This was one of our busier full council meetings, with the Conservatives tabling 3 motions for debate. Alongside these we were also provided with a report on changes to the constitution as well as the Annual Treasury Management report.
The last two items didn't have a debate and both reports were 'noted'. That's the political term for saying, "Yeah, they exist, let's get on with the evening".
It's unusual to have so many motions, but Conservatives feel the new structure of fewer committees gives us less time to scrutinise decisions taken. Full council remains the only place we can have a real debate.
Questions to the administration
As the opposition, Conservatives get to ask 13 questions per full council. We're trying to use these to get information from the coalition administration.
A few questions and answers stood out to me;
Greenbelt - the coalition wouldn't make a firm commitment to not build on Havering's green-belt. Though they emphasised that they would focus on brown-field sites. This is a mixed result for Romford. It could mean that more of the housing is focused on our town.
It remains to be seen if a south-Havering party, such as the HRA, understands the needs of Romford.
An ideal outcome would be protecting the green belt, by pushing back on housing targets.
Glass recycling - there was a commitment to introduce street-side glass collection during the next contract negotiations in 2023. This is great outcome and something Conservatives promised in our election manifesto.
Parking enforcement cameras - There was a bit of confusion around how much these cameras bring in for the Council. Cabinet member Barry Mugglestone mixed up his numbers, but eventually settled on the claim they produce £17k, per camera, per year.
The council is planning to massively increase the number of cameras, but they could not commit to a projection of how much this would bring in. I'd have thought that the number of new cameras x £17k would have been a good start.
I'm hoping that this doesn't signal the start of a war on drivers across Havering. Our borough is car dependant.
Weekly bin collections - This was the most worrying answer, for me. The administration would not commit to maintaining weekly bin collections. Instead speaking about 'reviews'. This is another sign that the HRA are a south-Havering party with no understanding of Romford.
Romford has a lot of flats and small homes without gardens or driveways. To suggest that residents allow their bins to fill, and sit in their home, is ignorant of their needs.
Motions for debate
On to the heated part of the night, the debates! This is what we all come for.
If you don't want to read on, but want to know what I said, you can view my speeches by clicking the link below. I lead on two motions, cashless society and the energy rebate scheme. I also contributed to the debate on parking.
Removing free parking
Will Havering ever stop debating free parking? It's unlikely and this night was no exception. After attacking Conservatives, during the election, for removing the 30mins free parking in some towns, the administration has revealed that they'll end the free 1hr on-street parking.
This parking is vital for our small businesses as well as those who need to pop in to visit someone in need.
The administration spent most of the debate either telling us that there was no money or by criticising the previous administration for the removal of the 30minutes free parking.
I raised the point that the HRA had, in their manifesto, costed out how they can restore the 30mins free parking. They achieved this through a number of cuts to cabinet member salaries, Romford Christmas lights, and sacking Havering Council comms staff.
It's my proposal that, if these savings can fund free 30mins parking borough wide, then they should be able to support the much smaller programme of 1hr free on-street parking.
The administration concluded with a promise to review parking in the budget. However, this decision on the 1hr parking is due before the Cabinet in September.
The 30minutes free didn't apply across the whole of Havering. I suspect that, if they did bring it back, Romford wouldn't benefit.
Cashless society - Digital Exclusion
I lead on the debate that Havering should protect and promote access to cash, as well as accepting cash payments for council services. This motion got defeated, but we encouraged a strong debate and raised awareness of digital exclusion.
The administration argued that it was for the government to legislate around cash, not the council. They also argued that taking cash for council services was expensive.
Labour's response was strange. They accused me of 'gaslighting' by talking about helping the poor. Instead of proposing any policy or criticising my motion, they decided to criticise the national government and to laugh at suggestions I care for the vulnerable.
It's my belief that, whilst we don't write the legislation, Havering Council can lead on setting an example.
Rochford, in Essex, has launched a Community Bank in partnership with 5 major high-street banks. This has made sure that everyone can get to an ATM or do cash transactions. I also proposed that we work with cash-machine provider LINK, to get community ATMs installed in locations where there are no machines nearby.
It's also my proposal that, whilst handling cash is not always cash efficient, the council does a lot of things that don't return on their investment. Because they have a duty of care to the vulnerable. Those in poverty, and the elderly, rely on cash.
A good takeaway, however, was that the administration revealed plans for an Oyster Card style system for parking. This would allow people to load up their card with cash and pay by card. This is a good mid-point, but I still think we should be exploring community ATMS.
Energy Rebate Scheme
This was the most important debate of the night, for me.
In short, Havering council have been given around £500k to support the vulnerable in council tax bands E-H. This followed the scheme that saw everyone in bands A-D given £150 off their council tax bill.
They have chosen to give band E-H residents, who are on C.Tax support, £150. A good move. However, this then leaves them with around £400k left over. Which they have decided is best spent giving everyone else £17 each.
It's my suggestion that this is highly immoral. It's untargeted and there were no rules forcing them to do this. Other London boroughs have topped up the payments for the poorest, cleared council tax arrears, or created a scheme for people to apply for financial support.
All of the above schemes were revealed due to the administration carrying out an audit of other councils.
However, the HRA responded with a baffling set of arguments.
First, they blamed the decision on the last administration. Though the Leader admitted that he signed it off. He didn't have to, and it was only a recommendation from an Officer. Not a rule.
Then they proceeded to say they couldn't tell who the hardest hit would be. This is despite other London boroughs being able to.
Finally, when pressed, the Leader (Ray Morgon) admitted that he thought it was the best use of the money.
Again, Labour's response baffled me. They said nothing. Not a word. They laughed when I said I wanted fiscal responsibility to help the most vulnerable, then said nothing.
I'd have thought that Labour, of all people, would want the support to be targeted. Havering Council could have given 2500 families another £150, Instead they have given over 25,000 people £17. Regardless of their ability to pay their bills. Some of the richest people in Havering are going to get this money.
A pattern is beginning to emerge from these meetings and decisions.
1) The administration is going to spend the next 4 years blaming the last one. Whilst there is always space for legitimate criticism, this is a real shame. Being in administration means taking responsibility for the decisions you make. They didn't HAVE to dish out the money that way.
2) Labour have been gagged by being in a coalition. I thought that the coalition would hurt the HRA more, but it seems to be Labour who are suffering. They hardly ever speak up in the chamber and, when they do, mostly just get angry about national politics. I've not yet heard them present a policy argument and they don't seem to be able to influence the HRA.
3) Conservatives won't win a single motion. This is how being in opposition is. It doesn't matter what we put forward; it is amended by the administration. We saw this in the ULEZ debate where Cllr Gillian Ford (Deputy Leader) stood up and said she support the Conservatives amendment, but also supported her own one. She then declared that she wasn't able to then vote for ours. Why put forward the amendment in the first place?
Many people may find it frustrating to lose every vote. But I don't. Politics is about moving the dial, not winning.
Had I not put forward my proposal on digital exclusion then we wouldn't have had that debate. I may have managed to move the administration 10% towards the right position. That's an improvement.
This is how I'm going to have to work for the next 4 years. To nudge things towards the right place. Slowly but surely.