My KCC Election Manifesto & Video

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Ramsgate's Ghost Port Looses £17.7Million In 7 Years!

According to Thanet Council’s externally audited accounts, Ramsgate Port has, over the past seven years, racked up operating losses of £17.6 million. That’s the equivalent of £126 for every man, woman and child living in Thanet. 

The message couldn’t be clearer – the massive losses and the failure of a new operator to come forward to resume cross-channel ferry services following the collapse of Trans Europa 4 years ago means that Ramsgate port, just like Manston Airport, is finished! It is commercially unsustainable and has no future in its current form. 

Had it been in the private sector, a financial performance as

disastrous as this would have led to the closure of the port years ago. Yet senior officers and successive Conservative, Labour and UKIP political administrations at Thanet Council appear to have been in total denial of the harsh economic facts revealed by their own accounts. They have buried their heads in the sand and, in the opinion of many, irresponsibly continued to waste £millions of taxpayers money keeping open a ghost port with virtually no ships.

Official council figures show that  last year only 165 ships berthed at Ramsgate that’s an average of three ships a weeks. Nine of these ships were part of the car delivery contract with GEFCO which has now ended. Sixteen of these ships were for the cruel live animal export trade which will probably end soon too. 

These appalling figures are hardly surprising bearing in mind

the fierce competition from nearby Dover, which is now beginning a £200million, three-year, expansion and modernisation programme and the highly successful, state-of-the-art, London Gateway Port less than 70 miles away. It wouldn’t surprise me if next year the number of ships berthing at Ramsgate fell below 100, proving what most of us already know – that Ramsgate port is a ghost port in terminal decline. 

This is why Thanet Council should face up to reality and begin the urgent task of reviewing the future of Ramsgate Port and deciding what would be the best uses for this important piece of publically owned land. The last time this was done was in 2014 when TDC’s then ruling Labour Group drew up, in secrecy and without any public consultation whatsoever, the Ramsgate Maritime Plan which proposed the wholesale industrialisation of the port, especially the expansion of the aggregate business at the port. 

This time around there should be a serious programme of extensive public engagement and consultation about the future of the port . Unlike Labour’s secretive and biased 2014 Maritime Plan, the views of Ramsgate residents should be accorded top priority, instead of being relegated to insignificance in favour party political dogma and the narrow commercial interests of those who may benefit from an industrialised port, such as the aggregate trade. 

Because whenever the public have been allowed to express

their views about the future of the port, such as the public meetings to oppose the O’Regan plans to develop a concrete block manufacturing and waste wood recycling operation at the port in 2015, or more recently Brett Aggregates proposals to expand their activities, the overwhelming view of local residents is opposed to the industrialisation of the port.

Many people at these packed public meetings expressed

their concerns about the impact of an industrialised, dirty and polluting port upon the nearby marine protected nature areas and the danger posed to air quality for people living in Ramsgate. Others were very concerned about the impact of a heavily industrialised port upon Ramsgate’s seafront and the historic Royal Harbour and how this could damage the recovery of the town’s tourist industry. Most people, including Thanet South MP, Craig MacKinlay expressed the view that allowing for the existing fishing the windfarm and ship repair operations, the future of Ramsgate Port should be leisure focused rather than industrial. A view which is supported by the fact that over the past 7 years Ramsgate Royal Harbour has made profits of £2,172 million which clearly demonstrates that the economic future of Ramsgate Port and Ramsgate seafront should be based upon tourism and leisure rather than the dirty and polluting industrialisation which has been unashamedly promoted by successive Conservative, Labour and UKIP controlled administrations at Thanet Council. 

Sadly this fixation with industrialisation continues apace with UKIP Council Leader Chris Wells and Director of Operational Service Gavin Waite investing almost £2.5 million last year in upgrading and modernising the berths, dredging the port and employing a “shipping industry expert” in the forlorn hope of attracting new ferry operators to the port.

The duo also unsuccessfully tried to secure a £4million government grant to upgrade port facilities and expand its traffic handling capacity up to 1 million heavy goods vehicles a year. Something which would hardly be good for air pollution in Ramsgate and the promotion public health. Astonishingly these hugely polluting HGV plans were not opposed by the Conservative and Labour oppositions at Thanet Council. Why? Because on the basis of their shameful track record on the port, they probably supported the 1 million HGVs! 

Even more worrying, if my many and reliable sources at Thanet Council are to be believed, is that secretive plans are allegedly being drawn about the possibility of developing a major waste processing and transfer facility at the Port of Ramsgate. A subject which I will be writing more about shortly.

The long-standing culture of secrecy surrounding the management of Ramsgate port and the Royal Harbour,  and the total exclusion of the public from this process is, in my opinion, an insult to democracy which speaks volumes about the controlling, top-down, approach of council bureaucrats and their Conservative, Labour and UKIP political bosses. I have long argued that the Port of Ramsgate and the Royal Harbour should be managed by a Harbour Board made up of Ramsgate councillors and independent residents which meets in public, which publishes all its reports, and which consults with local people on its business plans and strategies. This is exactly what has been happening in Whitstable  for the past 14 years. So why not Ramsgate? What do the powers that be have to hide?

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

KCC Tory Councillors = Shameless, Grapsing, Carpetbaggers!

Hypocrites is too kind a description of Kent County Council’s  67 Tory Councillors.

Members  of a party which has championed austerity for almost a decade. Members of party which has implemented  draconian cuts in our schools, hospitals, social care services and town halls; which has slashed benefits for the poor  and vulnerable and imposed 1 percent wage rises for nurses, teachers, ambulance crews etc; these shameless  carpetbaggers were the first in line to get their greedy snouts into the trough  by awarding themselves a massive 15% increase in their councillor allowances.

In an outrageous example  of “do as I say not as I do” double standards these so-called politicians voted to increase their allowances by an extra £247,202 when compared with  the previous financial year 2016/17. Adding in expenses, subsistence claims and pension contributions for  some of the 81 councillors  means that Kent County Council will spend  somewhere close to £2.5 million paying its councillors in the forthcoming year.  That’s  the equivalent of £1.66  for every man, woman and child living in the KCC area.
 According to research conducted by the Tax Payers Alliance, KCC councillors were already amongst  the top 5 groups of best paid councillors in England and Wales so why did they want even more? With a pay rise of over a quarter of a million pounds, they must now surely be the wealthiest group of  councillors in the country! Hardly an accolade to be proud of  when many in the county are struggling hard to get by.
The question must be asked are these councillors worth it, or are they overpaid?  And what sort of message does their greedy grasping behaviour send out to the public? Especially in an area like Thanet with the highest rates of unemployment, child poverty, low pay and  poor housing in south east England. The antics of these councillors, including Thanet KCC councillors  Ken Gregory and Emma Dawson who both spoke enthusiastically in favour of the increase at last week’s County Council meeting, reminds me of the 2010 MPs expenses scandal which exposed the self-serving attitude of many of our politicians and which brought politics into massive disrepute. I fear that those KCC Tory councillors who voted to give themselves a pay rise last week will also bring the County Council into massive disrepute, not that it wasn’t already regarded as unfit for purpose and out of touch by many people, myself included.
On a more positive note I must congratulate the KCC Labour Councillors who opposed the increase, especially councillor Tan Dhesi from Gravesend who gave a great speech and Green Councillor Martyn Whybrow who also opposed the increase.  It’s a shame the LibDems didn’t oppose the rise. But they wanted their own “modest rise” of 3.3%  
Here's my version of the allowances which will be paid to KCC councillors, including the  15% increase,  in 2017/18. This does not include payments for some councillors who are members of the KCC pension scheme. The travel and subsistence is based on 2016/17 figures. Nice work if you can get it.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Thanet Tops East Kent Councils Fat-Cat Pay League Despite UKIPs Promises

According to its draft accounts for 2016-17 Thanet Council employs 5 officers who earn more than £100k per year. The total cost to taxpayers for employing these officers is £597,050. Here’s the breakdown post by post. The salary bill is inclusive of employer pension contributions.

I’ve checked the draft 2016-17 accounts of our neighbouring East Kent councils: Ashford, Canterbury, Dover and Shepway to see how many officers they employ on salaries of £100k or more including employer pensions. I have set out the results in the table below. The comparison reveals that TDC employs 5 officers on more than £100k, whilst Dover, Canterbury and Shepway employ 4 and Ashford 3. TDCs annual cost for employing 5 £100,000 plus staff is £597,050 that’s £116,063 more than the nearest comparator Shepway which has an annual cost of £480,987 for employing 4 staff on salaries of over £100,000.

Each of the 5 East Kent Councils are of similar population sizes and provide identical services. Indeed some of the services such as Human Resources , Housing and IT are shared between the 5 councils. So why should there be such large discrepancies in the top officer pay bills? And why should Thanet, the most deprived of the 5 East Kent Council’s with the highest unemployment and the lowest average wages, be employing the largest number of £100k plus officers? These discrepancies don’t appear to make any sense and I have been unable to discover a logical explanation.

Being top of the East Kent councils fatcat pay league is all the more mysterious when its borne in mind that TDC is run by UKIP. This is a party which in its 2015 election manifesto proudly boasted that it would “Slash excessive pay deals and golden handshakes for council executives” and “Limit the number of highly-paid council employees”. Clearly Thanet Council’s UKIP Leader, Chris Wells has reneged on this election promise, just has he reneged on UKIPs manifesto pledge to end expensive council car parking. Its clear that UKIP and Chris Wells cannot be trusted to keep their promises to voters and this probably explains why they were wiped out in recent County Council elections.

Former Chancellor George Osbourne recently described Prime Minster Theresa May as a dead woman walking. I’m think the same description applies to TDC Council Leader Chris Wells.
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Margate Dreamland Goes Offshore (Part 1)

A week ago insolvency administrators Duff and Phelps published their latest progress report about the failed Dreamland Amusement Park operator, Sands Heritage Limited (SHL). It makes very interesting reading.

The most striking and worrying issue raised by the report is the administrators claim that it is “uncertain whether there will be sufficient realisations to enable a dividend to the non-preferential unsecured creditors of the Company (SHL)”. According to Duff and Phelps the non-preferential unsecured creditors are owed a staggering £5.79 million in unpaid bills. Lots of these creditors are small local businesses who provided goods and services to SHL and who can ill-afford to take even a small financial hit in these difficult times. This is not good news for the local economy.

Many people have argued that this unacceptable state of affairs is entirely the fault of SHL. It was SHL who was running the amusement park and taking the all operational decisions prior to its collapse into administration. It was SHL which had produced a business plan which proved to be wholly inadequate for the profitable running of the park and it was SHL who was behind the wheel when financial disaster struck. Whilst this is true, blame apportionment, especially for the failure of a large and complex project such Dreamland, is not that simple.

I have been arguing for a long time that although SHL may have been the author of its own downfall, the actions of Thanet District Council (TDC) were also likely to have been a contributory factor in the company’s collapse and the consequential £5.79 million debt mountain. My view is supported by SHL itself which in late 2015 is alleged to have threatened to take legal action against TDC for beach of contract which, SHL claimed, had caused it serious financial difficulties. SHL administrators, Duff and Phelps, repeated this claim in reports published on the Companies House website. To avoid an embarrassing court case which may have revealed the true extent of TDCs responsibility for SHLs financial difficulties, TDC made a payment of £950,000 to the company in late 2015. I have now submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request for the release of documents relating to the £950,000 payment, but TDC is claiming that these documents are commercially confidential and will not release them. I wonder what they are trying to hide?

But its not just TDCs alleged breach of contract which may have contributed to SHLs financial collapse. Questions have also been asked about whether TDC should have appointed the the company to run the amusement park in the first place. Less than 2 months before the park opened in June 2015 the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) a major co-funder (over £5million) of the Dreamland project wrote a strident letter to TDCs Chief Executive Madeline Homer and the then Labour Council Leader, Iris Johnston, expressing great concern at the appointment of SHL as the Dreamland Operator and demanding to know on what basis the decision was made and why HLF had not been consulted. In subsequent correspondence between TDC and HLF it emerged that TDC had taken external legal advice about the appointment of SHL, which serves to demonstrate a serious degree of unease about the council’s choice of operator. 

More recently even TDCs own internal auditors have expressed reservations about the appointment of SHL as the Dreamland operator. In a report from December 2016 they say thatThe learning from this, and experiences across the wider East Kent local government umbrella, is that fledgling companies with no track record or accounts, set up for a particular purpose carry a greater risk than is being acknowledged through the due diligence checks being undertaken by these multi-disciplinary groups of officers and members”. So there you have it, what many people believe to have been an unwise choice of park operator by TDC, coupled with alleged contractual failures by the Council, are likely to have been important factors in the collapse of SHL and the astronomic £5.79 million debts which are unlikely to ever be repaid.

I hope that my FOI requests, one of which will shortly be considered by the Information Tribunal in London, will eventually force the disclosure of documents which are likely to proove that TDC badly mismanaged the Dreamland project and that this mismanagement contributed towards the collapse of SHL and the consequent financial mess.

But its not all bad news! The Administrator’s report also includes some very positive information about Dreamland, especially the massive £20 million investment which the Cayman Islands registered hedge fund Arrowgrass Master Fund has made in the park and its surrounds. Having visited the park since its makeover, I must say I am impressed by what has been done. But I do wonder why Arrowgrass Master Fund has invested so much money in Dreamland and why, despite the failure of SHL to make the park a success, it believes it can generate a decent return for its rich investors. Clearly Arrowgrass has spotted what it believes to be potentially lucrative and highly profitable Dreamland related opportunities.

This probably explains why, according the Administrator’s report, Arrowgrass recently acquired almost 99% of SHLs shares from the original shareholders including Nick Connington, John Adams, Robert O’Connor, and Christopher Webster, who all resigned as directors of SHL in May this year.

SHL is now almost 100 percent owned by an offshore hedge fund based in the “tax-efficient”, or as some people might say “tax-dodging”, Cayman Islands. The questions must now be asked who are Arrowgrass and what are their plans for Dreamland? I will be discussing this in Part 2 of this post which I hope to publish soon.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

TDCs £121,000 Boss In “Not on Duty” Rubbish Row

Social Media Mr Howes
TDCs £121,000 a year Director of Corporate Governance and Monitoring Officer, Tim Howes, appears to have become embroiled in an embarrassing social media row. 

Commenting on a discussion about dumped bags of rubbish in Ramgate and the lack of street cleaners to collect them, Howes, or someone purporting to be him says Did the council put this rubbish out in thin plastic bags? We all have to pay for someone else’s thoughtless actions”. When challenged as to whether he was Council’s Director of Corporate Governance and Monitoring Officer he curtly replied “Not at weekends!”.

Weekends or not, photos on the Facebook account of the Tim Howes who commented about the rubbish in Ramsgate bear a striking resemblance to photos on the TDC and Linkedin website of TDC boss Tim Howes. I therefore assume that the social media commentator is the same highly paid Tim Howes who works for TDC. If I am wrong and if this transpires to be a hoax then I will publicly apologies to TDC’s Mr Howes. In the meantime this episode has raised some very interesting questions, particularly about the nature of Mr Howes comments and the impression they create about TDC.
LinkedIn Mr Howes

First of all it’s worth knowing that its extremely unusual for a TDC officer to become involved in a general social media debate about the day to day operation of TDC services. Whilst a TDC councillor, and afterwards, I don’t ever recall a single instance of a TDC employee, especially a very senior employee, becoming involved in general day to day debate on social media debate about council business.

This is because TDC has a well established custom and practice whereby day to day social media commentary about council business is something which is left to elected councillors, some of whom are very active in this sphere of communication. The rationale behind this practice is that council officers, should endeavour to remain politically neutral and that engaging in social media debate about how the council operates could result in ill-considered comments being made which may be construed as being politically motivated.

But that’s not to say Mr Howes has broken any rules. On the contrary, TDC’s Constitution says that Employees' off-duty hours are their personal concern” and Mr Howes is technically correct to say, as he did, that he is not TDCs Director of Corporate Governance and Montoring Officer during his weekend break. So why not comment on Facebook if he feels like it?

Well its not that straightforward. What appears to be a carte-blanche to do as you will when off duty is qualified by a number of conditions set out in TDCs Officer Code of Conduct including the following - The public is entitled to expect the highest standards of conduct from all employees who work for local government” and - Local government employees are expected to give the highest possible standard of service to the public” then - Failure to meet such standards can result in adverse public comment to the detriment of the Council and the service and in certain circumstances can have serious consequences for the employee and put their job at risk”.

TDCs constitution also provides extensive guidance to councillors and officers, such as Mr Howes, about how to engage with the media, including social media, on matters relating to Council business like uncollected rubbish. It says they must “Consider the likely consequences for the Council of their statement”. It says they should “Consult with the Communications Team for the Council in advance of speaking to the press or to the media”. It says they should “Consider whether to consult other relevant members” . I would also image, particularly at at Mr Howes elevated level within the organisation, that there is also an expectation that he would have consulted colleague directors if he was making comments about the services they manage rather than his own, no matter how benign and non-controversial these comments might be. Taking these constitutional issues into account it should be asked -

1) Were Mr Howes comments about the rubbish “Did the council put this rubbish out in thin plastic bags? We all have to pay for someone else’s thoughtless actions” representative of the highest standard of conduct of a local government officer?. Personally I don’t think so. On duty, or off, surely Mr Howes, as one of the most senior officers at TDC should, rather than criticising others, have been proactive and demonstrated leadership by saying instead that he would make contact with the relevant service manager to have rubbish removed at the earliest opportunity.

2) Did Mr Howes “Consider the likely consequences for the Council of his (my insertion) statement. Once again I don’t think so. Bearing in mind his blaming of others and his statement that he is not the £121,000 Director of Corporate Services at weekends I believe that Mr Howes may have generated a negative “jobsworth” impression of TDC which is not something which would normally be expected from one of of its highest paid officers.

4) Did Mr Howe’s comments “result in adverse public comment to the detriment of the Council and the service”? Yes, in my opinion, they did and this is precisely why I am writing this blog post because I believe Mr Howes was wrong to become involved in this Facebook discussion and because I believe his comments were not helpful. I am not alone in this view and others on Facebook were less than impressed with Mr Howes intervention.

5) Before making his comments on social media about rubbish collection did Mr Howes consult , as is constitutionally required, with TDCs Communictions Team? Did he consult with the Cabinet member with political responsibility for street cleaning Councillor Suzanne Brimm? Did he consult with the Director of Operational Services, Gavin Waite, who is responsible for managing the street cleaning teams? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I have a suspicion the answer may be no, which brings me to some much a more serious points.

It is my understanding that the number of street cleaners and refuse collection staff, who are virtually all employed via employment agencies, rather than directly by TDC, have been massively reduced in the past 2-3 years, which might explain why bags of rubbish are often left uncollected in Ramsgate and elsewhere in Thanet. I have now submitted a Freedom of Information request to find out by exactly how much the staffing levels of these services have been reduced over the past 3 years and I will post a blog as soon as I get answers from TDC.

But most worrying of all, recent and extensive media coverage about the aftermath of the appalling Grenfell Tower disaster has focused on an alleged culture of unresponsiveness, aloofness, disdain and a lack of effective team working at higher management levels in Kensington and Chelsea Council. This unacceptable management culture is alleged to be one of the reasons why Kensington and Chelsea Council is said to have failed abysmally to cope effectively and compassionately with the dreadful, heartbreaking, tragedy. It is also said to be one of the reasons why the Chief Executive and Leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council were forced to resign and one of the reasons why the Government was forced to send in outsiders to takeover over the running of many of the council’s key services.

Not that I saying for a moment that TDC is in the same managerial position as Kensington and Chelsea Council. It is not. But Mr Howes comments, if indeed the commentator was Mr Howes, reflect, in my opinion, a lack of pro-activity and sympathy in heeding residents legitimate concerns and an unfortunate “jobsworth” attitude to the out of hours responsibilities of one of the Council’s most senior and well paid officers. Furthermore, his comments about services he is not responsible for managing, if made without consultation with colleague directors and cabinet members, demonstrate a worrying lack of corporate cohesion at the most senior levels within TDC.

Whilst these matters are clearly not on par with Kensington and Chelsea Council it is nevertheless important for the Leader of the Councillor Chris Wells and the Chief Excutive to investigate this incident and ensure similar comments are not posted by well paid senior managers again. As they say its always best for those in charge to nip even the most minor examples of bad practice in the bud before they become endemic within an organisation, preventing it from being as effective as it could be in the event of a major crisis.