Will Council Scrutiny Meeting Throw Fresh Light on Regeneration?

 

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Or is it?

The relatively brief report going to the Scrutiny Panel next Wednesday ( 31 Aug ) gives Councillors a much more frank and realistic assessment of where we are with town centre regeneration than we have been used to. It shows us that progress has been made, though very slowly, but that there are continuing question marks about the ultimate viability of the project. The developers will have to go to the markets in the autumn to secure funding for the leisure and retail elements of the scheme and if that is not secured the scheme will begin to unfold. Without the leisure funding, the residential development on the car parks must not proceed and if that occurs, there is some doubt about the need for the multi storey car park. Elsewhere, it is clear how important it is to get a legal understanding with Network Rail over the road realignment and the station forecourt, and the former is running up against serious time constraints with the government grant running out at the end of this financial year.

Things may very well fall into place but it is refreshing now to get a more honest appraisal of where we are. It looks like a 50/50 chance of success. The central business rational for this project, that residential development would fund leisure investment, has always been open to question in the local housing market. This is a very long drawn out process and the phase 2 element seems a long way ahead. The Council also needs to give urgent thought to the many other land holdings in the town that need regenerating but are not part of the Spirit of Sittingbourne project.

Roger Truelove, Leader of Labour Group on Swale Borough Council

Lilac Sky

thistle hillTwo Labour County Councillors who represent the Swale area have expressed their anger, frustration and concern at the news that Lilac Sky Academy Trust is no longer responsible for nine schools in Kent and Sussex, including Richmond Street and Thistle Hill on the Isle of Sheppey. Roger Truelove ( Swale Central) is on the County Council’s Education Cabinet Committee and Angela Harrison represents the Sheerness constituency.

Roger Truelove says,

” I can scarcely contain my anger. Why oh why are we entrusting our publicly owned schools to these unknown and generally unaccountable organisations? It certainly isn’t because their teaching or their management is any better than local authority provision as this debacle shows. Our children’s schools should be open to local scrutiny and local democratic decision making.”

” Both of us find it exceptionally frustrating that when something like this occurs, we know nothing about it. We have consulted senior education officers at the County Council but they have no say. They are simply told by a remote bureaucrat called the Regional Schools Commission, who has responsibility for the South East and South London and is answerable to no-one apart from the Government Minister. He has indicated concerns about the Governance of the Trust, which of course could mean any thing,possibly financial management.”

Angela Harrison

” It is disturbing that the Local Education Authority is kept at arms length in this academy system but my immediate concern is for the children concerned. We are told that other Academy Trusts have been allocated by Mr Herrington (the RSC) but wouldn’t it be nice if these schools, paid for by the public, were returned to the County Council and to a level of democratic accountability.”

brexitAt the meeting of the Kent County Council on Thursday 14 July, the Cabinet member for Economic Growth, Mark Dance, confirmed that Brexit posed a threat to KCC’s aim of securing £100 million for the Kent economy by 2020 from European Growth funds.

Mr Dance was answering a question from Labour’s Roger Truelove about the danger of Kent not reaching its target.

Mr Dance said the situation was full of uncertainty. It was not certain that current contracts would be fulfilled. It was possible that funding might be maintained during the period of Brexit negotiations, probably over the next two years, or beyond that if the negotiations took even longer. Much would depend on the UK’s approach during the negotiation period.

The European Regional funds help businesses in Kent, both large and small, the rural economy, creative industries and the skills economy. They help to increase trade between Kent and NW Europe.

For Labour, Roger Truelove says,

” We heard quite a lot during the referendum campaign about how the UK’s contribution might be recycled back into our economy. There was the promise to pay it all into the NHS. Farmers who voted Brexit apparently think they are going to receive the same subsidies from our Government. I only hope there will be some funding left to support the local economy and I hope Kent will try to expand its export trade to other parts of the World.”

Jo Cox

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Jo Cox MP

Around lunchtime on 16th June reports began to emerge of an attack on a Labour MP in Yorkshire, outside the library in which she was conducting her constituency surgery. As the afternoon went on it was clear that something truly appalling had happened and just after 5 pm Yorkshire Police confirmed that Jo Cox MP, for Batley and Spen, had died from dreadful injuries inflicted by both a shotgun and a knife.

A picture emerged the following day of both the murdered MP and her murderer. She was young, universally admired, courageous, intelligent and resourceful. She was a mother with two young children and a devoted husband. The murderer was revealed as a supporter of extreme right wing politics, who clearly hated Jo Cox’s humanitarian and inclusive attitude to people of all races.

There was shock, disgust and sorrow expressed all across the country, with generous words from all parties, including the then Prime Minister, David Cameron. In this constituency of Sittingbourne and Sheppey people of all political faiths expressed their deep sadness. It made many think about the confrontational nature of the referendum debate and there was a call for a weekend armistice on the 18th and 19th June.

On the Monday, Parliament was recalled to pay respectful tribute to Jo Cox. This was not a business day, but a chance for all MPs, by their very presence, to show respect and to represent the strong emotional feelings in their communities. For a time, there was a sense that we might have a more decent politics.

Last Friday, 8th July, our Local Party held its first constituency meeting since these tragic events. There were 25 members present and we held a minute’s silence as a tribute to Jo Cox.

At the meeting it was also revealed that the Conservative MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey had not been in parliament to join in the tributes to Jo Cox. It was further reported that he had given his reason for being absent as “I did not know her”.

We are extremely disappointed. It seems to us that Gordon Henderson saw no personal advantage to himself in being in Westminster and took a day off. It suggests to us in the Labour Party that he does not understand the nature of representation and that he should have been there on behalf of the people of Sittingbourne and Sheppey, whatever he thought of her politics. We obviously feel this with some sensitivity because Jo was a Labour MP but we have to say there are times when MPs must represent all of their constituents.

It was also true that Gordon Henderson campaigned on the Saturday when there was meant to be a pause. He will say that he scaled down the level of activity, but he did take Chris Grayling to Lower Halstow and took a promotional photo there that was published in the local press on the Wednesday before the referendum vote.

We, in the Local Labour Party, have never chosen to attack Mr Henderson personally, though we are conscious of what we regard as a number of shortcomings. His statement that he “did not know “Jo Cox underlines his rather low presence at Westminster. His contributions to Parliamentary debate in the chamber of the House of Commons appear to be somewhat sparse. In six years as MP, there is not much evidence of much being delivered to the people of Sittingbourne and Sheppey. Moreover, there seems to be no agenda for the local area, no real ambitions and no targets for change. It is only fair to say that, whilst he is inconspicuous in Westminster he cultivates a high profile in the constituency by attending local events as a sort of civic dignitary, sharing in the local group’s photo opportunity. But this isn’t actually doing very much. There seems to be very little political impact on the Tory Group on Swale Council and no input into serious local issues such as the failure of regeneration policy and the burdens of the local plan.

We are, as we say, very disappointed over the failure to do what was right over our slain MP and we call for a more proactive approach to the serious needs of the people of Sittingbourne and Sheppey.

Daunting Task faces Swale Housing Planners

New houses under constuction on a building site

On Thursday(19 May) members of Swale Council’s Local Development Framework panel face a daunting task. Because of Government pressure to increase housing sites in Swale, members have got to up the target figure from 540 to 776 homes a year and in so doing consider sites previously firmly rejected by Councillors, both Labour and Conservative.

In drafting a Local Plan, sites at Bartons Hill in Minster, Iwade and in the Cryalls Lane area of Sittingbourne were rejected for a wide range of valid reasons. I am afraid I did not get cross party support for limiting the massive development area between Quinton and Grovehurst.

The Government, through its National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has assumed that local planning is the cause of the under supply of housing. It is not. Shortages of capital, house price inflation due to the influx of foreign money and the widespread practice of developer land banking are more serious problems.

Last week, two Parliamentary reports, one from the House of Commons and one from the Lords, agreed that the NPPF is far too amenable to the interests of developers and has weakened the capacity of local councils to manage development. Parliament complains that the NPPF is all about building houses, not places. It is allowing developers to override their responsibilities for infrastructure, for good design and environmental standards and to provide adequate levels of affordable housing. They say that developers are over exploiting the arguments about market viability and that there is too much deregulation and too much reliance on market forces rather than planning sustainable communities.

Without a change of thinking by the Government, we are heading for chaos.

Councillor Roger Truelove