The Fortnight in Medway Politics: Children, Chairmen, Conduct

The big stories

Matthew Scott is Kent’s new Police and Crime Commissioner – full story
Last week, after an uninspiring campaign period, voters of Kent went to the polls to select a new Police and Crime Commissioner for Kent after sitting Commissioner Ann Barnes decided to stand down. Matthew Scott for the Conservatives was victorious, beating second placed Henry Bolton of UKIP. We had full analysis of the results, including an awful lot of graphs.

The Medway Council April ding dong – full story
Medway Council held it’s April meeting, which featured such exciting events as a new mayor being selected, and some revelations on the EU referendum. As usual, we were there to livetweet the proceedings, and you can catch up with all of the highlights above.

Medway MPs in Parliament

Save Sod the children
In one of the most remarkable votes of this parliament so far, both Gillingham and Rainham MP Rehman Chishti and Rochester and Strood MP Kelly Tolhurst voted against allowing unaccompanied child refugees into the UK. Kelly Tolhurst even spoke at length in the parliamentary debate on why taking needy children in would be such a terrible thing to do. Of course, it’s all slightly moot now as it seems the government will u-turn and allow the children in after all, but it’s worth remembering that the first instinct of Medway MPs was to refuse to help children in need.

In, out, shake it all about
Six weeks out from the EU referendum, and our three Medway MPs are still declining to reveal where they stand on this incredibly important issue. It almost seems like they are all attempting to run out the clock and not tell their constituents where they stand, to avoid any awkward confrontations with their local party members.

Elsewhere in Parliament
Kelly Tolhurst spoke at length on energy generation on the Isle of Grain, while also acknowledging that some will be sad to see the chimney at Kingsnorth power station demolished.

Medway Council

All change
A sudden departure from Medway Council this week for it’s head of children and adult services, Barbara Peacock. Her time at the council can be described as rocky at best.

Curious conduct
A rare outing for Medway Council’s Councillor Conduct Committee this Wednesday. An interesting agenda that focuses on introducing social media guidelines for councillors, while also dealing with a complaint against a councillor. Whatever could it all be about?

Political Parties

Medway Conservatives
Missing, because after winning the Kent Police and Crime Commissioner election, they don’t really need to bother doing anything.

Medway Labour
Utterly incredibly, it’s now been ten weeks since the Medway Labour website was hacked, proving a security risk to user’s visiting, and they still haven’t managed to fix it. Yet they’d like the voters to hand them the keys to Gun Wharf.

Medway UKIP
Curious events within Rochester and Strood UKIP as chairman Chris Spalding stepped down from the role. No reason was given for this, but rumours of disharmony within the local party over the actions of Medway UKIP leader on Medway Council Roy Freshwater may well have played a part.
In a rare bout of local campaigning, the very same Cllr Freshwater was out and about in Chatham, encouraging people to leave the EU. Obviously.

Medway Liberal Democrats
Want to meet some local Lib Dems, if only to prove they exist? They’ll be in Strood High Street from 10am on Saturday!

Medway Green Party
As you might expect, the local Greens are a little concerned about Medway’s new local plan allowing housing development on green spaces, particularly after leader of the council Alan Jarrett stated that this would be necessary.

Other news

Reckless move
After being unceremoniously losing his Westminster seat in last year’s general election, Mark Reckless made his return to mainstream politics after being elected to – of all places – the Welsh Assembly. While we wish Mark well in his new venture, we are left wondering what will happen with his wife’s council seat in Strood South. Will she be resigning this to head to Wales, or will Mark be taking in one hell of a commute? Either way, it’s a question that Cllr Andrew Mackness is eager to get the bottom of.

The Week in Medway Politics: Spending allegations, cuts, litter

The big story

Serious allegations raised about Kelly Tolhurst’s campaign spending
Channel 4 News crunched the numbers of the Rochester & Strood by-election in November 2014, noting that the Conservatives may have exceeded the spending limit by over £50,000. Notts Police have begun an investigation following similar claims over the Newark by-election, but so far, Kent Police have said nothing on the matter. Kelly Tolhurst has, for her part, managed to keep her head down and not make any comment on the issue.

Medway MPs in Parliament

Police cuts
This week, MPs voted to reduce the Police Grant for 2016-17 by 2.7%. Amongst those voting for the cut in funding were Gillingham & Rainham MP Rehman Chishti, and Rochester & Strood MP, Kelly Tolhurst.

Council cuts
Also this week, MPs voted to reduce the Revenue Support Grant, the main grant for funding local councils, by 24.6%. Unsurprisingly, both Rehman Chishti and Kelly Tolhurst voted for the cut. Given both are also councillors on Medway Council, this may put them at odds with certain council colleagues who are unhappy with the reductions.

Elsewhere in Parliament
Kelly Tolhurst received a remarkable telling off for incorrect use of parliamentary language in the House of Commons, with the speaker at the time describing the situation as “we are back to year 3 again”. Rehman Chishti raised the issues at Medway Hospital, and asked what more the government can do to improve it’s situation.

Medway Council

Tough on litter, tough on the causes of litter
Medway Council made a big deal this week – as in it was the only news on their website – about catching a woman who dropped a cigarette butt. You’d think this might be a fairly regular event for a council with a civil enforcement team, but no, catching one woman dropping a cigarette butt is headline news.

Local Plan
Medway Council is continuing to develop it’s Local Plan, where it needs to find room for tens of thousands of new houses over the next two decades. All of the documents for this and the ability to respond to the consultation are available via this webpage. Alternatively, you can go along to a local event to see more detail and discuss it with council officers. This week’s events are:
Medway Park, Gillingham – Tuesday (10am – noon)
Riverside Country Park – Thursday (11am – 2pm)
Capstone Country Park – Friday (11am – 2pm)
Rochester Farmers Market – Sunday (10am – noon)

Other council news
Councillor Mackness is rather angry about a reduction in the rent costs for those in social housing, while a public enquiry about the Lodge Hill development has been delayed, yet again.

Political Parties

Medway Conservatives
Missing, presumably keeping their heads down until this little spending kerfuffle blows over.

Medway Labour
Unsurprisingly, the party aren’t too happy about the Conservative spending claims, with their candidate in that by-election, Cllr Naushabah Khan, formally requesting that Kent Police investigate the allegations.

Medway UKIP
It’s not much, but Rochester & Strood UKIP started a new Twitter account, seemingly after losing the keys to their old one.

Medway Liberal Democrats
The party aren’t pulling any punches about the Conservative spending allegations, using the term “election fraud” on several occasions.

Medway Green Party
Unsurprisingly, the impending Lower Thames Crossing is still the focus of the Medway Greens, with the party highlighting exactly the impact it would have on Strood and it’s surrounding area.

Other News

Rehman About Town
This week, Rehman managed to have his photo taken with the High Commissioner to Pakistan, staff at the NSPCC centre in Gillingham, off the TV with some odd contrast issues, before a half marathon, and after a half marathon.

Dude, where’s my signature?

By now, you’re mostly likely aware of the Rochester Town Council campaign. It’s been running for a while now, with the primary aim to give Rochester more say over it’s own affairs. This article is not about the pros and cons of such a council, it’s about the process and barriers that the campaign is having to deal with.

Disclosure: I am a supporter of the Rochester Town Council campaign, and signed it’s petition. The reason this is relevant will become clear later on.

The campaign for a town council formally began in March of this year. It needed to collect signatures from 7.5% of registered electors in the area of the proposed council to trigger a Community Governance Review. This essentially forces the council to hold a full consultation on whether or not a new council needs to be created. 7.5% of the electors of Rochester meant 1644 signatures were required to meet this threshold.

Throughout the campaign, Medway Council have made their feelings on the matter clear. Despite the fact they have to give the campaign a fair hearing via the Community Governance Reviews, cabinet members (especially the portfolio holder for Democracy and Governance, Andrew Mackness) have stated on several occasions that they see no merit in creating an additional layer of local government in Medway. While this can be dismissed as personal opinion, there are some rather more worrying signs from the council about their commitment to treating the campaign fairly.

In October, the campaign formally submitted their petition to Medway Council, having collected 1785 (141 more than required) signatures in the previous seven months. After two months, the council declared the petition to be invalid, after refusing to accept signatures collected online rather than on paper, despite previous suggestions that these would be accepted. Granted, the campaign should have probably done more to ensure they had the status of online signatures in writing, but it’s not difficult to look at this and wonder why the council didn’t flag this earlier.

The second issue is the way in which the council is verifying the signatures, even those submitted on paper. The council decided to compare the submitted signatures with those on June’s electoral register. This was not the start of the campaign, nor was it the end, instead it’s somewhere in the middle. It’s also how they were able to deny my own signature.

I moved into the town council petition area in September. I duly notified the council and added myself to the electoral register, and received confirmation in writing that I had been accepted. As such, I signed the Rochester Town Council petition, yet have since discovered that my own signature was declared invalid as I didn’t live within the town in June. Which leaves me in a slightly odd position of living within Rochester, being on the electoral roll in Rochester, while also apparently not being a valid resident of Rochester at the same time. I am Schrödinger’s constituent.

The Rochester Town Council campaign are not giving up though, instead attempting to collect all of the online signatures on paper (and some extras too). These will be submitted to the council in the new year, when the council hopefully won’t find another arbitrary hurdle that the campaign has to overcome.

Return of the Mackness

We kind of thought we’d be done writing about the restriction of public questions at Medway Council. We did our little experiment, published our thoughts more than once, and the whole thing was inevitably waved through at last month’s council meeting. So imagine our surprise when Cllr Andrew Mackness, the portfolio holder behind the changes, got in touch following the vote to comment on our approach. His statement is presented below, unedited:

I can appreciate the frustration of running a political blog and only getting a limited response from members, I really can. I would also note that any resident committing time to blogging about local government should be commended. Not least the commitment to still be at full council going into the 5th day of Local Democracy week!
However, it is disingenuous to infer that because members haven’t responded to an overtly political blog that they are not responding to constituents. I am sure that my colleagues from across the chamber won’t mind me saying that the great majority of ward work is apolitical and that as a ward councillor you don’t assess a case for its political volatility or opportunity to score points. Having just given evidence to the Independent Remuneration Panel, when their report comes out, I understand it will have an analysis of the time commitments made by ward councillors. I hope that this will be a more concrete form of evidence than a round robin email. When it comes out, I would be happy to bring the report to your attention, if this would be of help.

We appreciate the fact that Cllr Mackness has taken time to respond to us on this issue, but unfortunately, we also feel we must take issue with some points he raises.

We accept that a “round robin” email isn’t a good way to assess how well councillors are doing their jobs, nor was it necessarily supposed to prove that one way or the other. The intent behind our experiment was to simply see how likely one was to get a response, as email has often been cited as an alternative option given the removal of questions in the chamber.

The problem here is the removal of the public record. Of course this kind of email isn’t an ideal way to see how well a councillor does their job, and nor should it be, but when the on the record options in the chamber was severely restricted, exactly how else are we supposed to judge how responsive a councillor is? We know a good number of councillors from all parties go considerably above and beyond their duties, just as we know there are some that don’t. The issue is that as each aspect of public scrutiny is removed, it becomes increasingly difficult for the average member of the public to gauge how much their councillor is doing.

It’s also disappointing that we’re being painted as an “overtly political blog”, though we’re not entirely sure how to be a covertly political blog. We have stances, but we have gone to great lengths to engage and give a platform to parties and politicians of all stripes. Even if Cllr Mackness feels we don’t deserve to be regarded as press when it comes to politics in Medway, it’s unfortunate that we weren’t seen as deserving as answers as residents either.

We’ll be very happy to look at (and cover) the findings of the Independent Renumeration Panel on how much councillors are doing, in the same way we’re happy to look at anything that gives us a glimpse into how councillors are or are not performing. Until then though, we’ll go on the evidence we’ve managed to collect so far.

Unless something changes in the coming months, this will likely be the last gasp of the public questions issue for now.

If you ask a public question via email, and nobody responds, does it make a sound?

So, what are we to make of Medway Council’s proposal to limit public questions because email is apparently a good alternative when hardly any councillors answer their emails?

As our investigation established, only 14 out of 55 Medway councillors bothered to reply to questions. More damningly, not a single member of the Cabinet – the councillors that currently answer public questions in meetings – responded in any way.

To reiterate, the people that are currently forced to answer questions at meetings are the least likely to answer public questions by choice.

At the previous council meeting, Cllr Mackness, the portfolio holder in charge of this issue, insisted that public questions were not needed because residents can contact him via email.

Cllr Mackness did not respond to our email with questions on the subject.

That is not to say that public questions at Medway Council meetings shouldn’t be reformed in any way. Many councils only allow the public to ask one question and a supplementary at meetings, whereas Medway allows two plus two supplementaries. A number of councils limit any member of the public to only asking questions at two meetings per year, whereas Medway allows the same person to ask questions at every meeting, so four times per year.

A more interesting arrangement is that a number of councils have a smaller number of public questions at full council meetings, but allow 10-15 minutes of public questions at all other meetings, from planning committees to overview and scrutiny committees. This allows questions to be asked, on the record, at more specialist meetings, on relevant topics. If the aim of the proposed changes to stop grandstanding at the (relatively) well attended full council meeting, this would seem like a good solution that still maintains public scrutiny. Indeed, Tony Jeacock, the Medway Liberal Democrat chairman will ask whether or not this is possible at Thursday’s meeting.

It is unlikely that much can be done to stop the proposals. They will go to a vote on Thursday, and the Conservatives have such a stranglehold over the council in Medway, with the councillors terrified of defying the party whip, that it seems all but certain that these changes will happen. With four years until the next elections and an opposition that borders on irrelevant, it’s very likely that after Thursday, proper public scrutiny in Medway will be a thing of the past.