Voice of the Opposition: May

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.

So, the lockdown continues to impact here in Medway, across the country, and the globe. 

Let me begin this month’s Political Medway column by taking a moment to pause and reflect for all those families across Medway who have lost family and friends at this most difficult of times.  

We hear daily figures of hundreds of individuals losing their lives to CoVid-19 and it can become easy with those large numbers to forget the very personal human impact of this public health crisis.  Alongside that with social distancing it means the normal procedures for funerals have been greatly restricted too, making the grieving process even more difficult for many.

I’m concerned that will have impacts on the mental health and wellbeing for those impacted by these tragic losses alongside the individuals who are dealing with unprecedented challenges on the front line.  As a society we must have well-resourced mental health support when we come to the end of the crisis.  Teresa Murray recently reiterated this point in a question at full council, including calling for the retention of much needed Mental Health support facilities at Nelson Road.

In the past week we have had both International Workers’ Memorial Day and May Day, two important days in the labour movement.  There is normally a service at Rochester Castle Gardens organised by Unison, Medway Council and Medway Inter Faith Forum for Workers’ Memorial Day which was another event to be cancelled due to the ongoing crisis.  I would encourage all readers of Political Medway to come along on 28th April next year to send a strong collective message that as a community we will remember the dead but continue to fight for the living.

That fight is clearer than ever when it comes to the issue of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).  Many people are rightfully concerned for those on the front line like waste workers or postal workers having the right PPE – we have seen both sets of workers here in Medway having to invoke health and safety legislation rather than work in unsafe conditions.

In the case of waste workers, we have subsequently seen the parent company, Norse Group, choosing to de-recognise the trade union of the workers Unite.  Let me be explicitly clear, as I was at the recent full council meeting, it is never acceptable for an employer to de-recognise a trade union with immediate effect – that is made worse by that happening during a global pandemic.  

It is made even worse still because that local company is a joint venture is co-owned by me and you and every council tax payer in Medway.  That’s right, Medway Council owns a 50% stake in this company.  Andy Stamp handed in a petition of more than 1700 signatures at full council calling for this decision by Norse Group to de-recognise to be reversed.  

I repeat that call today, reverse the decision to de-recognise Unite, get round the table to resolve the issues – bringing in the expertise of ACAS if that is required.  

The longer this goes on, the worse the reputational damage on Medway Council’s leadership and Norse Group not just locally but across the local government sector.

It is disappointing that this completely avoidable situation has distracted from the amazing work so many people are doing across our community at this challenging time.  Whether it is volunteers in both existing charities and community organisations or recently set up CoVid Mutual Aid community groups, our amazing NHS staff working at Medway Maritime Hospital and across the health provision in Medway, those in our schools and nurseries, in care homes, those working in shops and pharmacies, Medway Council staff showing tremendous flexibility and dedication, those getting key workers around on our public transport, our emergency services again going above and beyond and so many more.  The words thank you seem simply inadequate for all those making a difference during the pandemic.  As local Labour and Co-operative councillors we will continue to fight for you having the resources and equipment you need to stay safe.

One of the other issues which was debated at the first ever live streamed full council meeting was the housing infrastructure fund or HIF as it is known.  

There can be no doubt that investment of around £170 million into Medway will always be welcomed but it is the strings attached which may be a challenge for our community.  In particular, the cash flow problems which may come from this programme would be a challenge at most times but in the face of the huge financial challenge post CoVid-19 will be an increased problem.  

Alongside the cash flow issues, there are also real concerns at this stage for the much-promoted rail passenger service for the Hoo Peninsula both being deliverable or financially viable within the timescales dictated by Government.

We are likely to hear in the next few days the plans from Government for what most people are calling “the new normal”.  It is important for everyone to be aware of what the plans are but it is absolutely right to only implement these plans when it is safe to do so.  

The vast majority of Medway residents have been abiding by the strict lockdown restrictions of staying at home, protecting the NHS and saving lives. We must not put that collective effort at risk by starting the relaxation of lockdown too soon or without the correct protections in the workplace or community in place.  To hear that nationally some people were given just 12 hours to comment on 7 different policies shows that there is more to be done by the government to ensure the roadmap to that new normal has the confidence of key stake holders.  The appropriate risk assessments must be carried out and precautions put in place.

Finally, one of the saddest statistics we have seen in the pandemic is the increase in domestic abuse.  

As many readers will be aware I am proud to be a White Ribbon Ambassador so will always stand up against the issues of domestic abuse.

If you are reading this and need help or know someone else who may need help or support please go to Domestic Support Services where you can get all the relevant local advice and support needed.

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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