Sunday, 28 March 2010

Ann puts on a show but it's not unusual

Back in 2005, shortly before the result of the general election of that year in the Brentford and Isleworth constituency was announced, a peculiar and rather amusing thing happened.

Ann Keen, who had presumably been notified by an associate that she had survived the challenges of the various opposing candidates, at last entered the election count at Hounslow Civic Centre. But that wasn't the amusing bit.

What gave cause for much hilarity was the entourage by which she was accompanied, and the manner of its arrival. Surrounded by young boys attired in near-identical suits, she was escorted all the way from her carriage, up the spiral staircase and through the antechamber to the podium from which the result was to be announced. I could have sworn the spotty oiks were marching in step too, although I concede that just possibly my imagination was playing tricks with me and getting carried away.

This group exercise in delusional self-importance was not in any way untypical, indeed the whole Ann Keen experience has revolved for most of its time around a cult of imagined celebrity. I recall a residents' meeting on my own estate being gatecrashed by the then local Labour Party organiser and a handful of his members who scrutinised the gathering closely, furtively identifying individual residents whom they obviously felt might be vulnerable to an approach before sidling up to them like market spivs and whispering "would you like to meet Ann Keen?", the name itself spoken in a more assertive tone as if to emphasise the sheer generosity of the offer that was being made to the lucky resident.

Until recently, when at long last it would seem to have dawned upon them that she has become a liability, Labour's wannabe local councillors would queue to be photographed with their idol, and would proudly publish their photographs all across their own election leaflets in the apparent belief that their own importance and celebrity would somehow be enhanced by mere association.

Last week, inevitably, the circus came to Isleworth. As Mrs. Keen's gold minibus arrived at the Bridge Link Centre on Ivybridge on Thursday an aide excitedly raced to the passenger side door to open it so that her very important personage could step down and greet the excited throng that been awaiting her arrival.

In actual fact it wasn't really much of a throng. Five or six frankly pathetic ladies who probably hadn't been so excited since the time they threw their knickers at Tom Jones, and a very small handful of bitter and resentful men who still mourn the passing of the good old days when only Labour Party members were allowed to get involved with organising residents' activities, inasfar as any actually took place, on the estate.

And the royal visit itself was a tad disappointing, for there were others who had turned up to actually speak to their MP and ask her questions only to be brusquely advised by one of her hangers-on that she would only be sparing them fifteen minutes of her valuable (and very expensive) time which was just sufficient for her to have some photos taken. The knickerless screamers will probably be sent copies that they will truly treasure for what little remains of their middle age.

For those though who actually had questions to ask or problems to resolve - rehousing issues, repairs, anti-social behaviour, domestic violence and the like - the fleeting visitation did not really provide a great deal of relief. As a result of this the local authority's Lead Member for Housing and Service Improvement, ICG councillor Jon Hardy, has decided at short notice to hold a surgery of his own (see above) to make good the deficit.

The sheer brass neck of these objectionable people who assume themselves to be our lords and masters and who, given half the chance, would reverse the movement towards involvement and participation that my colleagues and I have triggered since becoming part of the administration at the local authority is absolutely staggering. One can only imagine how, in private session, they must mock and pour scorn upon those they represent, or in many cases aspire to.

How gratifying it is indeed to know that it will all be over in six weeks.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Who's next please?

I was just reading on the BBC News website that there is an island off the West Coast of Scotland called Sanda, which has a pub but only one resident.

Let's hope for everybody's sake they never consider it necessary to bar him.

As you were

I'd promised to do a spot of "canvasser training" yesterday (Friday) morning and as my assistant was from the Worton estate I decided to follow the route taken there by the Labour canvassers a week or too back. Not that I believe in letting my opponents set the pace, but because I wanted to test what kind of effect, if any, their four-yearly visit to the estate had had on local morale.

In short, the answer was not a lot. Whatever they had hoped to achieve by visiting Worton it clearly hadn't had the desired effect. Residents there remain as loyal as they have been since the days of the protest nearly a decade ago - as you were as it were - and I was enthused by the sense of optimism that pervades the estate and the feeling that, whilst there is certainly still a goodly amount of work to be done, we were all getting there together.

In the afternoon Caroline and I nipped over to Hounslow South to drop some leaflets and were nearly run over at one point by a visiting Councillor Peter Carey - get your eyes tested man! :o). We survived to complete the drop, meeting a couple of residents along the way whom I knew from way back. Both greeted us warmly and with promises of support.

Later it was across to the airport to collect Joe on his return from Greece. Later today it will be back to door knocking, but in the meantime to bed, shattered but happy with my day's endeavour.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

If only every canvass was like this morning's

With the local elections creeping up on us all I ventured out in my ward this morning to knock on some doors and canvass some of my constituents. I won't say quite where, as my opponents read this blog (they claim not to whilst complaining publicly about some of the things I write!), but I will say that in percentage terms it was probably the most successful canvass I have ever undertaken. Indeed it was nothing short of breathtaking.

I'm not so deluded as to think this morning's results were typical - if they were it would already be game over. But it really is inspiring when one's hard work and achievements, and those of one's colleagues, are recognised and rewarded with such positivity and enthusiasm.

Greece is the word

It only seems like yesterday that my son Joe and daughter Rosie went out on their own for the first time to the off-licence across the road, to bring us back some milk and a bottle of pop. I remember the sense of pride they both had in being allowed to venture out and cross the street without the protective custody of their parents. It was a truly defining moment in our relationship with our children.

So this morning I felt rather strange as I stood with Joe in Terminal 5, at 5.00 am, seeing him off on a flight to Athens with his school. Last year he had declined to travel on the Year Seven expedition to Kent but this year, it would seem, Athens fazes him not a bit.

I envy my son his experience. I have never been to Greece and would love to do so one day. No doubt Joe will be itching to show us around.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Regenerating our community centres by working positively with our residents

It was probably due to the earlier Committee meeting that around 25 people turned out to the ICG Social Drink at the Isleworth Royal British Legion, despite the absence of a number of regulars. I couldn't help but be struck by the real sense of purpose that pervaded both meeting and social event, with the contributions of the usual vociferous few being placed into perspective by the eager interventions of the many.

For the record Councillor Jon Hardy was confirmed as Chair with Ian Speed (above) taking on the role of Vice Chair for the first time. Councillor Shirley Fisher is Treasurer once again, with Councillor Caroline Andrews and Tricia Doran sharing the joint Secretary/Fundraiser post and Maggie Hardy taking ownership of Media & Communications. I remain as Organiser but have asked that the position be reviewed in six months' time.

This morning a few of us, including the three Syon ward councillors, visited St. John's Community Centre where residents are bidding for a substantial share of the £250,000 community fund that we successfully negotiated a part of the budget making process earlier in the month to repair the building's seriously damaged roof. We were joined by representatives from St. John's Residents' Association (SJRA), The Isleworth Society (TIS) and from the Community Centre itself. Needless to say we are eager to get the project underway as soon as is reasonably possible.

Friday, 19 March 2010

IBAC splashes the cash

From the Independent Community Group website

Not content with our recent success in securing £550k of community funding as part of the recent budget the ICG was busy securing even more funding (over £16,000 in fact) for community groups and residents in Isleworth, this time by way of small grants and capital grants through the Isleworth and Brentford Area Committee (IBAC).

At the IBAC meeting on 18 March 2010 there were several applications for funding across the 4 wards the committee represents and we are delighted to announce the following allocations:

£6,000 for new school signs in South Street which will benefit the pupils and parents/carers of 3 schools

£3,000 for Kirkstone Lodge to improve the gardens

£4,455 for Isleworth Bowls Club to install state-of-the-art disabled facilities

£1,000 for St. George's Day celebrations on the Ivybridge estate

£500 for St. George's Day celebrations at the Isleworth Royal British legion

£500 for the Isleworth Somali Association to run community cohesion workshops

£250 for the Ivybridge Junior Rangers

£300 for the Bridgelink Stay and Play scheme on the Ivybridge estate

£500 for the The Friends of Isleworth Public Hall to fund the annual outing of the Thursday Club

Speaking after the meeting ICG Councillor Paul Fisher said: "It gives me a great deal of pleasure to support these worthy applications for funding and it is a real boost to see so many residents benefiting from the hard work of these wonderful organisations."

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Worton residents asked to draw up shopping list

Councillor Paul Fisher and I spoke to Worton residents of all ages tonight at a meeting called by Residents of Worton Estate (ROWE), the residents' association, to discuss how to spend £419k of Section 106 money which we recently discovered was owed to them.

The money had been made available at the time of the new build on Worton Green but ward councillors had not, shall we say, been encouraged to know about it.

Chairing the meeting was not always easy as residents young and old wanted eagerly to put their ideas forward, and many insisted upon doing so in unison. Play and sports facilities for young people, a social club for older people, security gates and landscaping along the riverbank were all mooted as possible projects.

Paul in particular has been a powerhouse when it comes to identifying funding that is available for spending in the community. It is absolutely criminal that so much has been returned to developers because councillors and council officers in other areas have made no effort to grab what is there on behalf of their local residents before the deadline has been reached.

Of course money isn't everything and in the hands of politicians of a certain mindset could be and has been misused, but our practice has been first to secure the funds and second to ask the residents what they want done with it. That is the ICG way, and a lot of people in the communities we represent have been empowered with the means to determine their own priorities.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

ICSF back in business

It was a pleasure to attend the first meeting of the Isleworth Community Safety Forum (ICSF) to be held for some time, I think possibly for a couple of years. It's Chair, David Freeman, was on top form and is clearly eager to get things back into the swing.

The Forum has had an interesting and at times troubled history. Having begun its life about a decade and a half ago as the Isleworth Policing Forum, originally a police initiative, it became the ICSF for reasons that I can't quite remember. For most of the '90s it became the focus of some political shenanigans of a kind with which people who go back that far in Isleworth are depressingly familiar, with politicos ambushing meetings en masse and having their apparatchiks elected to all the key positions. When the residents wrested power from the politicians the Council, then under New Labour control, withdrew its support from the Forum (the officer assigned to it was himself a key New Labour activist so needed little persuading) and pressure was placed upon the police to stop attending its meetings. All this because "ordinary" residents had had the temerity to want to run their own Forum!

All that, as they say, is history. Now the Forum enjoys the backing of the elected local councillors who support its activities when asked to without seeking to dominate or control. With the advent of the Safer Neighbourhood Teams (SNTs) some of its work has been replicated and its priorities have needed to be realigned, but there is still a role for an exclusively resident-led, independent vehicle through which the general public can express their views and ask questions.

Inevitably after such a layoff yesterday's meeting attracted a modest attendance, but the important thing is the show is on the road once again.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

On honest campaigning and muesli

I don't, to my knowledge, suffer from dementia nor any other such debilitating condition that might seriously affect my judgement.

It came as a bit of a shock therefore to have discovered this evening that over the past few days I have been eating with cold milk several large helpings of "muesli", complaining quietly to myself about the quality of the product that Caroline had purchased from Tesco, only to realise tonight upon reading the wording on the near-empty packet that it was actually porridge. I promise I am not making this up.

In the absence of any serious medical ailment to explain away my error I can only put it down to the stresses of everyday life. Those stresses will be the same as those that affect most ordinary people - parenthood, making an income - with the added pressure of having to help to organise a local election campaign. Despite the fact that this time around we have a much stronger team than ever before including some extremely talented and dedicated individuals, many of whom now have four years more experience than they did last time we ventured forth, the hosepipe principle in which the more people we have available to do the work the more work there is to do would appear to apply.

Over the past week or so it would appear that some of our opponents have joined the battle. We always knew they would and we are resigned to having them around for a few weeks until polling day arrives, whereupon they will in all likelihood return whence they came into hibernation for another three years and ten months until the next round of hustings arrives.

In Hounslow South New Labour has been distributing a glossy leaflet announcing the candidacy (in so many words) of veteran party activist and former council leader Dave Wetzel, alongside local stalwart Bob Whatley and a young lady with whom the ICG is not familiar. In Isleworth, residents of a small section of the Worton estate have had to make do with a rather grotty card introducing residents to Sue "Pyro" Sampson, Ed Mayne of Chiswick (who surprised the Poppy Organiser from the Isleworth Royal British Legion when ordering a wreath at last year's Remembrance Day Parade by informing him that he was an Isleworth councillor when, being my own father, said Poppy Organiser knew full well he wasn't), and another new face. The previous week Sue had been out and about on the periphery of the Worple estate delivering her message, whatever that may be.

The promises made by New Labour in both glossy and grotty cannot be accused of lacking ambition. Apparently they are going to put 100 new uniformed police officers onto the streets of Hounslow (which is even more impressive when one considers that employing police officers is not even within the remit of the local authority) and cut Council Tax!

In reality of course this is just another example of the dishonesty for which New Labour in Hounslow have become renowned, and of the contempt in which they hold "ordinary" voters and the lack of respect that they have for their intelligence, which in turn explains their almost obsessive aversion to allowing "ordinary" people to participate in the running of residents' associations and community groups.

It also demonstrates their preparedness even at this early stage to renege immediately upon their promises if they were to be elected, bearing in mind that this particular pledge is one that they will know full well cannot be delivered.

During their previous local election campaign, in 2006, they had claimed in their leaflets to have put an end to the Mogden Pong and to have made the 267s the run on time.

Maybe it is the knowledge that I am resigned to having to spend almost the next two months of my life engaged in a battle of sorts with such dishonest, low-grade individuals to ensure that residents are equipped with the information they need to see through them that has brought about such stress as to render me temporarily incapable of differentiating between muesli and porridge?

But New Labour would consider the above paragraph to be a compliment in every aspect, so if it's all the same to readers of this blog I am going to put it down to old age.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Ann's just a gal who can't say no

Despite them having been let off relatively lightly by the Standards and Privileges Committee (five out of seven members of which were fellow New Labour MPs) the interview conducted by Parliamentary Commissioner John Lyon with Alan and Ann Keen, the shamelessly mercenary Members of Parliament for Feltham & Heston and Brentford & Isleworth respectively, makes interesting reading:

Can I now apply the rules to your situation? The rules require you to have more than one home before you can claim for a second home. Why do you think you had two homes when you could not live in Brentford for the best part of 11 months, from December 2008 to October 2009?

Alan Keen: I was aware that I needed to have two homes in order to claim the ACA. I have known this throughout my time as a London MP.

JL: Why did you consider that given the difficulties of access, which continued for most of 2009, your Brentford property was still your home for the purposes of your allowances?

Ann Keen: In our mind it was still our main home.


JL: Is not the implication of the Green Book that a home must be somewhere where you can and do stay overnight?

Ann Keen: We used the house for other purposes before it was boarded up. But after that we could not stay there.

JL: Can I ask you why you still considered that Brentford was your main home? The principal rule up to April 2009 was that your main home was where you normally spend more nights than anywhere else. From July 2008 that normal expectation was not met, and it was not met until October this year.

Ann Keen: We did not think of that.

JL: Wouldn't some people think that the property had been a main home, would again become a main home, but could not be called a main home while it was a building site?

Ann Keen: It was my home. I paid council tax, had post delivered there, paid the TV licence, I was in and out until I couldn't do that any longer. Everyone knows that is my home and I did everything in my power to be back in it. It wasn't a building site: it was described in the paper as derelict, but derelict houses don't have post delivered, people going in and out, attending to what they could in the garden.

JL: I note that you did not intend to benefit, but did it happen in fact? Without that support you might have had to stay in a hotel on two or perhaps three nights a week.

Ann Keen: Well, yes, when you put it that way, it did happen. But it was never put to me and so I never considered it. But I can't say no.

I can just picture the wilier and more devious member for Brentford & Isleworth holding her head in disbelief as the witless Alan delivered his (presumably) unintentionally candid response to Lyon's question to him. When I first read it I was reminded with some amusement of John Hurt's powerful portrayal of the unfortunate Timothy Evans in the classic film 10 Rillington Place:

QC: Can you think of any reason why Mr. Christie might have wanted to murder your wife?

Evans: Well, he was home all day.

I'm going to miss the Keens when they're gone.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Mogden Litigation goes to the High Court

The Mogden Residents' Litigation against Thames Water is finally being heard at the Royal Courts of Justice in Central London, in a case which has been scheduled to take place over several weeks.

It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the court proceedings on this blog whilst the case is still live, but we are hopeful that local residents will emerge vindicated.

Pictured right are Liberal Democrat councillor and Prospective Parliamentary Candidate Andrew Dakers, who has publicly called upon Thames to cover the storm tanks which are responsible for most of the odour generated by the plant, and ICG councillor for Isleworth ward Paul Fisher, who gave evidence to the court last week along with Councillor Shirley Fisher, who represents the neighbouring Syon ward.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

New movement gives Independence real meaning

Nearly twelve years ago, shortly after having been elected to the London Borough of Hounslow for the first time as its first ever independent councillor, I attended a meeting of the Local Government Association Independent Group of councillors at the Connaught Hotel in Bournemouth.

To be truthful the reason for my attendance at the meeting was a combination of natural curiosity with an opportunity to take my family away to the seaside for a couple of days. Bournemouth in my view is one of the better resorts on the South Coast - conspicuously clean, much to do but not too populous as Brighton can be at its worst. We couldn't afford to stay at the Connaught but we found an adequate little guest house a few minutes' walk away and were happy enough with that.

At the meeting were a hundred or so independent councillors from around the country. One thing I noticed straight away was that they were mostly older (at 36 I figured I was probably the youngest person in the room), mostly male and almost exclusively white. As they began to speak I also picked up fairly quickly that a disproportionate number of them were from the West Country or thereabouts, representing farming communities.

They didn't have a great deal in common with me or the ICG, whether politically or socially. The majority, but not all, seemed conspicuously right of centre and probably did not know very much about community life in a place like Isleworth. Nevertheless I found them to be a likable bunch and, well, friendly. Some seemed possessed of a sense of humour which I had found lacking amongst many of my fellow councillors back home. I gave out a few of my LBH "business" cards and resolved to keep in occasional touch with this group, although overall I did not consider they could do a great deal to help shape the development of the ICG.

Fast forward nearly twelve years and we are facing a general election, at which the likelihood is that the era of New Labour will draw to a close and will be replaced either by a Conservative government with a clean majority, or a messy and unclear situation รก la February 1974.

I have long argued, to the obvious disappointment of some of my good friends in the local Conservative Group, that the scenario we have before us is not 1997 in reverse. Then an excited and excitable tide of New Labour fervour overwhelmed with embarrassing ease a Conservative establishment that had long been in decline to the point at which it could no longer do anything at all right. At that election half the parliamentary Conservative Party had been wiped out and a new age was well and truly upon us. Things, we were told, could only get better.

Whether things did in fact get better depends of course upon whom one speaks to. What is not in dispute, other than amongst the most absurdly blinkered few who remain loyal to the class of '97 (and they still appear on local community forums from time to time, emerging in fighting mode out of the blue like Japanese nonagenarians from the jungle thinking the war is still on), is that the New Labour project is in its death throes as we approach May 2010 and, for some, the political equivalent of an appointment with a firing squad.

But the situation is not the same as in 1997 because there is no real sense of excitement about the opposition, at least not anything remotely like on the same scale as had been the case when Blair first assumed power. Public disquiet and disgust over expenses has tainted all the major political parties, and the Conservatives nationally only find themselves ahead by virtue of the fact that Labour are behind them. There is a general disillusionment with party politics which could truly herald a new age in national government, as it has in local government in Hounslow.

A couple of months ago I wrote a light-hearted piece for this blog entitled Rise of the Indies, in which I pointed out how betting giants Ladbrokes were shy of offering too generous odds on some of the more high-profile independent candidates who will be standing at the general election for fear that they may cause an upset. Leading Irish bookie Paddy Power has since taken a similarly cautious approach. Although the concept of the independent MP is still in its infancy and will not be making any major breakthroughs this May, the tide is clearly going out on the old politics and looks poised to wash something new and exciting up on the shore when it eventually returns.

This new force is binding together in the form of an organisation called the Independent Network. Rather than being a political party, the Network offers support to independent parliamentary candidates provided they adhere to a few basic, common-sense principles which unite them all. They are then free to fight their different campaigns, on their different issues, from wherever on the so-called political spectrum they happen to reside.

One of the many independent candidates associated with the Network is Tony Clarke, former Labour MP for Northampton South and now an independent member on Northampton Borough Council. As well as being a truly welcome supporter of this blog (!), Tony is also a full-time Director of Northampton Football Club. He has consistently opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has his own distinct political programme with a distinctly "people first" flavour. He also publishes a superb blog of his own entitled The Northampton Independent, which I highly recommend. At the next general election Tony will be seeking to recapture his old seat, and according to the bookies he is not without a

Like I said I am not anticipating a flood of independent MPs being elected to office in May. But the Independent Network and its quality candidates such as Tony and Khizar Iqbal show us clearly that the writing is on the wall for old-style politics in this country.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Eight get cold in Isleworth

There were only eight of us at the ICG Social Drink in the Isleworth Working Men's Club yesterday, but my theory about that is that several of the regular attendees got wind of the fact that the heating had failed and everybody was sitting there in their jumpers and coats, shivering.

Some interesting conversations were engaged in about religion, Marxism, Council Tax and Electronic Data Management Systems, amongst other things. Oh, and elections. It's amazing how rapidly they creep up.

I was taking a look at the results from 2006 today, not just in the wards we are involved in but around the borough. It's difficult to know how the likelihood of a general election on the same day will skew things.

Interesting times.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Why we held out for change on Budget night

Council meeting anoraks plus anybody who may have been apprehensive about the outcome of last night's great Council Tax debate, whether through fear of cuts in services or of increases in taxes, will be aware by now that the proposed Budget for 2010/11, incorporating this administration's fourth 0% tax increase in four years, was eventually approved last night.

The reason it was "eventually approved", rather than being approved straight away, was because two members of the Community Group abstained on the first reading. I was one of those two.

I am proud to have served as part of the coalition that has managed the London Borough for Hounslow. I believe we have achieved many good things. I support the low tax agenda, subject to frontline services not being cut, and as I have said before it is to the great credit of the Leader of the Council, Peter Thompson, that he has overseen a team that has made this all possible.

So why did I and one of my colleagues abstain?

To understand our reasons fully one has to have some background knowledge about the way the coalition has developed over probably the last year or so. And when I speak about the development of the coalition I refer not just to the relationship between the two Groups, but also to how the respective partners have been served by the council organisation in general.

That period of time has been for us one long struggle. The first major indication that something was amiss was probably the Mogden expansion application by Thames Water, where officers even at the very highest level of the local authority engaged in unprecedented lobbying of elected members and on the night of the decision, having read reports and heard presentations from which important information was omitted, councillors from the big parties united to approve the application and leave the ICG, and the long-suffering residents of Isleworth and Hounslow South, high and dry.

But there was more, as Frank Carson might have put it. Section 106 money effectively stolen from the residents of Syon ward and relocated not only into another ward but into another Area Committee's domain also became a political battle which saw the ICG isolated as the mutual political interests of the big parties converged. The defiant organisational resistance to attempts by residents to help improve the Electronic Data Management System (EDMS), obstruction to individual initiatives to empower sections of the Voluntary Sector, intervention by those responsible for managing Communications to misrepresent the Mogden situation in a way that showed the ICG Lead Member and by association the whole Group in an unfavourable light and the Chief Executive's unwillingness to deal with our complaints about same in any meaningful way, and further Chief Officer obstruction over Mogden until the Leader eventually intervened all combined to create a situation in which Community Group priorities were quite demonstrably being dealt with in an entirely different manner than were Conservative Group priorities.

Apart from, in some areas, a blind and unhelpful departmental defensiveness on the part of certain Lead Members, the fault for this situation did not lie with our coalition partners. Except - and it is a very big "except" - that it was allowed to continue. Some Chief Officers became increasingly confident, in cases arrogant almost to the point of openly mocking us, while the low-tax bandwagon rolled smoothly through the year with devoted Chief Officer co-operation, and those whose wet dream the 0% Budget is were happy to remain oblivious, and possibly genuinely knew nothing about what was going on around them.

Added to that there was an element of political insensitivity. At the November 2009 Borough Council meeting the Lead Member for Finance forgot the name of the Group he was in coalition with, but was able to declare confidently last night (presumably in response to my plea for an "aspirational" budget), that the coalition's "aspiration" (i.e. not just his own or his Group's) was not to increase the Council Tax. Just that, nothing more.

I have to say it came as quite a shock to realise that, for sixteen years, I had put my family on the breadline and any other ambition I may have had in life on hold, so that some bloke in W4 would not have to endure the intolerable burden of having to pay the finance installments on his Bentley and another 10p each month on his Council Tax bill.

When all that is said however I still did want to support last night's Budget at the first time of asking. The councillor who suggested that I was electioneering could not have been more mistaken. As some Conservative councillors quite rightly argue, it is the relative poor just outside the benefit threshold who suffer disproportionately when their Council Tax bill goes up. The Leader, and the Lead Member for Finance, had drawn up a Budget which had quite skillfully avoided any incursion into frontline services. It did also include, it has to be said, a £300k package for the Voluntary Sector.

However, during my discussions with the Leader during the day, when I asked whether Community Group priorities could be given just that little bit more emphasis, it was clear that somebody - someone behind him - was playing hardball. Whom I don't know. What I did know is that the disrespect and indifference with which we had been treated by much of the corporate management over the past year or so was manifesting itself defiantly again, even as we approached the fourth and possibly most important Budget of the administration.

My pride would not accept that. I e-mailed my colleagues to tell them that as far as I was concerned it was a free vote (although we don't operate a whip, ordinarily we try our best to reach agreement before votes), and that they should vote as their consciences guided them.

A head count and an impromptu straw poll told me that, if two of us abstained, the Budget was going down by 28 votes to 27. That is what subsequently happened. Many of our partners, I believe, understood and sympathised with what we had done and our reasons for having done it. One certainly didn't, telling one of my colleagues (who had voted in support of the Budget) that we were "only a tiny part of the coalition" and that I'd had "no right to say the things (I had) said". Ironically, it was for the benefit of people who think like this that I had said them. Had it been said to me I would have replied that, right now, we would seem to be rather an important part of the coalition!

When I spoke to the Leader during the ensuing break in proceedings I made it clear to him again that all we wanted was a bit of respect and acknowledgement, and that those who had been advising him had let him down badly. He agreed - not only due to the necessity of the situation but also, I believe, as a matter of principle - and we secured another £250k for community projects (an Empowerment provision predictably described by New Labour as "a waste of money"). The meeting sat once again and the slightly amended Budget was approved by 29 votes to 28.

Needless to say I am not clairvoyant and I've absolutely no idea whether the Community Group will be involved in the next administration in any way, shape or form. As a rule of thumb we hope for the best and try to prepare for the worst. There have been mumblings that a coalition might be sought with individual members of my Group but not myself, but whether there is any truth in them or not I believe I know my colleagues better than that. But if we as a Group are involved we will seek to set out our stall more clearly at the beginning - in an honest, proportionate and reasonable way - and ensure that the organisation is structured in such a way as to respond with equal enthusiasm to the priorities of both or all the parties involved. That would avoid such a situation ever arising again.

I'm glad we've agreed a Budget that incorporates both a 0% tax increase and a substantial contribution to community projects and to the Voluntary Sector. All's well that ends well. Right now I guess we'll all be getting down to our respective election campaigns and let us see what comes out in the mix.