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.

The Medway Tory leadership race is on

The Medway Conservative Group are now looking for a new leader after Cllr Rodney Chambers announced he is to step aside.

As the Conservatives have an overall majority, following last Thursday’s election, the victor will also ascend to Leader of the Council on 27 May, when Cllr Chambers will officially step down after 15 years in charge of Medway Council.

Cllr Chambers said:

I am enormously proud to have been the leader of Medway Council for the past 15 years. In this time the council has delivered many successful outcomes, which have positively changed Medway, benefitting the place and the people – our residents and businesses.

Much has been achieved that I am so proud of, and Medway undoubtedly has a very bright future. I am confident my successor will build on the record of the last 15 years and take Medway on to new heights.

I will continue to serve the people of Medway as a councillor following full council and I will offer my support to the new leader and look forward to seeing more success for Medway in the next few years.

The decision sparks a short leadership race which, almost undoubtedly, will take place behind closed doors. However, the reality is that there are few likely winners amongst the current ranks (one potential contender left last week to fight an election campaign in East Kent) and whoever wins will need to ensure the constituency splits which sadly occurred from time to time are kept to an acceptable minimum, although the debate has already started:

Tweet1

Tweet2

Tweet3

The new leader will also need to bear in mind that, whilst the number of Conservative councillors rose again last Thursday, the average share of the vote per candidate1 dropped to its lowest level since they first took overall control of the council in 2003, as the graph from Medway Elects shows (below).

Average Vote Share

The new leader will be wise to accept that, whilst a(n increased) majority remains, the electorate should not be taken for granted. On average, 66% of voters did not want a Tory councillor2 – and a change of leader is the perfect opportunity for a change of direction to win over the voters who did not receive their support.

I congratulate Cllr Chambers on his long period of dedicated public service, and hope that his successor is able to bring about a positive change for the Tories and for Medway.

Whoever it is, and whatever path they carry Medway along, rest assured that I will be scrutinising them just as closely as ever!

Notes:

1. I calculate vote share as an average of the number of votes received by each candidate. This is, I believe, the most accurate reflection of both the fact that many people may not have been able to vote for their preferred party, and that all but one of the council’s 22 wards are multi-member, allowing multiple and often split votes and making it impossible to see how many people actually support a party in each ward.

2. Do not mistake my mention of a majority voting against the Tories for advocacy for proportional representation at a council level. Whilst I support PR for parliamentary elections (and always have done), at a local level, councillors really are, first and foremost, their constituents’ representatives – and that strong personal link between councillor and constituent must be maintained. The national PR argument is another argument for another day!

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.

*

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).

*

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