether or not Unity can be saved once again from whats seems like endless upheaval and continual imposed and flawed County Council consultations or whether its future like Havelock's saviour is grim will now be decided in the coming months.

My own view for what it is worth is that Mr Ross's well established links to the Tory Party and his own well documented problems make him less than an ideal candidate to convince an already hesitant parent and staff group that the future of the school is secured. In fact some might wonder whether the Tory Councillors themselves as members of a Party who may have benefited from Mr Ross's political largess should themselves declare an interest?

I would guess that a number of those opposed to the original Academy bid may well also share my view, and once more the focus will be on not what is best for the kids at the school (stability and a chance for the new executive board to raise standards) but instead on the County Councils gift for getting it so badly wrong in again choosing unsuitable partners for Northampton's most challenged Secondary School.



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