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Archives for January 2011

Root and branch reform of the forest

Peter Henley | 12:03 UK time, Saturday, 29 January 2011

Woodland

So the New Forest escapes the sell-off. But will that be enough to satisfy the concerns of the Verderers - ancient protectors of the forest - and local people?

The new National Park Authority felt the full force of local feeling when they tried to turn over a new leaf in this ancient landscape, axeing long-held traditions.

The dog walkers, in particular, proved their bark and bite was more vicious than anything on four legs taken for a walk in the enclosures.

The New Forest Association's William Ziegler described the plans as "appalling".

"This new threat is the most serious attack on the New Forest for 160 years. Any charity that takes on owning and managing the New Forest will be required to find its own funding after initial government help to offset the £2.9m annual deficit. This could mean charging the public for access to the New Forest and will almost certainly involve selling off parts of the estate which currently provide the cornerstone of commoning."

But his local Conservative MPs have slightly divergent opinions.

New Forest West MP Desmond Swayne is all for it. The plan could bring in more money and make things run better, he reckons.

But the New Forest East MP Dr Julian Lewis prefers the motto "if it ain't broke don't fix it", saying "The New Forest is delicate and precious. It's only just become a National Park. I will be consulting with the many people in my constituency who have a great deal of wisdom about the forest."

Ok not quite at loggerheads (boom, boom) but a sign of possible discord to come.

Meon Valley's George Hollingberry started off expressing concern , but now is happy with the guarantees of resident's rights, saying:

"I now fully support the plan, especially as it gives the chance for local groups to take over. In the Meon Valley this has been very successful with Park Wood in Cowplain a real local asset successfully run by volunteers. "

"The plans could now allow another piece of woodland, Queen's Inclosure, just over the road from Park Wood to be run by local people."

Today the Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said disposing of the lands would enable the government and the Forestry Commission to focus on their most important roles.

"State control of forests dates back to World War I, when needs were very different. There's now no reason for the government to be in the business of timber production and forest management. "

"It's time for the government to step back and allow those who are most involved with England's woodlands to play a much greater role in their future... and we will make sure that public access is maintained and biodiversity protected."

But the documents suggest that the Forestry Commission could lose 80 percent of their staff if the sell-off goes through. They'll be reduced to a rump of their former selves, mostly administering the leases to charities or businesses who have taken over day-to-day management.

The map they released today shows just how much forest is being transferred. Click here to look. The blue is protected, heritage land in the New Forest and South Downs. The red and green areas may be taken over.

The forests may be tranquil, but there's a wind of change blowing through.

Reading Borough Council's union cash

Peter Henley | 15:33 UK time, Wednesday, 26 January 2011

It's the secrecy that I still haven't worked out. It's surely not that surprising that Reading Borough Council paid the salaries of three full-time union officials. That it added up to £1.4 million over 12 years doesn't seem outrageous. What is really odd is the Conservative claim that the payments were hidden.


Alok Sharma MP

Alok Sharma MP

This wasn't some throw-away comment. The Reading West Conservative MP Alok Sharma chose one of the prime political opportunities in the country - Prime Minister's Questions - to spring this allegation on an unsuspecting world.

Within the hour I had a response from Labour - which pretty much amounted to "So what?" Any decent employer would want to give staff the chance of union representation - which is best done by allowing workers to have a full time rep. In this case the unions were the NUT, Unite and Unison, and take a look at our strike record if you want to know whether it worked.

But what about the secret siphoning of cash?

Ah. The Labour reply is less forthright. They say Conservatives sat on the committees, so should have been aware. But is that good enough? Should these payments have been buried in the minutes?

The figures certainly look more startling in these tough economic times, but the Conservative-LibDem coalition that now run the council seem more startled to have alighted on these payments than you might expect.

The Prime Minister showed that there's plenty of political capital to be made by linking Labour with Union money in his reply "nice work if you can get it" but he knows all too well how political funding can be a toxic issue.

It all comes back to that fundamental enquiry. Who knew, and when did they know it?

Please can we have our library books back?

Peter Henley | 14:05 UK time, Tuesday, 25 January 2011

library protest

As you might expect, the campaign against library cuts has involved some imaginative tactics. The latest idea on the Isle of Wight was a mass borrowing - users taking out their maximum number of books.


On the island this is a rather generous 30 titles per person, and by emptying the shelves they seem to have hit a nerve.

This plaintive e-mail arrived from the Isle of Wight Council:

"The weekend's good-natured protest certainly saw a marked increase in people using the library and the interest in the local service has certainly been noted."

"While we do have plenty of titles left at Newport we would however ask people who may have taken out more items than they intend to read - some people took out the maximum limit of 30 - to return them so they are available again for other library users."

It seems seven times the usual number of books were borrowed on Saturday. Lord Louis Library in Newport saw a 7000 reduction in their usual total available of 37,000.

Now the Library service is keen to re-assure people that the libraries are still open, though it seems there are some shortages:

"While some sections, particularly adult fiction and children's picture books have been particularly popular among protestors, there remain plenty of other titles available."

I suspect some of those opposing closure will want to hang on to the paperbacks that they've liberated, just in case. On the Island they're planning to move from eleven libraries to just two - with improvements at Ryde and Newport, an on-line and mobile service and helping volunteers to run extra services.

lilbrary

All sides agree that there is a need for modernisation. In Westminster today North Swindon Conservative MP Justin Tomlinson pointed out that the service he used to oversee on the council spends only seven and half percent of its budget on books.


Dorset Lib Dem Annette Brooke talked of a contradiction in continuing to support the scheme supplying books for new-born babies, if when they learn to read they can't find a place to borrow books nearby.

The Minister responsible for Libraries is the MP for Wantage Ed Vaizey. He pointed out that the debate about the future of libraries didn't begin with the cuts.

Hitting out at what he called "Labour's rank hypocrisy, spreading pointless scare stories" he guaranteed the coalition's commitment to its statutory duties under the libraries act, something that Labour had put up for review.

He called for more innovation, from automatically signing up new borns to the library, to the sort of investment seen in Swindon's new £10 million library. He declared "The death of libraries has been greatly exaggerated."

It may be worthwhile getting that in writing, from the parliamentary record Hansard. Most of us rely on the on-line version nowadays, rather than the bound volumes in the library of course...

Y Viva Gosport

Peter Henley | 17:20 UK time, Monday, 24 January 2011

sombrero

Get the bins right and the rest falls into place. Many a council has foundered on the sticky task of refuse collection.


Gosport Borough Council were so determined not to fall into the rubbish trap when they were awarding a new contract that they sent a fact-finding team to Madrid.


To see how the company called Urbaser operated services they sent a four-strong team - a councillor, two officers and a resident. OK, it was a huge contract - £175m over 15 years.

But the fact that Urbaser already have a contract on the Isle of Wight, just a short ferry ride away, makes the trip a gift for critics of the Conservative-led council.

Councillor Peter Chegwyn, leader of the Liberal Democrat group on the council said:

"I think it's an appalling waste of public money - for a council that is considering millions in spending cuts, I am outraged that public money is being spent in this way. David Cameron would be shocked at the way his colleagues in local government are behaving."

Leader of the Tory Group Mark Hook called for a bit of perspective on the whole issue:

"It's like buying a car - you wouldn't buy it without seeing it and talking to the seller. The way we dealt with the tendering was the right way to do it and to spend less than £1,000 to send a team over to make a saving of £3 million over the 15 years makes sound financial sense."

The contract is the largest that the council has ever awarded, and the council leader does point out that a similar fact-finding mission to Manchester was actually more expensive.

But the bad publicity has really dropped the council in it.

Talking of which, I hear that Gosport's most famous politician of recent years, The duck house MP Sir Peter Viggers, is set to have his expenses agony laid bare in print.

An account of the real behind the scenes turmoil as Sir Peter's garden feature hit the headlines is being prepared, under the working title "Inside the Duckhouse."

A new flap over all that is the last thing new MP Caroline Dinenage needs.

Is The Isle of Wight a sprat?

Peter Henley | 09:52 UK time, Thursday, 20 January 2011

Who would call the Island a "sprat"? Lord Anderson of Swansea, that's who. It may be the biggest constituency in the country, but when the House of Lords are debating what the Deputy Prime Minister has called the greatest constitutional change for nearly 200 years the row over the number of MPs needed on the Isle of Wight might seem insignificant.

Perhaps Lord Anderson should have spoken more cautiously. The government lost the vote, shortly after he said this:

"There has to be some serious discussion-not just throwing a few sprats, such as the Isle of Wight, to the Opposition-because this is a matter of very considerable importance."


Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I declare an interest in that I have holidayed on the Isle of Wight for some 40 years in a family cottage, I have been a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes for 30 years, I lived in Southsea and Portsmouth for some 20 years, I am the chancellor of Southampton University and know that town well, and my family come from the New Forest. So I know both sides of that not inconsiderable patch of water. A battle was fought at Spithead and I parked more than 170 ships in the east Solent for the bicentennial. It is a large stretch of water.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom: As everybody will know, I have spoken in the debate on the first half of this Bill only against the Government and, indeed, have voted against the Government. This is a time when I intend to support the Government-or I hope that I am supporting the Minister. If he makes an exception over the Isle of Wight, the argument about communities will be rerun about every conceivable constituency
around the country. It is extremely dangerous to start making exceptions. The effect of this Bill is going to be that a number of constituencies that have been a coherent whole will be broken up, but that is the result of the Bill. Once you start on exceptions, why should it end with the Isle of Wight?


Lord Wallace I will undoubtedly express to my honourable friend the strength of feeling and the argument that has been put in this House. I indicated yesterday that I am not in a position to make any commitment and that is why I hesitate to go further. The most I can do is to ensure that ministerial colleagues-not only Mr Harper-are made well aware of what has been said in this debate and of the strength, the conciseness and the power that have lain behind the arguments that have been put.


Council job cuts in Hampshire and Dorset

Peter Henley | 21:13 UK time, Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Hampshire County Council

It's the scariest number we've seen yet. 1200 jobs to go at Hampshire County Council as part of a 55 million pound savings package. But put your fear aside for a moment, and break down the numbers a bit. It's worthwhile, I promise.


First of all, let's get some context on the size of this cut. Hampshire is the third largest Local Authority in the country, employing 43,000 people. Teaching jobs and many schools support services are ring-fenced though - so if you take those out you're left with 14,990 people.

These redundancies then amount to around eight percent of the jobs that could possibly be cut. On the Isle of Wight, by comparison, they're looking for 535 job cuts from 2535 employees - 21 percent!

Secondly, their normal level of staff turnover is around a thousand jobs a year. That's not to say that a recruitment freeze would take care of all of these savings in eighteen months. Some of the most expensive people have been there for many, many years.

But in such a large organisation there is considerable room for manoevre - and within this cuts total are unfilled vacancies - they only exist on paper. In the last three months alone a recruitment freeze has saved half a million pounds.

spending cuts logo

Finally let's look at the headline saving. Hampshire say they're trying to save 55 million pounds. But 20 million of that is not a result of cuts in government grant, but their estimate of how much extra they'll have to spend in areas like elderly care to meet increasing need.

Coincidentally Dorset also needs to cut 55 million from its budget. But they've asked staff to take 12 days unpaid leave for the next two years - equivalent to a 4.6 percent cut in pay, as well as a number of job cuts.

In Southampton they've asked staff to accept a 5.4 percent cut, as we've already noted on this blog. They're probably further down the line than Hampshire, with a three month consultation neccessary in all councils.

It's worth remembering that these are still proposals - we expect Southampton to make some further changes tomorrow as they face up to union criticisim that senior managers haven't been shouldering their part of the load.

I'm not trying to minimise the pain in these cuts. But the public, not just the government, are demanding efficiency. And it's neccessary to look closely at these figures to see what's being done, behind the posturing.

There may be trouble ahead

Peter Henley | 18:24 UK time, Saturday, 15 January 2011

Will Alarm Clock Britain back the coalition? Only time will tell...

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Revolution in Chris Huhne's backyard

Peter Henley | 14:42 UK time, Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Chris Huhne

Energy Secretary Chris Huhne is facing a revolt among Liberal Democrats in his constituency. Three councillors on the Lib Dem controlled Eastleigh Borough Council have decided to leave the party to become Independents, saying they're disillusioned with the local and national party.

Councillor Andy Moore had been dropped from the list of Lib Dem candidates standing for re-election in May. Two other candidates, Glynn Davies-Dear and David Broughton, have decided to join him in leaving the party.

A Liberal Democrat spokesman said the de-selection was part of the usual review before every election.

But Councillor Glynn Davies-Dear said there was wider disillusion in the local party, partly stemming from their MP's extra-marital affair.

Energy Secretary Chris Huhne was divorced by his wife on the grounds of his
adultery today. Mr Huhne, 56, announced in June that he was separating from his wife because of a "serious relationship" with another woman.

Councillor Davies-Dear said: "Chris Huhne gave me leaflets to deliver in the election extolling his virtues as a family man, how that had taught him to be a better MP.

"I now feel dirty when I hear that a family man was the least of his virtues. He was conducting an affair but didn't even have the guts to tell his wife. That knocked the stuffing our of me."

Councillor Moore said today that his de-selection was just "the final smack in the face".

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He criticises cabinet Minister Chris Huhne for being "an absent MP" and says he was appalled at Business Secretary Vince Cable's appearance on Strictly Come Dancing soon after being caught making embarrassing comments by undercover journalists.

The defecting councillor said today: "It won't end here. Many local Liberal Democrats are disillusioned by the whole thing. This will end the super grip the party has on local politics."

The defections won't affect the balance of the council. Thirty-nine councillors were elected to Eastleigh Borough Council as Liberal Democrats against four Conservatives and one Labour councillor.

Council Leader Keith House pointed out these were the first defections in more than twenty years, saying "We've had a remarkably loyal team in Eastleigh over the years."

"Most of us have the sense to see the benefits of being in power, but it's inevitable that as you take painful decisions some people say ouch. When people decide to leave they drag out all the things they ever thought of to justify it."

Councillor Glynn Davies-Dear said that he had initially supported the coalition government's policies to reduce government debt but now felt that it was going wrong.

"No matter how dire our financial situation, I don't think the poorest should be paying to bail us out. The blow is falling hardest on those who can least afford it."

He also criticised his former party's change of policy on tuition fees saying: "I can't appear on the doorstep and say 'trust me I'm a Liberal Democrat' if my elders and betters are breaking their promises."


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