Voice of the Opposition: February

Once a month we will be offering the Leaders of both Medway Council and the official opposition the opportunity to talk unedited about.. well, Medway politics. Today we hear from Vince Maple, leader of Medway Labour, the official opposition on Medway Council.

As is often said a week is a long time in politics and since the last column there has been a lot going on in Medway politics.

It’s worth recognising that there continues to be a vacancy for the Medway Local Democracy Reporter so the job of holding all politicians to account done by Ed and Steve is more important than ever.

Of course, one political event since my last column was the general election. I want to thank every single person who voted Labour across the three Medway constituencies. I was proud to stand alongside Teresa and Andy as Labour’s parliamentary team in Medway. As I said at the count political parties in the UK are fundamentally volunteer organisations so the fact that so many people gave their time in the run up to Christmas to play their part in the election campaign shows real dedication.

Clearly the result was not the one desired and our party nationally has started the process of rebuilding. I’ve written, along with Dara Farrell my KCC colleague, to invite the eight candidates to come to Kent. We only form a Labour Government if we are winning in Kent and it is vital as many contenders as possible hear the thoughts and issues first hand. We also have the South East Hustings on 29th February which Political Medway readers can watch live here.

We have also had a full council meeting in January. I was proud to second a cross party supported motion for Medway Council to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. In recent times we have seen the cemetery at Chatham Synagogue attacked and also hate filled graffiti at a children’s play park. These incidents are abhorrent and completely out of keeping with the modern, tolerant community that is Medway. I will always stand up against any form of discrimination.

It was positive to see unanimous support for Hazel Browne’s motion. Recent years has seen a huge increase in fireworks being used across the community. The motion brings forward several actions including calling on the government to bring in a limit to the decibel level of fireworks, recognising the balance between the enjoyment they bring but also the serious impact they have on both vulnerable people and animals.

Regrettably not every Labour motion found that cross party support. Harinder Mahil gave a passionate and focused speech moving the motion to introduce the Council to have a name blind recruitment process. This is common practice in public and private sector organisations and was championed by David Cameron. It removes the unconscious bias which we all have.

What we saw were several Conservative cabinet members being ultra defensive, denying there is a problem as they are involved in the recruitment process of approximately 12 out of 3,000 Medway Council staff – to nearly quote Shakespeare “The Tories doth protest too much”. As Harinder rightfully said if the name of Labour wasn’t on the motion and it was itself name blind they probably would have voted for it.

A simple question – would you like to retain 800 well paid, skilled jobs in Medway? You would think that would be one of the most straightforward questions to be asked at full council. My two Medway parliamentary candidate colleagues, Andy Stamp and Teresa Murray, proposed and seconded a motion effectively answering that simple question with a yes. Due to the technical nature of the local plan the wording of the motion was confirmed with senior council officers before publication to ensure the council wasn’t placed in a legally challengeable position. That was also confirmed during the debate by the Chief Legal Officer. Despite all of those assurances the Conservative councillors voted en masse against at this stage doing all we can as a council to protect those jobs.

Let me be crystal clear to all those many residents who have been in contact regarding Chatham Docks – Medway Labour councillors will continue to do all we can to protect those 800 valued jobs because we believe in Medway.

The ongoing issues around Medway’s Children’s Services continue to be a real challenge for the council. The follow up report shows that progress is too slow. As the opposition group we are clear we want the service to remain being directly delivered by the council at an improved standard. As Clive Johnson reiterated at the full council meeting if that doesn’t happen then the Leader of the Council must consider his position in the same way the now former Leader of West Sussex did in a similar situation.

This Thursday is the annual budget meeting of the council. The reality is we find a council who is running out of get out of jail free cards when it comes to balancing the books (somewhat ironic as a wholly owned council company MCG is still being investigated by the police).

Last year they were fortunate enough to be part of the business rates retention scheme to balance the books, this year a one off additional amount in the council tax collection fund. My real and genuine fear is with the now former Chancellor Sajid Javid telling all government departments to plan for a further 5% austerity cut eventually the administration runs out of luck particularly with such low levels of reserves. When that happens, it will be the residents of Medway who will be the ones to feel the full brunt.

Vince Maple is the leader of Medway Labour, the official opposition party on Medway Council, and a councillor for Chatham Central.

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