The Conservatives have run Canterbury City Council for 16 years. It’s not been an easy time, we have to accept, since for the past 10 years their own government has apparently been intent on cutting councils’ budgets to the bone, starving them of cash to the point where they have little choice about what, or how much, to do for our residents.
Still, in that time what have they achieved? Stability, of a sort, you might think, since things at least sort of run and sort of work.
Against that, a longer set of negatives: the continual failings of Serco, the complete failure to build any council homes at all, an appalling record on planning, an often arrogant disregard for the views of residents, especially under John Gilbey’s leadership up to 2015, and constant cuts to services and community organisations.
And, of course, the borrowing: the reckless £150 million spent on Whitefriars, which may already have lost £26 million of its value – money we will never recoup, even if the loan does ever get paid off – plus the £23 million to buy former student houses in Parham Road and the £9 million to build a car park. More than £180 million borrowed and almost all of it misspent.
Yet to listen to Cllr Simon Cook speak at last week’s budget setting meeting in the Guildhall, you’d come away with the impression that everything is just tickety-boo.
In fact, his opening gambit was to talk about the wonderful new ANPR system being installed at car parks across the district. Cutting edge! Ahead of the private sector! He said. But still just car parks, no matter which way you look at it: an administrative solution to improve some revenue raising, with no positive impact on the lives of residents at all.
And then there is housing. Note, after 16 years of not building any social housing, the Council now has “plans” to build some, on Kingsmead and in Beach Road, Herne Bay. Does Cllr Cook know when, or how many? No.
And here we come to a strange feature of Tory rule. Because, as with central government, they keep talking about the functions of the council as if they were businesses.
The impression they want to give is of bustling dynamism, go-getting, wealth creating. Now I have no problem with councils being business-like, by which I mean professional, competent, forward looking and careful with our money.
But if you want to pose as a business, then think on this: if in business you took four years to fail to achieve one of your core functions, you’d get sacked.
Since this Council has contrived not to build a single new council house in 16 years and hasn’t even managed to finish converting the properties it bought last July, then you’d expect them to recognise that they are for the chop.
In fact, almost no matter what service you look at, this council has failed. East Kent Housing is incapable of spending the money that has been allocated for repairs and upgrades.
The wholly inadequate Local Plan has left rapacious property developers riding roughshod over the planning process. Serco has been given more money and still can’t collect our rubbish and recycling reliably, or bother communicating properly with residents. Our parks are unsafe, city centre and estate pavements filled with trip hazards. Relying on our universities to promote employment growth has also run aground, as Kent begins a round of redundancies and Christ Church sheds students.
In this context, what do the Tories have to offer? A whole four pledges on their website:
- To campaign for a new hospital in Canterbury – like every other party
- To boost the local economy – without any solid ideas how or why
- To improve the local environment – claiming, among other things, credit for initiatives created and delivered by Labour activists in Whitstable, ignoring their own failure to push ahead with adequate electric vehicle charging points while insisting on building the new multi-storey car park in the face of massive evidence of the negative environmental impact
- To “continue to balance the books” – something which any Council has to do, and which Labour would also do
In the end, this sums up this Tory administration: bereft of ideas and ambition, complacent about their plans, prepared to risk our future with reckless borrowing, and putting the needs of residents behind those of business, while not even being able to succeed at that.
Business-like? I don’t think so.