Medway Council to purchase Pentagon Centre

Those intrepid investigators over at The Political Medway had the scoop last night that Medway Council are set to purchase the Pentagon Centre for up to £45 million.

The Council already own the freehold to the Pentagon Centre, that is they own the land the Pentagon Centre sits on, but it is leased to Chatham LLP, who own and manage the Pentagon Centre itself. A partnership between Bridges Ventures (a property fund manager) and Ellandi (who own a number of shopping centres in the UK), Chatham LLP also own the freehold to 205-209a and 181a-189 High Street, shops which stand at either side of the High Street entrance to the Pentagon. It is the head lease to the Pentagon and these adjoining properties Medway Council is proposing to acquire.

The devil in these kinds of acquisitions is, as they say, in the detail. And while the public have been made aware of the proposed purchase and the budget to be set aside via an agenda item for next week’s council meeting, as the capital purchase must be approved by full council, the public report barely covers four sides of A4.

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Rainham Central councillor Mike O’Brien loses cancer battle

Sad news coming from Medway Council this morning, as it has been confirmed that Rainham Central Councillor Mike O’Brien last night lost his battle with cancer.

Cllr O’Brien, who was also the Cabinet Portfolio Holder responsible for Children’s Services, had been battling with the disease for some months. His ward colleague, and Gillingham and Rainham MP, Rehman Chishti has pledged to run next year’s London Marathon in aid of Cancer Research UK following Cllr O’Brien’s diagnosis.

First elected to Medway Council in 2007, Cllr O’Brien was given the Community Safety brief after Cllr Chishti’s election to Parliament in 2010. However, he has long been a champion for young people and was subsequently appointed as the Lead Member for Children’s Services following the sacking of Cllr Les Wicks in 2013.

Cllr O’Brien has not attended a meeting of the full Council since 25 February, while his last committee meeting was the Audit Committee on 10 March. However, he has been continuing his Cabinet role and having regular meetings at home in between treatment sessions.

The Leader of the Council, Cllr Alan Jarrett, said:

He was a wonderful friend to all and an outstanding and dedicated councillor and cabinet member, who I and fellow councillors thoroughly enjoyed working with. Our thoughts are with Sheila, Martin and the rest of his family at this difficult time.

Mike was incredibly committed to his children’s services portfolio and despite his illness over recent months he continued to work. I enjoyed visiting him at his home to update him on council business and to catch up with a good friend.

Over the years Mike achieved many things, but his biggest passion was by far his family – his wife Sheila, two children and six grandchildren.

Medway Labour Group Leader, Cllr Vince Maple, added:

The council chamber will be a lesser place without Mike’s wit and strong debating style. He will be missed by all who knew him personally. The thoughts of the whole of the Labour Group are with Mike’s family and friends at this difficult time.

On a personal note, I will always remember Mike as a kind and caring man, occasionally offering words of encouragement while I was studying and wise advice about the dangers of smoking (reminding me on a few occasions that I should quit!).

Medway Council has lost one of the nicest men in politics and he will be sorely missed by his family and friends.

You can support Rehman Chishti’s fundraising efforts for Cancer Research UK via his JustGiving page.

A by-election will be held in Rainham Central in due course, meaning a second round of voting in Medway following this week’s resignation of councillor Catriona Brown-Reckless. Residents in Strood South will go to the polls on 20 October.

Photo: Mike O’Brien (right) in discussion with Rehman Chishti earlier this year. Credit: Facebook/Councillor Mike O’Brien.

Could the Tory administration be falling?

Something interesting happened at Medway’s Full Council meeting last Thursday.

No, I’m not talking about the protesters who were literally bussed in to the St George’s Centre and ultimately ended up disrupting proceedings.

In fact, the moment to watch came during the discussion and vote on the Rochester Airport Master plan – a vote which was recorded at the request of Labour to show residents that, whilst those nasty Tories were trying to formulate a plan to boost growth and create jobs in Medway, they were dead against creating a shorter, pave runway and selling off the surplus land for business units.

No, they’d rather rip another vein out of Medway’s heritage, flog the lot and, presumably, create another housing estate without the necessary infrastructure to go with it. They, together with the Liberal Democrats, tried it before. They’ve not had control of the council since, though I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

What should really interest the political geeks of the borough (and either excite or concern residents, depending on your point of view) is what one Councillor Rupert Turpin said, and how the Deputy Leader of the Council responded.

For Cllr Turpin, still only in his first term as a councillor in Rochester South and Horsted (which, incidentally, is one of the wards which will be most affected by what happens to Rochester Airport), dared to challenge the authority of the great Councillor Rodney Chambers OBE, Leader of the Council for almost 14 years and councillor for more years than anyone would dare remind him.

Cllr Turpin believed, like a lot of people opposed to the plans, that he was not getting the answers he wanted from the relevant parties. Aggrieved, he abstained when it came to the vote, and was not afraid of placing on record exactly why he was doing so.

It is a sight seldom seen in public, and apparently came as much of a surprise to his colleagues as it did to those of us still left in the public gallery. But it wasn’t just Cllr Turpin’s actions that should have raised eyebrows.

Cllr Alan Jarrett, the Deputy Leader of the Council could not let matters lie, and sought to stamp his authority – in a public council meeting. He claimed that no business would answer Cllr Turpin’s questions and subtly suggested that he had no good reason to abstain.

Fast forward to the recorded vote and Cllr Turpin did indeed abstain. It may not be earth-shattering, but it is a sign that Cllr Chambers’ authority is slipping, and that his support from his own members may be ebbing away.

And, as I will show later, I believe that this is just the tip of the iceberg…

Cllr Les Wicks sacked as schools supremo

As far as political inevitability goes, the departure of Cllr Les Wicks from Medway Council’s cabinet ranks pretty highly.

However, the surprise is that it has taken until last night’s annual meeting of Medway Council for the Leader of the Council, Cllr Rodney Chambers, to show Cllr Wicks the door.

My position on this issue has been clear for a long time. Back when my blood ran in the deepest blue imaginable, I argued that Cllr Wicks and the relevant Director should resign in the best interests of Medway’s children. She left, but Cllr Wicks stayed.

This sorry saga has become a drawn-out embarrassment for the Conservative Group and was one of the few local issues which influenced my decision to leave the party. Cllr Wicks’ continued presence on the cabinet became one big distracting sideshow, while the children in Medway suffered, partly as a result.

It may be that Cllr Chambers hoped that the furore would die down in time, but bad news kept piling on the pressure and the anger from parents in Medway never subsided. At last month’s full council meeting, yet another petition of 800 signatures was presented, calling on his resignation. Cllr Chambers continued to praise his embattled cabinet member, but the writing was surely on the wall.

When I wrote my notorious post calling for Cllr Wicks to resign in 2011, I did so with a heavy heart, because he was a councillor I respected. Such respect has been severely dented after he hung on to his post far longer than he should have.

Now that Cllr Wicks and his cabinet colleague for children’s social care, Cllr David Wildey, have gone, I hope that we can finally put this matter to bed and support the pairing of Cllr Mike O’Brien, taking both jobs, and cabinet newcomer Cllr Kelly Tolhurst, taking a newly created Educational Improvement portfolio (under the direction of the Children’s Services portfolio holder), as they settle into their new roles.

Only time will tell if they are the right people for the job, but I wish them the very best of luck and will reserve judgement for a suitable period of time. After all, change doesn’t happen overnight.

But if it change doesn’t happen at all, it is only the children of Medway who suffer.

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Other changes were introduced to the cabinet last night. In moving to the Children’s Services portfolio, Cllr O’Brien vacated the Community Safety and Customer Contact portfolio he inherited from Cllr Rehman Chishti when he became an MP in 2010. This portfolio has been taken over by another cabinet newcomer, Cllr David Carr.

Meanwhile, veteran Cllr Tom Mason has been removed from the cabinet as his Corporate Services portfolio was abolished. The functions he carried out have been split amongst the remaining portfolio holders, of which there are now nine (down from ten).

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The new cabinet looks as follows:

Leader – Cllr Rodney Chambers
Deputy Leader and Finance – Cllr Alan Jarrett
Adult Services – Cllr David Brake
Children’s Services (Lead Member) – Cllr Mike O’Brien
Educational Improvement – Cllr Kelly Tolhurst
Community Safety and Customer Contact – Cllr David Carr
Front Line Services – Cllr Phil Filmer
Housing and Community Services – Cllr Howard Doe
Strategic Development and Economic Growth – Cllr Jane Chitty

Medway car parking charges cut (sort of)

Medway Council’s annual budget meeting descended into farce on Thursday with over one quarter of councillors refusing to vote.

The Finance Portfolio Holder, Cllr Alan Jarrett had presented last-minute amendments to the budget which included incorrect figures that had to be corrected during the meeting.

Despite assurances from both the Chief Executive Neil Davies and the Monitoring Officer Perry Holmes that the verbal corrections were acceptable, the Labour Group claimed that the budget was illegal and refused to vote.

But the embarrassment for the Conservative administration didn’t end when the meeting closed.

Those following my live tweets from the meeting will have seen that, from the public gallery, I picked up an error over the car parking charges in Medway:

In the 2012/2013 budget, parking charges across Medway were increased for the first time in years:

Fast-forward to Thursday night, and the proposed prices for 2013/2014 reflected the pre-2012 prices as both the existing and proposed prices:

When the Council (or, more correctly, the Conservative councillors) approved the budget, they bound the council to every measure and proposal contained within it – including the pre-2012 parking prices.

In a panic, the Cabinet had to use the Special Urgency Decisions provision contained within the Constitution to increase the parking prices back to current levels before they are required to introduce the prices approved in the budget in April.

This means that, once again, there is no happy ending for Medway’s motorists and visitors.