This is only an incomplete account of yesterday’s meeting, because I had to dash out of the gallery in the middle for a long phone-call and then had to leave well before the end. But I was there for what, for me, was the main event – the presentation of the petition calling for change to the pedestrianisation scheme in Palmerston Road’s southern half.
Privatisation of Royal Mail
Before that, though, there was a deputation opposing the privatisation of Royal Mail. The Labour group had a motion on the agenda later on calling on the council to write to Vince Cable asking him to guarantee the service will be maintained; council procedure is that deputations for any item on the agenda are heard before the item is debated. This deputation came from two CWU members. Some of the points made included a complaint about Slindon St sorting centre closing (this was planned before privatisation was even considered), and a complaint during the peroration from the lady who spoke that “this unelected government” was privatising the business. There was also a complaint that Royal Mail employees who are getting shares free can’t sell them for three years.
Having seen Royal Mail in action both domestically and in business, I think there is plenty of room for improvement (and future share earnings growth, union reps please note). I am fed up with having to get parcels from the main post office because agency postal staff don’t bring them out on their rounds (and just shove a card through your door instead – happened 3 times to me now). In the “small parcels” sector, vital for small business, there is no “star performer” in my experience but Royal Mail are certainly not great either on price or quality. Let’s see what the market does – if Royal Mail performs well, the share-owning employees will be on to a very good thing at the end of their initial three-year shareholding.
Palmerston Road petition
After that we came to the presentation of the Palmerston Road petition by Linda Symes. Impressively, this was supported by well over a thousand signatories (and so triggers a full council debate – see this post for the story of the failed Lib Dem attempt to stifle petitions and debate). The themes she picked out in her speech are ones that will be familiar to anyone who’s followed the acrimonious row about the hopeless pedestrianisation of the southern half of Palmerston Road (or indeed, to people who read this blog). Lack of consultation before work was carried out, traffic diverted onto small side roads, antisocial behaviour taking over the whole pedestrianised area, loss of short-term parking, loss of turnover by businesses along the road, disruption for residents.
I have argued in the past that for most businesses pedestrianisation makes no sense and today we heard from some of them in Southsea. Linda Symes read out the testimony of the owner of Sopranos restaurant, who claims that pedestrianisation has had a detrimental effect, creating “another Guildhall Walk” (i.e. an area full of people interested mainly in drinking heavily, rather than the genteel “cafe society” the council aimed at). This means that there are often Police cars or vans parked at either end of the zone to keep an eye on it, acting as a deterrent to trade at night.
After Lynda had spoken, we had one of those little incidents that highlight the fear the Lib Dem administration has of public scrutiny or criticism. There were another four members of the public wishing to support the petition, and ordinarily council rules would divide twelve minutes between them. This may be reasonable where a deputation is on a narrow matter or only a couple of others wish to speak, but with a packed public gallery listening, Cllr Stubbs moved that the relevant standing order be suspended to allow them time to make their case more fully. Cllr Vernon-Jackson opposed it, arguing that “they may speak forever” (although this is fine when his colleague Cllr Andrewes does it). Cllr Jones made the sensible point that it would be “good manners” to allow people who had taken time out of their day specially to attend to make their case. Cllr Vernon-Jackson still objected, but lost the vote; the standing order was suspended so that the makers of deputations could have their say. In the end the four speakers took less than 20 minutes out of a meeting that carried on for six hours; good manners would have cost Cllr Vernon-Jackson very little.
Mr Ali, co-owner of Akram Stores, explained the crippling effect of pedestrianisation. His business has traded for 40 years in Palmerston Road but may soon have to close due to the difficulties. Most of his deliveries come from the North, and can’t always arrive before the delivery curfew PCC imposes, making unloading difficult. Akram Stores have lost 50% of their wholesale business since pedestrianisation because of the difficulty of doing business in Palmerston Rd these days. However, business rates have gone up (by £3000 a year, Mike Hancock later admitted). The planters in the street are used as ashtrays and urinals, and his store “might become another boarded up shop”. Mr Ali feels so strongly about the injustice of climbing business rates while PCC destroys his trade that he may refuse to pay his rates from next month.
We later heard for another speaker (whose name I missed, I’m afraid) that Kashmir restaurant is finding things “critically difficult” with no passing trade, and drunks are putting people off walking down to the bottom end of the road. Midnight restaurant’s owners say they “can’t continue for long”. Bamboo restaurant closed a little while ago, despite great efforts by the owners to revamp the place and provide entertainment for diners.
Next to speak was Sophie Curtis from Preloved, on the corner of Auckland Road and Palmerston Road, talking about the “adverse impact” and loss of passing trade, loss of parking (with just 5 spaces available in the part of the road still open for traffic), and mounting parking charges elsewhere. She made the plea that “you should be helping us create jobs, not lose them”.
Mike Hancock looked well after recent jaunts to Strasbourg (Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly) and Azerbaijan (watching a dictator friend of his rig an election). He replied for the administration. Remember, he’s still a proud Lib Dem Cabinet member at local level though he has resigned the Westminster whip. He started out by attacking the members of the public for presenting a “misleading” petition. Since obviously this was an outrageous statement he couldn’t back up, he started meandering off into how the northern half of Palmerston Road was pedestrianised over 30 years ago. But as he gave a history of the scheme for the southern half, he kept saying “but so-and-so complained so we modified the plan”. To anyone else it would be a sign that the original scheme was incompetently drawn-up, but to Hancock & Co it is a sign of great sagacity. It certainly doesn’t look like a responsible way to spend £500k of scarce public money.
Cllr Stubbs replied for the Conservatives and immediately made that same telling point, adding in the potential for empty shops, the problems of an antisocial behaviour blackspot, and the £31k wasted on the Lennox Road South traffic scheme. He made the point that there was no real consultative exercise with residents, although the Lib Dems constantly claim that objectors are some kind of vocal minority. I only remember one public meeting myself, which I described in the blog post I linked to above as a “shambles”. It seemed to me that the problem wasn’t just that residents weren’t consulted, different departments of PCC (Hancock’s and Fazackerley’s) couldn’t even talk to each other. The Lib Dems later got into even more of a muddle about what questions the more recent consultation on Palmerston Road asked.
Lee Hunt quoted some crime figures which suggest that alcohol-related crime in the area is down compared to historical levels. The flaw is that those figures are for a large part of Southsea, where we have lost the seafront clubs and dozens of pubs. Fifth Avenue, Joanna’s, Peggy Sue’s, Fanshawe’s, Frisco’s, The Parade, Cambridge, Havana, the Outback Bar, all have vanished around Southsea. Instead – and the Police and Council both wanted this policy – the remaining nightlife has been cornered into areas like Palmerston Road South and Guildhall Walk. They have created no-go zones quite needlessly.
The problem with Cllr Hunt’s case – that “crime is down” – is that the Lib Dems still admit that there is a problem with antisocial behaviour in the area. It’s as if they are saying on one hand “there is no problem” but on the other saying “there have always been problems with some pubs and bars in Southsea, get on with it”. The two positions are incompatible.
At that point I had to go out to make a lengthy phone-call, so I missed around 40 minutes. I came back in to hear Cllr Winnington telling everyone that people come from all over the place to get shitfaced in Palmerston Road (naturally he didn’t quite put it like that) so we Southsea residents have no right to complain. It was a terribly arrogant argument and was met with groans from the gallery and headshaking from opposition councillors.
Cllr Fazackerley spoke and admitted that the Lennox Road scheme looked like a panic move. He then blamed the Fire Brigade for not warning him before the closure was made that it was dangerous. I would have thought anyone who is familiar with the road network would be able to figure that out for themselves; but then on that basis, we wouldn’t have that dangerous roundabout at Locksway Road or have had the city gridlocked on Armed Forces weekend.
Eventually the vote was taken, and the very sensible Conservative amendment regretting the lack of consultation and noting the detrimental change in character of Palmerston Road was rejected with the Lib Dems voting it down. The much weaker Hancock motion essentially leaving things as they are, rejecting the petitioners’ request and referring the issue back to Cabinet was passed.
It was a pity I had to miss half the debate, I had been planning to make a deputation myself in support of the petition but I am sure that as the administration are stubbornly refusing to admit they got it wrong I will have the chance to “show them the error of their ways” in future!
“Child D” serious case review
The last item I was able to stay for was “questions from the public”, there being one from Mr Les Cummings on the case of Child D, who died in terrible circumstances. Cllr Vernon-Jackson gave the usual bland assurance that “lessons have been learnt” but did say that “significant changes” are being made. After two damning Serious Case Reviews in the last couple of years, they had better be.
I had to leave at that point, but I gather that the meeting overall lasted 6 hours, and the Lib Dem majority decided not to take questions from council members because it was getting late. Given the scarcity of full council meetings and that they always start in mid-afternoon, the situation is unacceptable. We either need more full council meetings or earlier starts for those we have. The impression anyone on the outside will get after a meeting like yesterday’s is that the Lib Dem administration is petrified of scrutiny or criticism, be it from members of the public or opposition councillors.
Things have got even worse for the Lib Dems overnight. A former senior Lib Dem councillor, Mr Alex Bentley, has just announced he has jumped out of the frying pan to join Labour. The On The Record service who provide advice to troubled young people have had to announce drastic measures in order to stay open in the wake of being messed around by the City Council. Things are likely to keep on getting worse for the Lib Dems, but sadly that means that they are likely to get worse for everyone else first. Next May’s local elections feel a long way off at the moment.