Toll Hurts Kelly’s Constituents

Recent readers of the Medway Messenger (August 7) may have been shocked to read that newly elected Member of Parliament for Rochester & Strood, Councillor Kelly Tolhurst, was being stopped from doing her bit to help out the local community:

A group of business people set up to improve Rochester will lose out on tens thousands of pounds due to financial red tape.

Kelly Tolhurst wanted to donate her council allowances to the Rochester Town Centre Forum after she became MP for Rochester and Strood and also held onto her council seat in Rochester West in May.

Of course, a councillor choosing to donate their allowance to a good cause is a noble endeavour. So what “financial red tape” was stopping Kelly from donating her council allowance to the Town Centre Forum?

Tax law.

Because council allowances are paid directly to councillors, they are taxed like any other income. Just like they would be if you or I or anyone else decided to donate some money to a good cause. You pay tax, and then you can do what you like with whatever is left. Apparently this is an outrage to the esteemed Member of Parliament though.

The numbers

Rochester Town Centre Forum claims to currently have around £2,000 per year, that it mostly spends on Christmas lights.

Kelly Tolhurst wanted to donate her full council allowance of £8,730, which would have given the Forum £10,730.

Having to pay income tax, like the rest of us, would result in Cllr Tolhurst “only” being able to donate £5,238 to the Forum, leaving them with a measly £7,238.

As this would only be a mere 262% increase for the Forum, Rochester West’s Councillor has decided not to bother donating the money, and as such it will remain in the council account for no particular purpose.

If Cllr Tolhurst had followed through on this donation over her four year term, the Forum would have received nearly £21,000 in additional funds. But this won’t happen, all so she can avoid paying some tax.

The beneficiary

Although it’s rather moot at this stage, it is rather curious that Tolhurst would select the Rochester Town Centre Forum as her intended beneficiary. While any town centre can always use additional funds, her constituency also contains Strood town centre, Cuxton, Halling, and the villages of the peninsula. Surely any of these centres would benefit as much as, if not far more than, the town centre of Rochester.

The solutions

It would appear that rather than grandstanding on this issue, if they really did want to support the town centres of her constituency, there are a number of possible solutions:

The most logical would be to accept the council allowance, pay the legally required tax, and donate the remaining £21,000 to either Rochester Town Centre Forum or between the town centres in her constituency. After all, this money is urgently needed:

“The High Street Forum are working on projects around promotion, increasing footfall and tidying up the high street but there’s no money left to do any initiatives.

They are working on starting a Saturday artisan market and this money would have helped.”

With this being the case, there is a larger gesture that Tolhurst could make: Replace the £3,492 per year that is lost to tax with a donation from her parliamentary salary.

After all, MPs were recently given a raise of £5,588. Tolhurst could make up the figure lost, provide a nice boost to the town centres, and still be left with a yearly salary in excess of £70,000.

What do you say Kelly?

iFAQs: Immigration and Housing

Update, 8 September: This piece has updated to include a response from the Medway UKIP group.

During the full council meeting of Medway Council, Leader of the Council Councilor Jarrett said, in relation to a statement by Cllr Andy Stamp regarding housing targets.

 “… one of the root causes of that, of course, is Labour’s open door immigration policy flooding the country with people and we are still reaping the reward of that and still trying to grapple with the problem… that’s one of the key problems”*

An audio file can be found at http://democracy.medway.gov.uk/mgconvert2pdf.aspx?id=28081
Go to 1 hr 19 minutes

We asked various Medway political types the following:
a) What is your stance on the idea that immigration is one of the key problems regarding housing shortages in Medway?
b) How do you feel about Councillor Jarrett’s description that the country has been flooded with immigrants?

Cllr Jarrett responded with the following:

“Whilst, I appreciate that answers will be presented unedited online I must insist that the statement originally made be given in its entirety as well. For your convenience, I record it below from the Council transcripts.”

Cllr Jarrett: “Cllr Stamp talked about the drive for new homes and very high housing targets which we have and all object to. But one of the root causes for that is Labour’s open door immigration policy flooding the country with people and we are still reaping the reward of that, and still trying to grapple with the problem so I think that’s one of key problems.”

What is your stance on the idea that immigration is one of the key problems regarding housing shortages in Medway?

“I have repeatedly said that the main reason for the crisis in housing both here in Medway and across the UK is fundamentally the lack of house building over the past 30 to 35 years. In it’s time in government between 1997 – 2010 Labour focused on the decent homes standard, making sure social housing was at a quality which was acceptable – it was a job which needed doing but did mean that not enough new housing stock was put into the mix. I don’t accept that immigration is one of the key problems regarding housing shortages, in fact to join the housing waiting list now you need to have been a resident in Medway for a period of time.”
Cllr Vince Maple
Leader of Medway Labour

Immigration has not caused the housing shortage in Medway. Our view is that the housing shortage is caused by:-
– Selling off social housing under the right to buy

– Not building sufficient low cost affordable housing. The Greens would welcome a large scale building programme for social housing by Government. We would oppose building on Greenfield sites, but feel there are sufficient brownfield sites which could be used in Medway

– There is insufficient activity by the council to bring empty properties back into use

– Where housing is built by private developers this often focuses on luxuary developments which may be unaffordable to local people

– Overall there is a real lack of affordable housing both to buy or rent
Medway Green Party

“Immigration is not one of the key problems regarding the housing shortage in MedwayThe Government’s target of 200,000 homes per year by 2020 falls far short of the 250,000 that Shelter estimates is necessary to meet demand but this has nothing to do with immigration. The housing crisis is caused by the failure of the market that delivers low pay and sky high rents with around 60% of new builds in London and the South East being bought by investors rather than as affordable properties to actually live in. Councils in England are sitting on 23,000 hectares, enough brownfield land to build one million decent council homes and the ‘big four’ property developers have enough land to build further 1.4 million. There is plenty of capacity to build high quality and environmentally sustainable homes but only when we are able to control what is built and where. This will require the nationalisation of the banks and the large construction companies whose profits have soared by over 550% since 2010 while the number of affordable homes has shriveled.”
Chas Berry
Medway TUSC

Medway Council has a billowing housing crisis with no action plan since 6 million extra people have been welcomed but literally squashed into Britain’s little communities.

No explanation has been made to the people of Kent how or why this mass immigration from Europe and other countries is advantageous to Medway communities instead we are left to suffer the consequences. Substantial billions of additional tax is being collected but  not one extra house, flat, school or GP surgery has been built to accommodate these people mainly from the failed EU experiment but also foreign lands who come here desperate to improve their family lives.
Medway Council has no real policies and shown no interest in the lack of affordable properties available for renting in order to fairly accommodate the many thousands of people in need . For the many desperate families living in overcrowded, damp and dilapidated private tenanted properties they can no longer complain as they are silently fearful of eviction and their children no longer allowed to attend their local schools.
Medway Council knows how tightly packed families are in the region who are paying ever increasing unreasonable rents because landlords are exploting shortages but does nothing, sighting Governments policy. We need bold and brave Councillors to debate the housing crisis seriously,sensibly and honestly telling the Government how residents are being unfairly housed.  We need Medway to stop supporting the purchase of more and more buy to let properties where the mortgages for these wealthy landlords are being paid by the tax payer through housing benefits. We need Medway to plan and build thousands of new properties for renting not just 100. 
Cllr Roy Freshwater
Leader of Medway UKIP group

Housing building in the UK has not been at sustainable levels to demand since the 1970’s which has resulted in not enough houses being built.

We need to bring into the equation, the EU, due to freedom of movement.  Upto 2004, the EU had 15 countries, which were generally the richer countries of Europe, not fuelling mass migration to get a better life. Since then 12 Eastern European countries have joined (generally poorer countries of Europe).  This has caused mass migration across Europe.  Add to this migration from other countries and lack of infrastructure planning by Conservative and Labour Governments since the end of the 1970’s has led for the current quotas for house building.  However the targets are not achievable as not enough houses are being built by the private sector.  To ever meet the target the government needs to start building houses and providing the boom in house building that was achieved in the 1960’s.  This would not increase the deficit as houses generally sell for twice the cost of building them.

Cllr Mark Joy
Independent

How do you feel about Councillor Jarrett’s description that the country has been flooded with immigrants?

“I would expect the leader of a top tier local authority to be more mindful of the language that he uses, particularly at the time where the issue of refugees coming into Europe from areas of conflict is so high on the agenda. It is on the same level as David Cameron talking of Swarms or David Blunkett talking of being swamped both of whom I criticised when they made their comments.

I’m not sure which immigrants Cllr Jarrett is talking about when he mentions flooding, are they the immigrants who are working hard in our hospital as Doctors, Nurses, Technicians and Porters? Are they the entrepreneurs who are setting up small businesses? Are they the students studying at our Medway Universities? 

The immigration policy Alan Jarrett talks about, if he is talking about EU freedom of movement, is not a Labour policy but actually a fundamental element of membership of the European Union – one can only assume if he doesn’t agree with that he will be campaigning against Cameron but with Mark Reckless, Chris Irvine and Nigel Farage for a no vote in the forthcoming referendum. “
Cllr Vince Maple
Leader of Medway Labour

“We would challenge the view that the country has been “flooded” by immigrants on the basis that this is inaccurate and also that the language is inflamatory and unhelpful. – There are two issues here:-

(i) people who come to the UK to work or study and

(ii) those who seek asylum.

As Greens we acknowledge the huge contribution made by workers from overseas, in particular in areas such as the health service or social care. We also recognise the financial contribution made by overseas students which helps to fund our universities. Numerous studies have shown the benefits of immigration to Britain. We support the flexibility provided by our EU membership which allows people to move freely between the EU states. We would extend the same welcome to other EU workers, as we would expect for British people who may choose work or study in other EU nations. As Greens we would expect the government to comply with our obligations under international law and provide asylum to those in genuine danger or fleeing persecution. We would see the current situation with the migrants in Calais as a humanitarian crisis which should be responded to with compassion. We condemn the alarmist tone taken by much of the media to this issue. We would acknowledge that countries such as Greece, Turkey, Italy and Lebanon are currently shouldering the bulk of the burden and call for the government to take our fair share of refugees (including those at Calais).”
Medway Green Party

 “To describe the country as being ‘flooded with immigrants’ is offensive and revolting. By all accounts net migration to the UK has increased and in Kent this is fairly visible but migrants have brought net gains that would benefit the economy if it were being run in the interests of the majority rather than by exploitative bosses and landlords who have tended to use migrants as a cheap source of labour. When Councillor Jarrett uses emotive terms like “flood” he is trying to dodge responsibility for the poverty inflicted by his party in Government by directing the fears and insecurity felt by millions towards a scapegoat. This sort of language is disgraceful. “
Chas Berry
Medway TUSC

Sadly flooded is a dehumanising word for desporate families fleeing wars. It is true that British people and Medway residents are fearful of uncontrolled influx of foreign nationals, with many families desporate and deserving out help. But they will include terrorist gangs, drug smugglers, people smugglers, killers, thieves or political activists. The Government is sleepwalking into a slow destruction of our communities. No police checks are made on the majority of people bribing there way into Britain who have terrorist or criminal records and are quietly joining our communities.    Quite conceivably in such numbers soon that they could launch a war inside Britain on our once wonderful but now broken communities. At that stage apologies from Government will not be good enough when our streets are turned into yet another war zone.
Cllr Roy Freshwater
Leader of Medway UKIP group

In context the word flood is to do with a deluge (normally water) onto land. Due to excess demand on housing and also on infrastructure by current net migration levels, to make a comment of flooded may be justified. However it should be pointed out that the majority of immigration is due to freedom of movement throughout the EU and not through illegal immigration.

Cllr Mark Joy
Independent

“In answer to your questions

Whilst I absolutely stand by my assertion that immigration is one of the key problems regarding housing shortages, my answer was directed towards a national perspective and not a Medway one. 
This is pertinent because during the Labour Government’s time in office, they exercised an open door immigration policy. During that time we saw considerable numbers of immigrants come into the UK as a whole. Not only did many immigrants settle in Medway during that period, we are now seeing not only the immigrants coming through Calais but migrants who settled historically in London who are now it appears being encouraged to re-locate to Medway. 

This makes it increasingly difficult to track, plan and budget for housing requirements and also means that residents are quite rightly taking a strong interest into the future of Medway when it comes to building new housing.”
Cllr Alan Jarrett
Leader of Medway Council

 

Medway Liberal Democrats were invited to answer but we did not receive any response.

The Opposite of Power

Disclaimer: As a naive lefty who is clearly wrong about most things, Keevil has accepted a political life on the outside. Where it is easy to be dismissed, especially by those who are dismissive. Being in opposition to the administration isn’t about being anti-Tory or being contrary, it is about the need for a strong opposition in a strong democracy.

Rather than just accept that an election was won by a small percentage, or not by the majority of voters (the FPTP losers equivalent to the current government/administrations’s ‘Austerity is needed because of the last Labour government’ mantra), we need to ask;

What does it mean to be in opposition?
Is there any real power in opposition?

According to the freedictionary.com
A person or group of people opposing, criticising or protesting something, someone or another group.

Residents expect elected councillors to contribute to the development of policies and strategies, and for the councils policy’s to be signed off by full council, on which everybody sits. They expect concerns to be investigated and decisions to be communicated. They expect to be represented.
They expect those in opposition to question and hold those in power to account.

I’m going to try (I’ll fail) and sound non-partisan, when I say there are issues regarding the role of opposition in the Medway Towns.

Following the 2015 local election result, there was a new status quo, which heavily affected opposition and oppositional power in the Medway Unitary Authority.
Firstly; whilst I don’t think Medway Labour were expecting to lead the council, there was an expectation of increased group side, maybe even no overall control, a view held by this site at least. What resulted was in fact a strengthened and emboldened Conservative administration.
Secondly; whilst nobody expected the Medway Liberal Democrats to do well, their complete removal from council resulting in the loss of a Liberal/ liberal voice, should not be considered a good thing.
Thirdly; Chris Irvine’s foolishly noble decision to stand for election within the ward he lives. This meant the councillor for Penisula Ward and leader of UKIP Rochester/Medway UKIP group (delete as appropriate) left the council and the group lost it’s leader. UKIP have appeared rudderless in full council so far. They have already lost one member who become an independent and have made no meaningful contribution.
It’s the belief of this writer at least that Irvine’s absence is a bigger loss to ofpposition within council then that of Geoff Juby.
Fourthly; The Medway Green Party’s inabilty to build on its by-election profile and mount a credible challenge for a ward seat. Whilst they achieved a larger vote then Medway TUSC, TUSC have – angered by the Rainham North result – been more vocal in their opposition, at full council meetings at least.

The current administration seems angered by the audacity of an member of the council or the public who dares to question them and hold them accountable, going so far as to seek to change the process.

Forgetting that members of council not part of the administration were also elected to do exactly that, and that the administration works for the public, and should answer to them. Frankly more then six times a year at full council and once every four years at the ballot box.

The administration should respect the role of opposition. Whomever holds it. They should not seek to diminish it. Or undermine the politial process, through an ineffective oversight and scrutiny committee, chairing all other committees, and placing all decision making power within a ten person cabinet that meets for ten minutes.

Critical feedback is not a negative experience and any opposition should have an opportunity to contribute to the creation of policy and legislation.
They should oppose proposals they legitimately disagree with, be given an opportunity to voice that disagreement and not have that voice dismissed as sour grapes.

Democracy thrives when there is a peaceful rivalry and a balance between a majority, winner of the election, who is in a position to govern, but not monopolising all the power.

Whilst we can be relieved that there is no likelihood of the police being called to remove minority parties from council (though we should wait for the results of Cllr Mackness’ constitutional review, to be fully sure), there is a concern held by this site about the monopolisation of power with cabinet and the charing of committees.

The oppositions role is to oppose and to do that they must be able to participate in the political process. They then must do this effectively and responsibly. It is this area looking forward that needs to be monitored over the course of the administration. 

If there is to be any true power in opposition the Medway electorate and elected needs to accept that:
1) Medway Unitary Authority is not a two party system.
2) They should not be dismissive of any smaller group seaking to gain a ward seat at the table.
3) A Liberal/liberal voice is needed.
4) As is a Green one.
Saying that, the two party system providing 3 & 4 only works if they actually do.

As the largest group in opposition, Medway Labour needs to also be held accountable for the positions they take on issues. Not opposing for opposing sake and ensuring they offer credible alternatives.

UKIP Rochester/Medway UKIP (delete as appropriate) has a spokesperson woman and they need to find their voice with council and represent the people that voted for them and continue to oppose anti-xenophobia.

Mark Joy’s first council meeting, as a councillor and an Independent councillor, gave an interesting dynamic as he opposed one Labour motion and supported another. Ignoring for this piece the purpose of either motion, this is a positive of opposition, voting on a case by case basis, with or against the opposition. Not along party lines. This is easer when you dont have a party line to follow, obviously.

I understand there is a position of group whip to stop people voting against the party line, but until member and public opposition amounts to more, then any opposition is purely for the record – decisions will continue to be made behind closed doors and outside of democracy.

quote-love-is-the-opposite-of-power-that-s-why-we-fear-it-so-much-gregory-david-roberts-46-62-43

 

First They Came For The Supplementary Questions..

It might come as a surprise, but Medway Council meetings are fairly lively affairs compared to some councils. A turnout of 50 people in the public gallery is hardly unheard of (though few last to the end!), public questions will often overrun their allotted time, and it’s not unusual for the council to receive heckling, jeering, or other forms of protest. It’s those last couple of points that are most relevant here, as the council has decided it’s had enough of those pesky members of the public who want to ask questions.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to get an answer out of your local councillor, but it can be a pretty trying exercise. Granted, if you want them to come and cut the ribbon at your fete, they’ll be there double quick, but if you actually have questions, things get tricky. Email or tweet them and you’ll likely get no response. Attend one of their occasional ‘surgeries’ and you’ll almost certainly get a non-committed, evasive, if polite, response to your concerns. One of the few ways to publicly make a point to a councillor is at one of the six public meetings of Medway Council that take place each year.

As it stands, any resident of Medway can submit a question to the council, and as long as it’s somewhat relevant to the authority, a response has to be given. Any person can submit multiple questions (though those with one take priority over a second etc.), and a substitute can ask the question at the meeting if you can’t attend due to work or ill-health or the such. Most importantly, after asking your question and getting a response, you’re allowed a ‘short, supplementary question’. While the first question can have a carefully prepared answer, the councillor will not know what the supplementary question will contain, so it’s the one time they won’t always be speaking in the boring shared voice of the council.

All of which means the administration has had more than enough of this kind of challenging behaviour.

Council questions

This recommendation will be put to the council this Wednesday, following absolutely no consultation whatsoever. It’s vague, it’s heavy handed, and it’s a borderline affront to democracy. You can read the full report on the changes here.

There is certainly a place for limited reform of public questions. The rule limiting answers to three minutes is sensible, if only for the sake of Cllr Chitty’s incredible ability to go on and on and on and on in response to questions. There’s even a case to be made for limiting each member of the public to one question. The council is often faced with large numbers of questions covering the same topic worded in different ways, and so a compromise could be found there.

Where it all falls apart is the removing of the supplementary question. As mentioned earlier, this has been a long-standing method of asking a councillor a proper question, and it’s removal is deeply worrying for the way that Medway Council would like to conduct business. Removing substitutes has no real practical purpose at all other than to limit the number of questions that can be asked. More concerning is vague rule of limiting any ‘organisation’ one question per meeting. In three years of attending these meetings, I’ve never seen a question come from an organisation, only members of the public. Unless the council is going to get into the very dangerous business of defining questions from members of political parties as such.

One legitimate complaint that some have with public questions is that opposition parties have their members submit questions that challenge the council to make a political point. All parties do this to a certain extent (with the exception of UKIP who were never that organised) – Labour are masters of the craft, the Lib Dems manage a few questions at every meeting, and even the Tories do so when they need an easy political point or to raise awareness of potential future councillors. It’s a bit of a crap way to do things, but it does still raise legitimate political issues, and is often the only route a smaller party will have to gain any attention for their issues. From the text set out in the report above, it wouldn’t be entirely impossible for the administration to deem swathes of questions as being from a single political organisation, and thus rejecting them en masse. There’s no suggestion that this is the council’s intent, but the fact it can’t be ruled out from the document demonstrates how sloppily this idea has been put together.

The reaction from the Medway Twitterati has been fierce, with members of Labour, UKIP, the Lib Dems, and ordinary members of the public lining up to condemn the move.

There’s little doubt that these limits to public democratic discourse will be adopted by the council – the ruling Tories hold a substantial majority which allows them full control over all scrutiny and decision-making, and there’s little incentive to face public questions when the average person takes little notice of these things. But an important part of the democratic process is being chipped away, and if they get away with this part unnoticed, who knows what will be the next thing to go?

Jennings