Friday, January 27, 2012

There Goves the neighbourhood

Mike Whitby and Michael Gove, credit:

Michael Gove disapparated in Birmingham today and even visited a school in my home ward, ruining the neighbourhood. He also had a meeting with allegedly-wannabe Mayor Whitby. Mike W apparently said

"Looking particularly at the new tools and freedoms available to us, such as academies, free schools and university technical colleges – Birmingham is saying today that these exciting forms of provision will become an integral part of our approach to school improvement."
I wonder if Mike has talked to his cabinet member for education, Les Lawrence, whose antipathy to academies is well known?
Even odder was Gove's own statement

“I am delighted that Birmingham local authority is embracing the vital reforms that are taking place in our education system"
Again - not sure that you can accuse Cllr Lawrence of embracing these reforms with anything less than a chokehold. Les certainly didn't even get a mention in the accompanying press release, still less a photo. But then Les is not numbered amongst the Govian true believers and has been accused by ConservativeHome of drinking in the last chance saloon for his lack of ideological purity.

Incidentally, Gove appears to have changed his schedule to avoid a demonstration outside the school as he appeared earlier than planned, did his photo-op and then scurried back to London.
He's also in trouble elsewhere, as the Guardian claim that he personally approved funding to the Community Safety Trust, even though he is on their Advisory Board. Now, this is a perfectly sound cause - I don't have a problem with supporting schools with particular security needs - but isn't it also a clear conflict of interest? I will note that publishing that story on Holocaust Memorial Day is a little insensitive - and there's comment here from the Jewish Chronicle. This comes hard on the heels of the stories about his SPADs moving to private webmail to avoid FoIA queries (unsuccessfully, I believe) and Gove funnelling money to the New Schools Network, run by a former advisor to run a scheme worth £500,000 that didn't apparently need to go out to tender.
(Hat tip to @paulmdale)


Labour MP Lisa Nandy has had a letter from the Information Commissioner with regard to the general secrecy that pervades Gove's department. She notes
At yesterday’s education questions, Kevin Brennan asked Michael Gove to confirm that he and his advisors had never deleted emails, from private addresses or otherwise, to avoid scrutiny. Visibly rattled, Gove refused to answer the question and simply asserted that he and his department had operated in accordance with Cabinet Office policy.
The Information Commissioner tells her that 
“In addition to the guidance and good practice report published before Christmas, I can confirm that my office also has a number of active investigations in to these issues. I plan to conclude a number of complaints under Section 50 of the FOI act over the next few months – these will cover whether specific information requested is held for purposes of the act. I am also still considering allegations about whether individuals at the department breached Section 77 of the act.”
Section 50 is routine and relates to the Commissioner being required to make a decision following non-disclosure. Section 77 is more interesting - that relates to somebody taking steps to conceal information that should be disclosed and could mean prosecution. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Acocks Green Police Station - update

Talking to Cllr Jones about the police station
I'm delighted that we have an ongoing commitment from the Police Authority to a policing presence in Acocks Green. This morning, I had a brief street meeting with members of the local community, Cllr Stewart Stacey and Cllr Bob Jones, the chair of the West Midlands Police Authority Finance and Resources Committee to discuss the future of the Edwardian police station in Acocks Green. A report in the Birmingham Mail this week said that Acocks Green police station - along with Steelhouse Lane and Erdington - could be under threat of closure. Despite the dramatic headline, that isn't quite the story.

Cllr Jones, me (windswept) and Cllr Stacey
 Unsurprisingly, this has caused some considerable concern in the community and Cllr Stacey and I thought it was right to arrange a quick, informal meeting of interested parties to understand what lies ahead and how we can influence the decisions.

The Finance and Resources Committee has submitted a report to the full Police Authority for approval. At this stage, it only authorises further work to examine options. Cllr Jones was quite clear that no decision has been taken at this stage and in any case, the spending isn't planned in until 2014-15.

It is possible that the station will move to a different, central, high profile location within the ward - possibly co-located with another public service - and the site opened up for development as housing. There is no site proposed for relocation and it is hard to see where one could be found that would meet the demands of being central.

That is an option where we would need to be alert to the preservation of a striking building that exemplifies the Victorian/Edwardian attitude to the importance of public services. It sits in the middle of a proposed conservation area, which illustrates the growth of suburban Birmingham around the rail network. In fact, if you look at the coat of arms just below the roofline, you can see a badge emblazoned with the Worcestershire pears. The station was built as part of an unsuccessful campaign by Worcestershire council to win hearts and minds and keep the Yardley area within their county - there's a similar former police station on the Coventry Road that has now been converted to a pub and also bears a similar shield.

Around the corner on Alexander Road is a fine example of how these buildings can be preserved. The tiny fire station was surplus to requirements in the 1980s and was initially scheduled for demolition to provide additional space in the police yard. Cllr Stacey was just on the planning committee at that point and recalls that they rejected that plan, so the building is now converted for use as an architect's practice - preserving the street scene and an historic building.

 It is also open to the service to refurbish the existing site, which is too large for their planned requirements, and seek additional tenants for the unused space - perhaps an NHS commissioning group or other suitable tenant could take up part of the site.

This is an issue that will remain on the political radar for some time to come and I was really pleased to get assurances from Cllr Jones that the future of the police in Acocks Green is specifically assured - we just now need to secure the future of this building.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Losing friends and influencing people the Chris Huhne way

So the Sunday Times have withdrawn their defence of the disclosure order obtained by Essex Police and the Crown Prosecution Service to take possession of emails between the Sunday Times' political editor, Isabel Oakeshott and Vicky Pryce, the former Mrs Huhne.

That was the last piece that the CPS were waiting for to make a decision on whether or not to prosecute.

It has been widely reported that Chris Huhne had leaked the rather embarrassing letter from Michael Gove in support of a new royal yacht. Michael Gove's wife, Sarah Vine, works for the Times. As the Telegraph points out, Chris Huhne has hardly been busy making alliances - not even the Liberal Democrats can be bothered to defend him any more, given his long track record of screwing over his political colleagues. He isn't even very competent at the machinations, with his every clever political move being exposed as the manipulation it is. Politicians can fear or respect a top-class political operator, but an incompetent one inspires nothing but ridicule.

There’s nothing endearing about Huhne. He has the cold, dead eyes of a political snake, hissing poison as he slithers down the corridors of power. He calls to mind a Machiavellian operator – except that his bungling would have the author of The Prince throwing his hands up in despair
Has fraternal Cabinet loyalty finally been stretched to breaking point?

We reported on 17th an We reported on 17th and 18th January ("Huhne accused of leaking letter about new royal yacht"; and "All the malice of Machiavelli – but sadly none of his skill") that Chris Huhne MP had leaked a letter about the new royal yacht to journalists in an attempt to discredit colleagues. We now accept that this is wrong, and apologise to Mr Huhne for any embarrassment caused. We particularly regret the offence caused by Cristina Odone’s article 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Across the weekend, we've been inundated with Tories crowing that Labour now back the government's cuts. 

This is based on a Guardian story which starts
Balls said he accepted every spending cut being imposed by the coalition
Except, that's not a direct quote and isn't what the speech says either. You can read that here. If you actually read it, he isn't accepting the cuts at all. 
As we make the argument that cutting spending and raising taxes too far and too fast risks making the economy and the deficit worse not better, it is right that we set out where we do support cuts and where we would be making the tough but necessary decisions. 
In education, as I have said, £1 billion of cuts – but not the biggest cuts to schools since the 1950s. In policing, 12 per cent cuts to budgets – but not 20 per cent cuts which will hit the frontline hard and see 16,000 officers lost. In defence, £5 billion of cuts – but not a strategic defence review that raises more questions than answers. 
And because as progressives we believe in the role of the state and public services to do good, it is vital that we are even tougher on waste than our political opponents – whether that is the £2 billion being wasted on a reckless reorganisation of the NHS, billions being lost in tax avoidance or the waste of mass unemployment.
All of that seems entirely consistent with our post-election policy. What he does say that is new is also realistic. 
we cannot make any commitments now that the next Labour government will reverse tax rises or spending cuts. And we will not. Because we don’t know how bad things will be on jobs, growth and the deficit. But we do know that the next Labour government will have to sort out the deficit where this government failed and deliver social justice in tougher times.
The brutal reality is that while we should continue to oppose a government policy that fetishises deficit reduction and sidelines growth, while we should fight against ill-thought out cuts, we also have to accept that we are on a magical mystery tour with an incompetent driver at the wheel. Labour is unlikely to have a chance to take over until 2015 and we simply don't know where we will end up by then. Starting to plot a route back from the wreckage now simply creates hostages to fortune. 

Before 1997, Labour promised to work within the Tory spending plans at the time and this is reminiscent of that statement. We can promise to do things differently, to spend more wisely and tax more fairly, but we need the discipline on the front bench not to make any spending or tax promises that we cannot be sure of keeping. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Forecasts for 2012

Belatedly looking back at the forecast for 2011, I got three out of the four right. Vince Cable remained stubbornly at his post, but as otherwise foretold, there was no general election, Labour won Oldham East and Saddleworth (part of an ongoing train of by-election victories) and AV failed to get past the electorate in May. If I get the lottery numbers right, I'll let you know.

For 2012, Mystic Hack sees the mists part and the following will come to pass....

There will be no general election. Unless Dave reckons that a putative post-Jubilee and post-Olympics poll boost makes the odds worthwhile, but even then I think the economy will be so dire that it would be too high a risk and I don't think Cameron's that much of a gambler. The coalition will also survive the year, although at least one Liberal Democrat minister may not. Cable seems immovable - if the waste of energy that was the AV vote, tuition fees and the European debacle didn't cause him to use his nuclear option, you really struggle to see what would trigger Cable flouncing out of the Cabinet. Perhaps Osborne barbecueing kittens in the rose garden at the back of Downing Street might be sufficient, but even then, Clegg would be arguing that this was just necessary after Labour's poor feline stewardship. Cable will only leave if reshuffled.

I've heard different commentators putting different spins on the chances of Boris winning re-election to the London mayoralty in 2012, explaining why a win or a loss would be bad news for Cameron. Actually, I think this is a lose/lose issue for Dave. If Boris wins, he continues to have a high global profile across a summer of events focussed on London and also marks himself as a winner, even in the most challenging times for the Conservative party - something that may prove attractive for the party at a later date. If Boris loses, he can cheerfully shovel the blame onto the Prime Minister, seek a safe seat back at Westminster and prowl the corridors, biding his time until the PM falls under a bus. I think we can be assured that Boris will continue to be an irritant for some time to come, wherever that may lead. Actually, I reckon that the election will be tight in London and I think it is too close to call.

Labour taking control of Birmingham City Council is an easy one, so I'm not going to predict that. The political winds have been blowing that way for some months now and with only a handful of seats required to see the council change hands, it would take a brave forecaster to bet on anything else. This isn't premature triumphalism, just recognising the reality of the situation. And no, I will not forecast the result in Acocks Green or anywhere else in Yardley.

I am going to forecast a marginal win for the campaign to bring a mayor to Birmingham, although voter apathy and antipathy to elected politicians may provide enough help to the otherwise woeful 'No' campaign. Following that, we should have a mayoral election in November, coinciding with the Police and Crime Commissioner elections. The only thing I feel sure of with regards to that contest is that it is almost certain to be a Labour mayor - not premature triumphalism, but a recognition of the weight of Labour votes against all opponents. If you pile up all the Labour votes across Birmingham in elections over the last decade, you struggle to find occasions where another party could possibly win. The main contest will be for the Labour nomination and there are some strong candidates already declared, although I suspect that the fight will be a very close one between Sir Albert Bore and Sion Simon.

Economically, I suspect that we are very close to slipping back into a recession and, no matter how much George Osborne bleats about, much of the blame will rest upon his shoulders for a policy that has raised deficit reduction to the level of a fetish. Nobody believes that the deficit is sustainable, but the pace of reduction always carried a huge risk in the effects that public sector cuts have on the overall economy. Combined with the ongoing crisis in the Eurozone - which is a long way from being resolved - then I think it is more than likely we'll slide back into recession over the course of the year. That's not something that I take any pleasure in predicting - especially as my contract is likely to end at the end of March. (Job offers are welcome at the usual address...)

There's another election across the pond and this is also looking interesting. Romney looks to be the reluctant choice of the Republicans - if they can bear the taste of his Mormonism - and remains their best hope of removing Obama. That said, the economic situation in the US, while bleak, is showing some hints of the greenest of shoots and if that is sustained, I would expect voters to stick with Obama, so I'm going with a second term for the incumbent. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Next train.... 2026.....

After a long-drawn out consultation period, HS2 finally got the go ahead from the Transport Secretary today. This is a long-overdue development and I believe that it will be good news for Birmingham. I just hope that the government shift to express speed in terms of development rather than the stopping service we have seen since the election. Get on and get this thing built - let's put some money into transport infrastructure and create jobs - although I'm not sure that spending extra millions tunnelling under Chesham and Amersham is worth the money just to keep Cheryl Gillan in her seat.

Meanwhile, Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, has been quick to declare that this is a Liberal Democrat win, as the LDs apparently called for high speed rail back in 2004. Curiously, I understand that Cameron insisted it go into the coalition agreement and Philip Hammond claims that the Tories were the first party to commit to it whilst in opposition. The fact that Labour launched the scheme and got it as far as route planning is conveniently airbrushed out of the narrative.

Julian's claim that the Liberal Democrats convinced other parties might be more powerful if he had convinced his own. His comrades in Camden lobbied Norman Baker at the 2011 conference, the Liberal Democrats in the Chilterns remain opposed and the Kenilworth and Southam Liberal Democrats are still unconvinced. They cynics amongst you will point out that this is just typical Liberal Democrat campaign tactics - saying one thing to one audience and the exact reverse to another.