Published: 09:59, 24 April 2019
| Updated: 10:00, 24 April 2019
Council-owned Medway Commercial Group has not “stepped up to the plate” admitted leader Cllr Alan Jarrett (Con) in a fiery pre-election debate.
Speaking at the MidKent College event, which was organised by blog The Political Medway, the Lordswood and Capstone representative said he was willing to admit if he’d been wrong and on the controversial MCG he had, adding: “It has not worked out.”
His comments came in response to a question about the company’s maintenance of the Towns’ CCTV network, half of which was revealed not to be working last year, with £80,000 of taxpayers’ money spent rectifying the situation.
Cllr Jarrett said the council had now “turned a corner” on CCTV but mere mention of the saga was all Labour counterpart Cllr Vince Maple needed to launch an attack on MCG - which has received £15 million from the council since 2015 and is currently under financial investigation.
The company’s failures and the closure of Sure Start centres across the Towns formed the backbone of Cllr Maple’s critique of Tory rule.
'Does it not emphasise what an enormous waste of money [Brexit prep] would have been that it has been delayed until October and might not happen at all?' — Cllr Alan Jarrett
The Chatham Central representative said 100,000 Sure Start visits had been lost in four years, with the shutting of the centre in Brompton meaning the Tories had “already failed” in their manifesto pledge to support military families.
But Cllr Jarrett fought back, controversially declaring that Sure Start needed reform as it had become a way of getting “child care on the cheap”.
He said the council’s approach had been “affordable” and drew laughs when he announced “most users are happy with the system”.
“Medway is a better place for 19 years of Conservative administration,” he said.
Despite cuts in government funding, he argued, Medway still had the best council tax in Kent and best waste collection.
He pointed out that £10 million had been invested in the Towns’ roads in the past year, £1.2m of which had gone into the Medway Tunnel.
On the issue of Brexit, both men agreed it was right to honour the referendum result but Cllr Maple was critical of the council’s failure to prepare for a no-deal scenario.
Cllr Jarrett responded: “Does it not emphasise what an enormous waste of money it would have been that it has been delayed until October and might not happen at all?”
On education both lamented the council’s lack of control.
“It’s one of the the foibles of the education system,” said Cllr Jarrett, “that local authorities do not have responsibility for most schools but do have responsibility for [70,000] young people.”
He’d previously celebrated the fact 86% of schools in the Towns are now good or outstanding, “comparing favourably with any other council”.
Previously ratings in Medway were languishing around the bottom of the league tables.
Cllr Maple pointed out: “I recognise they are better than they were but they couldn’t have got many worse,” 92nd in the league table, he added, still wasn’t good enough.
Cllr Jarrett’s biggest gripe with the Labour manifesto was the budget.
“There’s no bottomless pit of money,” he said, adding: “We know how to manage money.
“The Labour manifesto cannot possibly be delivered without cuts to services or increases in council tax.”
He had worked out Labour would need to find an additional £60m in the first year to achieve its promises.
Cllr Maple offered some solutions, axing the “vanity project” Medway Matters magazine and MCG, for example, and quipped: “The only MCG I want come May 2 is Medway Conservatives gone.”
Homelessness proved particularly contentious, with Cllr Jarrett saying it was the council’s “absolute duty” to help rough sleepers.
But he claimed the services in place were so good they’d seen homeless people coming from as far away as Thanet to take advantage of them.
Cllr Maple thought more needed to be done, praising central government for voting to end section 21 evictions, where tenants can be booted out without a reason, but criticising the local Tories for voting against the move.
He said the council needed to do more to crackdown on rogue landlords and that additional affordable housing was needed.
Medway Development Company - the council’s housebuilding wing - would be retained under a Labour administration, he said, but redirected into affordable home construction.
On the subject of development, both stood firm behind their support of the controversial Lodge Hill development, which would initially have seen 5,000 homes built on the former barracks at Chattenden but has now been scaled down to 500.
Cllr Jarrett said Homes England, which is behind the plans, had “run scared from the environmental lobby” and he didn’t think there would ever be homes there.
Both he and Cllr Maple were worried if Lodge Hill wasn’t developed, homes would be forced onto less appropriate sites.
To conclude Cllr Jarrett pointed to the fact Medway’s economy now stood at £5 billion, 14,000 new businesses had come into the Towns and Labour’s manifesto was “undeliverable”.
Cllr Maple said he wanted Medway to be the very best it could be for everyone who lived there.
He said Labour would put an end to “vanity projects like fireworks and Japanese roundabouts”.
The Political Medway’s Ed Jennings said: “We were thrilled nearly 200 residents turned up on a Thursday night before a bank holiday to listen to a discussion about the future of Medway.
“We’re really happy with how everything went and the positive response to it, and we look forward to putting on further events in the future.”