Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Tory Leadership Trials go on and on; and on, and on.

The third Party leadership contest in four years grinds on and on with less and less sign of any consensus. As happened last time, the time before and the time before that the Left wing of the party is unable to mount a unified challenge - because of ego.

".... if he (Clarke) gets it (the leadership) your party is finished..." says an anonymous commentator on a previous thread.

My own views are well known on this issue. Much as I want us to clearly move to the middle ground, an area to which Mr Clarke amply fills, I don't want Ken Clarke as leader for the Conservative Party.

Why not? Well, for one thing he was on the bridge of the good ship Tory Party, fighting with the other officers and crew for control of the wheel when we so spectacularily ran aground in the early 1990's. Why on earth we would want to reward anyone from that era (and I include the Redwoods, Rifkinds, Willets and any others left over from that dark period) by putting them in charge is beyond me. How would Marks and Spencers shareholders react if the board responsible for their disasterous fall from grace in the late 1990's were still there, still in charge and still arguing about who shoule be CEO?

The country have told us again and again that they don't want this generation of politicians in charge - even Michael Howard himself concedes that his association with the past was one of the biggest reasons why we didn't do better on May 5th.

So that is one good reason to choose someone else.

'But he is so popular' say his supporters, but they mistake 'celebrity' status with popularity. Yes Ken is the 'most famous' Tory on the media circuit and by and large the media love him. But that warm glow will last, oh, five minutes or so if he does win the leadership, and then what?

Then we have yet another 'temporary' leader -only this one without the support of the majority of the members- allowing his shadow cabinet colleagues to carry on blatantly jostling for accession in 2009 or 2010.

We have a leader who will undo almost all of the progress we have made in separating the Europe issue from the left/right arguement.We have been close to proving that Center-Right politics does not have to include being pro-European; but under Ken Clarke it would be.

We have a Parliamentary party who, by choosing someone who will be nearly 70 at the next election, are virtually admitting defeat already (because if we were serious about winning, Kens health and age would be a huge issue in the election- a Prime Minister in his 70's in this day and age?... you've got to be kidding!).

And lastly, we would be admitting that all those under 35 year old voters who have never voted Conservative (who we desperately need ) are written-off as a generation, because I haven't yet met anyone under 40 who can relate to Ken Clarke in any way whatsoever.

Just because he has thrown his large hat in the ring does not mean Ken Clarke will win; in fact I am certain that he wont. But it does mean that the Left will be split and that will allow a right winger success again.

No wonder David Davis has a warm glow about him at the moment.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

I had the following letter published in the Herald express on Saturday and I have had such a big (and rapid) response I'm publishing it here for comments as well:

"I was shocked by the item in the Herald Express last week the proposed expansion of Torbay to 160,000 citizens planned for us by an unelected guano based in Taunton.

There were three points among the many gems in her report that people in Torbay should be worried about in particular:

1)It was revealed in the article that Torbay is already providing the bulk of the South West's 'affordable housing' stock and we are already building far more 'social housing' units than we need to.

This is a policy that really needs to be challenged - are we building to provide affordable housing for local people as we have been promised? No, (as evidenced by the sad letter you printed a few weeks ago by a Brixham family who have been waiting for help from our authority for 13 years).

Are we providing 'social housing' to accommodate increasing numbers of 'economically inactive citizens' (in other words, benefit claimants) from other parts of the UK? -Yes.

Is that what local residents thought they were getting when the Lib Dems promised to fix the supposed 'problem' of young people moving away from the area (as they always have and, affordable housing or not, they always will)? - No way.

We should look to provide decent housing (and not one-room bedsits as originally proposed in Torre) for those families from the area who are in genuine need of help as a matter of priority; but we should limit the provision of subsidised housing units so that it matches only local needs.

2)Of all the areas in the region it is Torbay that has been singled out for 'high' growth while neighbouring districts are let off with the 'low' growth option - Why us?.
Why should Torbay be singled out to build 500 homes annually when Newton Abbot, with better connections and far more space available is only going to have to provide 200?

It is a completely false premise for the authority to link the word 'regeneration' with squashing hundreds of new homes into what little space the borough has left. Successful towns expand because of a growing economy, you don't create economic regeneration by simply building thousands of low cost homes whether the area has jobs or not.

Far from creating new wealth such over development will only speed Torbay towards unpleasant urbanisation and decay of the environment leading to a yet greater degeneration of the local economy.

3) These 'strategic plans' -once agreed- become binding on all future council planning committees even if control of the council changes hands. One of the reasons the council were so keen to stuff hundreds of tiny flats on the Torre site was because of 'obligations' under the existing 'structure plan' agreed by the Lib Dems a few years ago - forcing today's councillors to make decisions irrespective of current residents needs and wishes.

We must wake up to the dangers represented in this structure plan right now and say 'enough is enough'.

We have done our fair share. No more over-development, no more 'strategic housing plans' made for us by John Prescott and no more exporting other cities social problems to Torbay.

This is our town. It's about time we took a stand and told these unelected 'we know best' officials what they can do with their urban dreamscape."

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

It's a shock to discover that Torbay Council owes around £60 million. Add in another £40 million for their pension shortfall and you can see why some of us talk of financial 'black holes' in our councils accounts.

Even if you don't take into consideration the Private Finance Initiative Westlands School (where the council have basically 'leased' a school back from the developer until 2027) the council are up to their ears in debt.

Put that in perspective. Even if you allow for the fact that Torbay Council owns land and buildings worth about £180m their asset to debt ratio is about the same as a bankrupt third-world country.

Torbay Council has been running financial deficits in recent years - spending slightly more than it raises by grants and taxes, - drawing on cash reserves - so it's 'net income' is nil; and it's debt burden is growing.

How are they ever going to repay their debts? - Unlike an indebted business you can't just sell off loads of assets or downsize operations to pay down your debt - aside from the fact that there are legal restraints - remember at least half the councils operations relate to local education- the fact is most of their 'assets' are virtually unsaleable.

In previous times councils, like Governments, relied on inflation to pay their debts for them. But in the new low inflation world we now occupy this trick doesn't work anymore and debts will need to be paid back.

So you can see how tempting it is to look for excuses to 'release' some of your assets periodically and use the cash to try and cut the debt mountain.

Which leads me to the proposed closure of Upton St James school.

The main school buildings belong to the church and this fact was used as 'proof' from the council that this closure was not about selling the buildings but down to a genuine fall in demand.

But it transpires that this is not the whole truth. Half the school is on council property and if the school closes the council will have some very valuable 'spare' land in a prime residential location.

One wonders if the council officers weren't just a tiny bit influenced by that fact.....

Thursday, August 04, 2005

I know it became fashionable amongst some a few years ago to criticise the tourism business for filling the Bay with visitors and holiday makers and providing 'low paid' jobs.

The Bay Authorities have flirted for fifteen years with other forms of industry in a misguided attempt to 'diversify' the local economy to make us less dependant on the hotel and catering trade; meaning that we have missed opportunities to make the best of our main asset, our location for tourism.

We have wasted too much time and money attracting short-term industrial jobs only to watch them exported to India and China; in the meantime we have failed to come up with a meaningful 'corporate plan' for our tourism businesses to work to.

Consider the efforts gone to to protect 6,000 jobs in Longbridge and the work done to try and maintain the Nortel/STC site in Paignton.

Then imagine if there was a single employer in Torbay who employed 20,000 in the Bay, imagine how much time and care the authorities would have spent ensuring that the company had everything it needed, new roads? - No problem; regional grants? - consider it done; a government minister to fuss around whenever things look a bit shaky? No worries.

Yet tourism and leisure easily accounts for that number of employees in our borough, it dominates our economy - it's the main reason Torbay exists at all! - Yet our council scrimps on support, cuts spending on advertising, annoys our 'customers' with stupid and unfair parking restrictions, rips them off with excessive car parking charges, withdraws much needed facilities like public toilets, leaves the place covered in litter and seaweed, and generally treats it's customers as if they were about as welcome as a flock of seagulls.

We have experimented with a diversified economy in the bay for long enough to prove that it is a road to economic oblivion.

Like it or not, Torbay needs tourism and depends on visitors, incomers and tourists for its prosperity.

We should all be proud that so many people want to come to our town.

Torbay council should be making sure that we have a town to be proud of.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

There is a question that has been taxing me a lot lately.

Is Tony Blair really going to stand down 'at the next election' as he promised?

Clearly he has been on a political 'high' since May 5th, even the catastrophic bombing in London has proved him right about the threat to us from extreme religious groups, a danger that some of us were frankly beginning to doubt before the election.

He is clearly enjoying the job and shows no signs of really wanting to stand down - and lets face it he is young enough to carry on for years yet.

And who gains if he goes sooner? Certainly not most of the cabinet, most of whom will lose out badly if Gordon gets the leadership on a silver plate. And not just because as 'Tony's men' they may lose power and status under a Gordon premiership but also because, as I have always pointed out, everyone in politics secretly wants to be Prime Minister.

If Gordon takes over the leadership the ambitions of all the other cabinet members is crushed, Brown is only in his early 50's and cute observers know that the New Labour oligarchy is beginning to wane so time is running out for those senior older dogs who really fancy being 'top dog'.

Blair has continually led his Chancellor on a merry dance over the 'accession' and I predict that the drama is going to enter a new phase very soon.

So here is one prediction. Boosted by his own 'falklands factor' (the war on Terror) and with the economy on the slide Tony Blair will sideways move his chancellor in his first big cabinet reshuffle possibly next spring.

He will risk the fall-out in the clear knowledge that his cabinet colleagues, the majority of the parliamentary party and, for once, the majority of public opinion will be on his side. Although I suspect that Gordon might prefer the damage of a sideways move in preference to being in charge at the Treasury as the economy falls apart.

In my view Tony Blair is the sole reason Labour won power and held on to power - in spite of our (somewhat tasteless) attempts to discredit him in the election campaign the public voted to keep him in No10 and they will carry on doing so until we Conservatives come up with an alternative Prime Minister.
"The letters page in the Herald has once again become polluted with countless letters from Lib Dem councillors whingeing about the result of the elected mayor vote, either complaining about the outcome or complaining about the turnout.

Everyone accepts that the whole question of an elected mayor would not have arisen if this council was run by them in a half-decent fashion.

Most observers agree that if -instead of simply trying to shoot the messenger- they had listened to the public outcry summed up by the Herald Express so well, they might have avoided the current situation where they are being -in effect- sacked mid-term.

I have accused this gang many times before of shouting down their opponents, of discrediting people instead of addressing the points they raise, of making dishonest promises to win power, and of using sometimes downright dirty campaign tactics.

This kind of awful, arrogant and disdainful politics unfortunately damages all of us in politics - regardless of party, so although I am glad to see the Lib Dems exposed I am sorry for the ongoing implications for local party politics.

The idea that somehow party politics is a bad idea is mistaken, hung councils or councils with independents in control don't have a particularly strong track record. On the other hand the councils that have the strongest track record are overwhelmingly those with a clear majority party in charge, - a clear Conservative majority.

I accept that Torbay Conservatives made some mistakes in the days of our local power in the 1970's and 1980's. But -unlike this lot- the people that served for us then had only one aim, to make Torbay a better place to live and work in - and by and large they succeeded.

Torbay's heyday was when it had Conservatives in charge.

Up and down the country today Conservative councils are run more efficiently offering better services and lower taxes than their Lib dem, Labour or even their independently run counterparts.

Conservatives have consistently taken the view that the question of whether Torbay has a mayor or not was a constitutional decision, not a party political one. We believe that whatever system you have for local Government is secondary to whom you have running it. .

The Torbay Conservative party will offer Torbay residents a real alternative in October - our candidate will brandish a thoroughly considered and detailed programme designed to get the town back on it's feet.

We will show between now and October that the best way forward for Torbay is to elect a Conservative mayor."