Voice of the Opposition: July

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.

Although since my last Political Medway column some of the restrictions regarding COVID-19 have been relaxed we are still in the middle of a public health crisis.  Medway Council continues to deal with a civil contingency situation and we have new restrictions in place, such as the need to wear face masks.  As always my thoughts are with all those who have lost loved ones as a result of the pandemic.

It is worth recognising with everything else that has happened over the past few months, the vast majority of Medway residents have played their part in doing whatever it takes and for that I say a genuine heartfelt thank you – we must collectively all play our part as we move forward together.

Just over a week ago, we had a record breaking council meeting which lasted more than seven hours finishing at a couple of minutes past 2am.  As you would expect there was a wide variety of issues raised throughout the meeting.  If you missed it you can watch the whole thing here.

The Political Medway blog referred to the meeting as the “worst #MedwayCouncil meeting we’ve ever sat through.” – and you can understand why.

The debate which took place around the issue of the changing of the name of the car park currently named after John Hawkins, England’s first slave trader who has a black man bound up on his crest,  led to some pretty unedifying moments from a number of senior Tory councillors. 

In particular the use of the phrase “lynch mob” in the context of this debate by the leader of the council and other senior Tory councillors subsequently trying to justify that. When initially challenged on this, the leader further stated that he had thought long and hard before using the phrase.  After a further three challenges he finally chose to withdraw the comment. There were then further comments in the following motion on modern day slavery including a spurious reference to “Muslim countries”.

Why does all of this matter? It matters because it’s about the community we want Medway to be and one way we do that is in the language we use, particularly in settings like full council meetings. Some of the language and phrases used have strong historical connotations which some Conservative councillors actively chose to use, despite both the context of the debate and also the potential upset their use may cause.

The reaction from people to this has been plain for all to see, comments including It was shameful. Some of the comments were beyond offensive. How low have we sunk?!?”  from a former Medway Council Conservative councillor shows the strength of feeling about how far over the line of reasonable robust debate these comments went.

Medway is a brilliant, vibrant, diverse community – the language and terms used at the full council meeting simply didn’t represent that. 

As someone who is white I can’t know what it feels like for someone who isn’t when they hear comments of this nature, but what I do know is I will always do everything I can to make Medway Council an even better organisation which truly represents all parts of Medway’s community.

Full council also saw a strong message sent around the issue of out of area housing placements.  For those people who saw the recent Ross Kemp documentary this posed a lot of questions around how Medway residents are ending up in some cases nearly 250 miles away.  One thing this documentary and our subsequent questions to the Chief Executive shows is this is not just a Medway issue, but it is a challenge for large parts of local government across England.

It was positive to see cross party support for Naushabah Khan’s motion ensuring this issue is raised with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.  I hope we will see urgent reform which means people are not left vulnerable by being moved, in some cases hundreds of miles from friends, family and support networks. 

We also saw several references to the financial gap the council is likely to find itself in as a result of COVID-19 – the latest estimates are around more than £40 million – this is a combination of lost income, increased financial pressures and challenges around collection of income streams like council tax and business rates.  As these are estimates there clearly may be a margin of error but what there can be no doubt of is the pressures local government continues to find itself under as a result of the promises made at the start of the pandemic crisis of “whatever it takes” when it comes to funding local government and the reality being many councils like Medway having estimates of huge budget shortfalls.  Through both the business support and audit committees we as the opposition will continue to ask a series of questions ensuring everything that can be done is being done to get Medway the best possible financial deal – this is made all the more challenging due to the previous measures of austerity cuts over the past decade.

Finally this month, one of the areas there was cross party agreement during the seven hours was the leader of the council agreeing to send a joint letter with me regarding proposed cuts to the BBC regional output.  

There can be no doubt that during the pandemic the BBC regional television and radio have done a phenomenal job of communicating important public health messages as well as giving a variety of local community projects and issues a vital platform.  In normal times, they will quite often have a strong focus on a wide variety of local issues here in Medway on everything from the exploits of the Gills to often challenging human interest stories handled in a sensitive way.  

The potential cuts to our regional service must be urgently reconsidered to ensure Medway residents have continued good access to trusted, quality local BBC output.

As the comedian and songwriter Mitch Benn sung ten years ago in his song I’m proud of the BBC “We’re not just listeners and viewers, it belongs to us” – I would urge all Political Medway readers to get in touch with the BBC to ask them to reconsider the cuts to critical local television and radio output.

Stay safe.

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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