David Leaf: In Bexley, we will keep on delivering top rated services – while Labour resorts to scaremongering

30 Nov

Cllr David Leaf is the Cabinet Member for Resources on Bexley Council.

You can tell it’s nearly Christmas, as its always at this time of the year that Bexley’s Labour councillors and their supporters, claim everything is a disaster and that the Council is about to go into bankruptcy.

They’ve actually now been making this claim every year since 2013. Then, they stated that if we were re-elected, the council would either go bankrupt or Council Tax would rise by 40 per cent – none of which happened.

Seven years since they first made that claim, we continue to be rated as an efficient effective Council which delivers value for money for our residents, and our budget plans for 2021/22 are almost completed, four months before they need to be, and our budget will be in balance. Our services continue to be among the best-rated services in local government, and the fruits of investments, such as investing in new street cleaning machinery (which Labour voted against doing), see services improving or being modernised.

Our manifesto pledges from 2018 have all been delivered, and satisfaction from the residents we serve with council services remains high. Roads are being repaired, children’s social care services are helping those in need, vulnerable adults continue to receive care, we remain number one for recycling as we have been for the last 15 years. We’ve also secured funding to build two new schools for children with special needs.

And we’re also delivering new facilities for residents – a new BMX bike park in Barnehurst, a new park, playground, and wildlife area in Sidcup and a new library is being built in Thamesmead. We also lobbied for and now have two Covid testing centres, are working with colleagues on Dartford to reduce infection rates, and are working hard to create centres for vaccinations.

By contrast, in the last month alone, Labour-run Croydon has actually gone bankrupt with a £50 million plus budget gap, Labour-run Transport for London has gone bankrupt for the second time and had to be bailed out by the Conservative Government for the second time. We see Labour-run Lewisham with a £24 million budget gap, Ealing with a £28 million budget gap, Brent with a £29 million one, and Greenwich with a £60 million budget gap over next four years.

No wonder Bexley’s Labour councillors and their supporters want to distract from that shambolic record by real life Labour administrations by trotting out these usual fictions about Bexley, alongside criticising every budget proposal while never actually putting forward any ideas or solutions of their own – the same pattern as usual of course.

What’s shocking this year is that Labour councillors who should know better are frightening the life out of council staff by making all sorts of claims about how they will all lose their jobs; our staff work really hard and to see Labour councillors almost salivating at potential job losses is sickening. Staff I speak to have been really upset by these statements, when what is needed is a calm approach.

Yes, there will be changes to the way the Council is run, or how services are provided.

This is a difficult time for local government, the impact of Covid has been felt across the sector, and across all services. Here in Bexley, much of our income from fees and charges vanished overnight – eg parking income which helps fund highways maintenance and school road safety projects disappeared overnight. There are some Labour supporters who think generating income for services like school road safety projects through parking income is wrong, but of course, as said above, they oppose generating income to help save lives without actually coming up with how to fund it instead.

Like all councils, we have had huge costs appear out of the blue – for example, from scratch we set up a food delivery network, getting hot food to vulnerable residents during the lockdown, making sure those on their own and in need of help got the support they needed. Some 3,000 meals were being delivered, and we had a team of people collecting medicines and prescriptions for those unable to leave their homes. It has cost the council millions of pounds overnight, money that is gradually being recouped from Central Government.

The test of any Council is how they find a way through sudden and unexpected events like this.

One approach is to go into panic mode, hide away and hope everything will be fine (a la Croydon) or lead from the front, make decisions quickly and calmly, work hard all the time to ensure services continue to be delivered, even if in different ways for a while. That is what we were elected to do, and what we have always done.

Yes, there are some difficult choices to make, but as Bexley residents have shown over four elections by electing us with decisive mandates, they trust us to lead the Borough, make difficult decisions when they need to be made, and ensure that we are planning for the long term while making sure services continue to be delivered. The consequences of not doing that can be seen in Croydon, Brent, Lewisham, Greenwich, and at Transport for London.

Phil Taylor: When 88 per cent of students got their first choice university place on results day, was a U-turn really necessary?

18 Aug

Phil Taylor is a Conservative activist and former councillor in Ealing.

Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of school leavers and their parents will have heard Roger Taylor, Ofqual’s mild mannered chairman, on the news yesterday evening, when he rowed back on the regulator’s use of an algorithm-based moderation process for A levels in favour of grades assessed by teachers. They will note his prompted apology bitterly in many cases.

Now thousands of students will have new hope of getting a university place or one closer to their heart.

The irony is that the overall automated process that links together schools, universities and exam boards had done a great job by many measures already. Indeed, 88 per cent of students had got their first choice university place on results day. The number of 18 year olds going to university was at a record high, as was the number of disadvantaged students set to attend.

Now university admissions departments will be thrown into chaos having to find new places for students who qualify, and dealing with those that want to withdraw from safety offers and pursue their original first choice. Many universities had already changed their offers to unconditional ones in anticipation of this crisis, notably Worcester College, Oxford.

The problem for those who care about A levels as a qualification, grade inflation and the ability of universities and employers to identify talent is that teachers estimated 38 per cent of exams were worth an A or A*. This means that, not only is it hard to differentiate between candidates this year, but it puts this cohort at an advantage compared to recent ones. Will fairness demand that almost 40 per cent of exams get the top grades next year?

Who is to blame? Certainly Ofqual. It came up with a technical solution to a complex problem, and was not able to convince the rest of the education sector to back its judgement. Who knows whether that is through lack of transparency on its part or an unwillingness on the part of the teaching profession collectively to accept that moderation is a valid process. The spectacle of schools publishing their own results makes you wonder if there wasn’t some professional muscle-flexing going on.

Sally Collier, Ofqual’s chief executive, has been notably absent from the public debate. Was a career civil servant, rather than an educationalist, the right person to lead this public body? Taylor, an entrepreneur who made his name with the Dr Foster business, has a background in using statistics to drive health outcomes, but again is not an educationalist.

This was bound to be a political hot potato, especially in August when not much else is in the news. The politics of students waving their attenuated results around was always going to be incendiary. The vast majority of them and their families will be happily planning for the start of term, but the media and the opposition were always going find enough unhappy students to make a silly season crisis. The political failure was to not realise that Ofqual had not done the necessary job of persuasion itself to make its solution stick.

Once again, we have seen an organ of the British state fail to rise to a crisis. Whether it is the Met Police in the 2011 riots, the London Fire Brigade at Grenfell, or Public Health England in pandemic planning and managing Covid testing, we have too many examples of state bodies trundling along doing business as usual but unable to flex at speed to deal with a crisis.