I would encourage the residents of Swale to attend Swale Council’s Full Council meetings, just as I did on Wednesday 24th July, and come away from it honestly feeling that their Tory Councillors are representing them well.
I won’t give a full commentary, my memory simply won’t allow it, I shall just discuss what stood out for me. Firstly the Questions from Members. These all came from the opposition benches and a full list can be seen here – not one Conservative councillor asked a question despite them composing 31 out of 47, and this isn’t unique for Swale Full Council.
Labour spokesperson for Health, Cllr. Angela Harrison, asked for a yes or no question about whether The Meads in Sittingbourne would get a GP surgery years and years after plans were published showing that there would be one. Tory Cabinet Member Ken Pugh fumbled around for the answer before finally saying that ‘plans are for there to be a GP surgery, so yes’ although in essence that is just reiterating what has always been the Council’s position – I was left wondering where the Tory leadership, to make it happen, is on this issue?
Cllr. Adam Tolhurst raised how the Tory Cabinet essentially overturned the Local Development Framework panel’s cross-party decision to remove provisions for Gypsy and Traveller sites from mainstream housing developments and questioned how it is that such decisions can be ignored. The response from the Tory side was that all due consideration is given to all decsions made by a panel provides ‘valuable’ work. (So valuable that the Tory executive ignores it…).
Labour Group Leader Mike Haywood shone the light on the £250,000 Local Loan Fund provided for social enterprises which had allocated no loans in its first year, suggesting the money go towards the struggling voluntary sector. Mike Whiting responded as the Cabinet Member for Localism by saying it was ‘disappointing’ but failed to realise that it is because the Government’s Big Society initiative has failed to gain any traction with the public.
Cllr. Mike Haywood also asked why it seems the jobs reallocated as part of Swale’s involvement in MKIP mainly benefits Maidstone Council with Swale Council mainly seeming to lose jobs – Tory Leader Andrew Bowles launched into a bizarre tirade against Labour Councillors he said favoured a unitary authority which wouldn’t be in Swale’s best interests and comprehensively failed to answer how he is leading in MKIP to retain jobs in Swale Council under this sharing initiative.
Later in the evening the Labour Group proposed a motion, proposed by Cllr. Ghlin Whelan and seconded by Cllr. Roger Truelove for a 3 month trial for free parking on Saturdays in Swale to encourage trade into our town centres and to give something back to shoppers. The Tory Members responding, Cllr. Simmons, reiterated the line that evidence was sparse – despite other Councils (Tory and Labour), Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps encouraging councils to look into these initiatives – and that budgets are not to be altered through the year.
Other Tory members then had their two pennies’ worth. Cllr. for Grove Duncan Dewar-Whalley said struggling traders should dip into their pockets and pay for the parking for their customers whilst the council continues to raise revenues from its near monopoly over car parks in Swale’s Town Centres. Numerous others said their experience is that car parks are full on a Saturday in Faversham (none of them cited Sittingbourne or Sheerness where many car parks are empty on a Saturday) and essentially argued it’d be madness to end such a lucrative revenue stream and give something back to the residents of Swale, no matter how small the gesture might be.
Cllr. Mike Whiting for Kemsley rose to say that the Labour Group were trying to be populist and that – despite no evidence to back his assertion – free parking would have no impact, however, at the interval he turned round to the press and instantly started briefing them of his own suggestions, something he wouldn’t share with the rest of the Chamber, unlike the Tory member for Leysdown who should be credited for at least offering an alternative proposal.
Mark Ellen, Labour councillor for Sheerness East explained how he had surveyed many high street traders in Sheerness who said they’d welcome free parking as a gesture from the council recognising the difficulties our high streets are facing. Cllr. Mike Haywood called the Tories out for saying there is no money for free parking and for saying budgets shouldn’t be amended through the year by pointing out that the Tories had voted through extra allowances to the tune of £90k in March – far more that a three month free parking trial on Saturdays would cost – despite opposition from Labour and the one UKIP, one Lib Dem and one Independent councillor.
Cllr. Roger Truelove firmly put the boot into the Tories for failing to support the motion – he pointed out the extreme failure of the Tory council to deliver town centre regeneration in Swale in thirteen years, something the public are extremely frustrated and angry about. Tory leader Andrew Bowles took umbrage to a heavy dose of the truth delivered by Mike Haywood saying it is wrong to ‘denigrate’ Tory members by saying they don’t care about helping struggling traders and residents, then went on to poke fun at, and indeed denigrate, the Lib Dem councillor Mike Henderson.
Other Councillors on both sides of the debate did contribute, but when a recorded vote was taken every single Tory councillor voted against the motion, the UKIP councillor and the Lib Dem councillor voted with Labour.
The evening continued for some time, again with very little input from backbench Tory councillors. It was a frustrating spectacle, one that left me with little hope that Swale will see much improvement over the next two years with the Tories still dominating the council.