Friday, March 28, 2014

Food competition at the Marriott

I was invited (I think with my councillor rather than my self-sufficiency hat on) to a very enjoyable event at the Marriott Hotel, Metrocentre, Gateshead, yesterday, in which four teams of trainee chefs from Gateshead College went head to head in a competition to win a trip to London where they will serve up a meal in the London Marriott Hotel. A number of local food producers were also there as well. I had some very interesting and useful conversations with them.

Given that I am critical generally of society for letting too many people nowadays lose the ability to cook and become too reliant on ready made meals and industrially mass produced food, it was a joy to see a large number of young people showing off their catering skills.

All the guests had to vote for a team they felt produced the best dishes and the winner (Team B) was announced at the end.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Another look at that recent Labour bust up

My sources told me last week that the Gateshead Council Labour Group meeting before the council budget meeting was a great deal more heated than we had first been led to believe. I am reliably informed that an amendment was proposed that had curious similarities to our amendment we were putting together down the corridor in our own Lib Dem group meeting.

Whilst the Leader of the Council, Mick Henry, was finally able to see off this amendment, he had to pay the price of a significant concession to those who may be interested in seeing someone else take on his job were he to fall under the proverbial wheels of the runaway no. 7 bus. Whether or not that same bus will be sent in Mick's direction by those on the "left" is still to be seen.

Mick's last minute change to the budget was cobbled together in such a hurry that he hadn't even sorted the wording of it by the start of the cabinet meeting the next day. He had to give a verbal explanation, rather than have anything written down. I had never seen Mick looking so chastened before. I am informed however that this bruising Labour bust up may be repeated after 22nd May.

Public meeting tonight

I am hosting a public meeting tonight at Marley Hill Community Centre about the plans to opencast two sites in or near my ward. Both applications have been with the council for quite some time and I have been leading the battle against them. Both are due to come before the council's planning committee shortly so today's meeting is about raising the profile of the campaign before the final decisions are taken.

All residents are welcome to attend. The meeting starts at 7pm.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Labour turns to Taxpayers' Alliance for help

The Lib Dems had a motion to Gateshead Council yesterday welcoming the rise in the national minimum wage and the raising of the personal tax allowance to £10,000 (it was written before this week's budget). The motion went on to call on the borough's MPs to support moves to raise the allowance to £12,500, the equivalent of full time pay on the national minimum wage.

Labour could not vote for something from the Lib Dems, even if they agreed with it. They said as much today when their deputy leader “Comrade” Martin Gannon announced they supported the key sentiments of the motion. We are, of course, used to Labour doing this. We put in a motion, they say they agree with it and then kick it out. Yesterday was no different.

However, Labour's amendment, which threw out the call to raise the personal tax allowance to £12,500, also contained a claim that the coalition has introduced 256 tax rises since May 2010. Earlier this week Labour nationally were claiming that there had been only 24 tax rises under the coalition. We were all curious to know how Cllr Gannon, who moved Labour's amendment, had managed to come up with a figure over 10 times bigger. And then came the answer. Cllr Gannon admitted he got the figure from the Taxpayers' Alliance's website! None of us really want to know what sordid sites Cllr Gannon visits when he's left alone with only his ipad for company, but his confession generated a large amount of laughter on our side and a modest degree of embarrassment from his own.

Meanwhile, the clapometer was in use on the Lib Dem side to measure the standing of various members of the Labour group. You have to remember that loud applause does not necessarily equate to good speaking skills or content where Labour are concerned. It seems John Eagle, who opened his speech by talking about bad smells and stepping in dog muck, is a rising star in the Labour group (which probably says a great deal about Labour councillors.) Sitting to our left in the council chamber, a group of Labour councillors, mainly from eastern Gateshead, applauded loudly and vociferously after Cllr Eagle resumed his seat. Alas, Cllr Henry, Leader of the Council, and Cllr Gannon, registered much more muted applause.

Whether or not Cllr Gannon's Taxpayers' Alliance admission will damage his chanced of keeping his position after the May elections is the big unknown. An internal coup in the Labour group is being promised. If the clapometer is anything to go by, both Cllr Gannon and Cllr Henry may be seeking new roles after polling day.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Our next action day in Gateshead

Tomorrow will see the latest in a series of action days in Gateshead. Lib Dem campaigners will be delivering, door knocking and wearing out the shoe leather in two neighbouring wards - Dunston Hill and Whickham East (Labour are defending from 2nd place in May) and Lobley Hill and Bensham which is normally a strongly Labour ward which they came close to losing to us in the last decade. Since then their majority has firmed up but we intend turning the situation around again.

Focuses will be delivered across both wards. In Lobley Hill we are concentrating mainly on the issue of proposals for opencast mining. There are two applications, one in my ward at Marley Hill and the other at Birklands in Lamesley ward but right on the border with my ward. Both proposals would, if approved, send the heavy lorries right through the middle of Lobley Hill. We are running petitions against the applications.

Angelika Schneider and Owen Temple, two of our European spokesmen, have backed our campaign. At our last action day a couple of weeks ago I took this group shot at the top of Lobley Hill Bank. This is on the route the opencast lorries will take if the applications are approved.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Labour's magic porridge pot

Do you remember the children's story of the magic porridge pot? One day it produced an unending supply of porridge. I am reminded of this by a Labour announcement today that yet another spending commitment is to be financed by the tax on bankers' bonuses (which will presumably impact on the finances of the Coop as well as the banks Labour used to admire.) With so many commitments to be paid for by this one tax, Labour are going to need more rich bankers getting even bigger bonuses to raise sufficient revenue for their spending plans.

The Lib Dems did some research last year on just what Labour have agreed to spend their £2.5 billion bankers' bonus tax on. I used it in the December edition of Parliamentary Campaigner so for your edification, I have included it here:

1) Youth Jobs Guarantee – £1.04 billion
2) Reversing the VAT increase – £12.75 billion
3) More capital spending – £5.8 billion
4) Reversing the Child Benefit savings – £3.1 billion
5) Reversing Tax Credit savings – £5.8 billion
6) More Regional Growth Fund funding - £200 million
7) Cutting the deficit – ? [cannot be costed]
8) Turning empty shops into community centres – £5 million
9) Spending on public services – ? [cannot be costed]
10) More housing - £1.2 billion
11) Childcare - £800 million
Total: At least £30 billion and counting!

I'm not entirely sure what Labour has for breakfast. Perhaps fewer magic mushrooms and more porridge would help.

Spring conference photos

I had lots to do back home so I was only able to get to Lib Dem spring conference on Saturday. As it was in York, I could catch a train first thing in the morning and then return in the evening. The train journey itself is an hour. One day attendance meant I missed Nick Clegg's speech that closed conference but I was able to catch his Q&A on Saturday afternoon.

Meanwhile, outside the conference, and barely noticed by anyone, was the usual demonstration by a ragbag of different causes, all demanding vast sums of cash be spent. Numbers however were very thin on the ground.

Meanwhile, back indoors, there were plenty of people attending conference.

As I was only doing the one day at conference, I decided not to do any official photography. Nevertheless, I snapped a few of the great and the good around the York Barbican Centre.

We are of course, the party of "IN".

And this is what the conference is all about. Voting on policy. Apparently, other parties still have a bit of a difficulty with that.

Friday, March 07, 2014

My council budget speech

I have been having some interesting correspondence with some residents of Blaydon constituency about the council budget and where the blame for the current economic and financial state of affairs rests. So, to explain where I believe the problems lies, I have posted below my budget speech to Gateshead Council from 27th Feb when I seconded our amendment. To summarise, my view is that as a nation we have been living beyond our means for decades. That was what caught up with us in 2008 when the financial meltdown happened. I therefore do not specifically blame Labour for the financial meltdown. What I did not say in the speech (it had to be time limited and relevant to the council budget), but which is my considered view, is that Labour messed up big style by allowing the economy to become too reliant on financial services. Ed Balls, then the Labour City Minister and guardian of "light touch" regulation, defended the financial sector as (in my words) the goose that lays the golden eggs. The problem was that the gold was of the fool's variety and the goose ended up crapping all over the place. Nevertheless, the Labour government fed the fool's-gold-laying goose extremely well in their time in office, a decision that has left the Coalition an enormous mess to clear up. Hopefully that will answer some of the points raised by local residents.

Meanwhile, here is my budget speech:

Mr Mayor, at the risk of going head to head in a battle with Cllr Martin Gannon on who can raise historical issues the most in council meetings, I think a short history lesson is appropriate at this point on why we have the current state of affairs in this country.

I am not going to waste our time on whether or not the last Labour government was to blame for the economic crisis.

The problems go back much further. As a nation we have been living beyond our means for decades.
And at some point that catches up with you, when the burden of debt is so great it starts pulling down the economy.

It’s a bit like these sink holes that have been opening up recently.

And that’s what happened in 2008 when the financial system all but collapsed into a gigantic debt sink hole. It will take years to recover. The Coalition Government believes that a balanced budget can be achieved by 2019.

Ed Balls differs from that by only one year. He says that a Labour government would aim to balance the books by 2020.

In other words, five years of austerity cuts, rather than four in the next Parliament.

 And he has coined the phrase, “zero sum game” in which there will be no additional spending over and above what is currently planned.

On Tuesday, I was quite surprised by the naivety of some cabinet members who expressed an expectation that all the spending problems of Gateshead will be solved by a change of government.

Dream on because it ain’t going to happen.

Ed Balls has already made it explicitly clear that the money taps are not going to be turned back on.

We are, where we are. Nobody in this room likes it. But that is the reality of the situation in which we find ourselves.

Mr Mayor, the underspend on this year’s budget is somewhat surprising given that Labour members opposite last year described the cuts as terrible and unacceptable.

A year on, and you have spent £3 million less on services that you described as already cut to the bone.

I hear from various sources that Monday’s Labour group meeting was rather interesting, to put it mildly.

But there was a recognition within the Labour party that alternative provision for children’s services is needed.

Hence the last minute amendment to spend £250,000 on investigating those alternatives.

In recent years we have reviewed some of our services and set up alternatives before reforming or ending the Council’s direct provision.

Libraries and community centres are a model for how we move from being a direct provider ourselves.
Indeed, that is a model this authority can be proud of and promote with other councils.

The underspend on this year’s budget gives us the opportunity to do the same with children’s services. In other words, we can keep some of the current provision for the year ahead during which, the investigation into creating alternative provision can be carried out and then implemented.

If we didn’t have this underspend, our amendment would not be possible. We are not proposing to spend the entire underspend this coming year. Half would go into reserves.

But it has given this authority the opportunity to be ready with alternatives before the existing provision is ended.

And in many ways it complements the amendment that came out of the Labour group on Monday. Mr Mayor, it may come as a surprise to members opposite that I don’t eat babies for breakfast or joyously spread famine, pestilence and plague in my wake.

Like every other member of this authority, I want what is best for the people of Gateshead.

Sometimes we will differ on what is best. But what we can’t differ on is that we have to be realistic.
These are difficult times and austerity will continue regardless of who is in government.

And regardless of who ends up as Leader of the Labour group after the May elections, we on this side of the chamber will continue to put the case with ministers, as Cllr Hindle has already done, for the best deal possible for Gateshead given the reality of the circumstances we as a country are in.

Protesting against the cuts - then voting for them

Thursday last week saw Gateshead Council's annual budget meeting which set the budget and council tax for the year ahead. There was a very visible public protest against the cuts in front of one of the main doors into the Civic Centre.  It was very difficult to avoid. After all, this was a public protest and people walking in and out of the building had to walk around the protest and the people snapping away with their cameras and phones. As I walked past, I spotted Labour councillors joining in the protest. You can see them in the photo above. They are the white haired lady towards the left of the picture, Helen Hughes in the red jacket, Lee Holmes (white shirt and Unison flag) and Malcolm Brain (standing by himself wearing a red tie). Having demonstrated their unity with the unions, publicly protested against the cuts and shown their ability to join in a photo op, the councillors headed back into the warmth of the Civic Centre for the big budget debate.

An interesting feature of this year's budget is that there is an underspend of £3.3 million. This is all the more surprising given that Labour last year protested that the cuts had gone too far. Yet here we have them cutting spending by a further £3.3 million on top of the cuts that were agreed last year. And their plan for the coming year's budget is to put all of that underspend into reserves rather than to spend any of it on the services they say they want to save from the axe.

Labour Councillors did have the opportunity on Thursday last week to put some of the underspend into services over the coming year which would otherwise be cut. Our budget amendment called for £1.5 million to scrap various cuts to children's services. Given the protest made by the likes of Cllr Brain just two hours before, it would be reasonable to assume Labour councillors would vote for our amendment. Don't assume anything of the sort! All Labour councillors present voted against our amendment.

During the debate, Cllr Brain called for the amendment to be defeated and claimed that we were only moving it to have the opportunity to write focus stories. This is somewhat rich given that it seems Cllr Brain's activities two hours earlier seemed to be more about having a photo taken (presumably for Labour election leaflets).

So, our amendment calling for some services to be saved went down to defeat at the hands of Labour councillors who just two hours earlier were calling for these services to be saved. I will leave you to draw your own conclusions.

By the way Cllr Brain, it was interesting that it was you who raised the issue of our Focus leaflets in the budget debate. Has this anything to do with the appearance of Focus leaflets in your ward? Feeling the heat?