Leading the way forward

PUBLISHED: 14:45 04 March 2009 | UPDATED: 10:30 23 August 2010

THIS week Paul Carter, the leader of Kent County Council, speaks exclusively to the Gravesend Reporter about the big issues affecting the county. In this rare interview with reporter Ed Riley, he discusses everything from the recession to his anger at pla

THIS week Paul Carter, the leader of Kent County Council, speaks exclusively to the Gravesend Reporter about the big issues affecting the county. In this rare interview with reporter Ed Riley, he discusses everything from the recession to his anger at plans for an airport on the Thames Estuary.

ER: KENT County Council (KCC) invested £50m in the Icelandic banks, Landsbanki, Heritable and Glitnir Bank, which collapsed. Why did you invest in these banks, were you not warned against it and will this impact on council services?

PC: Our deposits spread over 31 banking institutions. We were reliant upon the credit ratings supplied to us by others and which were advising all sorts of public bodies at the time.

Across those 31 institutions, we had about eight or nine per cent of our deposits in Icelandic banks.

Luckily, we didn't have any money in Lehman Brothers, or some of the other banks that have fallen by the wayside.

But who could have told us 18 months ago that Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, some of the Swiss banks, UBS and others were going to be in a real pickle?

It wasn't only us that got caught out. The Audit Commission got caught, Transport for London got caught, many of the hospital trusts had money deposited in Iceland.

The loss of this money is not having any impact on KCC services. We still have £550 million deposited elsewhere.

It is a bit optimistic to think we will get all of the money back, but I think we will make a significant recovery of those deposits.

ER: The council are giving council staff a one per cent pay increase this year, which is not in line with inflation.

How do you justify that?

PC: A one per cent increase is appropriate and I think it is generous.

Staff also get a performance-related element and they get a time served increment as well so it is not just one per cent.

They would be very stupid to take industrial action.

The mood of the public would be totally against them if they did strike.

They would damage the unions themselves.

ER: The Tax Payers Alliance revealed that 400 KCC staff are on £50,000 plus a year. Calls for changes to the wage structure were also rejected at a council meeting recently. How can these wages be justified, especially during the economic climate?

PC: We are the largest local authority in the country and the largest employer in the whole of Kent.

We are running a business with a turnover of £2.2 billion a year, employing 40,000 staff.

I think we are a very lean organisation and that the size and the scale of those jobs running a business of that significance warrants high salaries.

Those appointments will go to people that have got an extraordinary and successful track record.

ER: Staff bonuses for the top eight earners in KCC have been revealed to total £100,000. Is that fair?

PC: It is part of their contract that they are entitled to performance-related assessments. The performance-related payments don't necessarily get paid to all of the chief officers. It is subject to a detailed discussion between myself and the chief executive

I think £100,000 spread across eight, when not all of them get it every single year as an automatic right, is fair. This year they have decided that it would not be appropriate for them to ask for a performance-related increment on their pay.

Compare that to those bankers that went before the Treasury Select Committee, who are all on salaries of £4 million - with massive bonuses - to £100,000 being shared amongst eight top officers of the largest authority in the country.

ER: How has the credit crunch impacted on the council and its services? Are you going to be making people redundant?

PC: It is too early for me to know whether redundancies will happen. But we are already feeling it and we will continue to feel it to a greater extent in the coming year.

I have spoken about the £550 million that was deposited at one time across 31 banking institutions.

It is receiving much less interest than it has been, and that has a significance of £3 - £5 million.

ER: How can you help people that are being made redundant, and struggling with mortgages and debts?

PC: We are working on that at the moment. We have just announced an additional £250,000 to go to Citizens Advice Bureaus in Kent.

We are working on a whole series of initiatives - not just to support Kent business but to support the citizens of Kent in these hard times.

I am not going to announce today what those initiatives may be, but clearly there are all sorts of agencies, from Department of Work and Pensions, Job Centre plus, Business Link to Train to Gain, to a series of agencies working with companies where there are redundancies or significant businesses going into administration.

ER: Royal Mail - do you support the part sale of Royal Mail?

PC: In the past to privatise certain companies was the right thing to do because the public sector was grossly inefficient in a number of ways.

But some have worked exceptionally well, and some of them haven't worked so well.

Now the private sector needs to be reminded that the public sector has also woken up to deliver much more affective efficient services and can compete in the way that it couldn't do 16 to 18 years ago.

I don't know the business case for doing so and what the suggested outcomes would be for part privatisation, but I suspect that the semi-privatisation of Royal Mail is not the right thing to do.

The cost of Royal Mail and what the customer has to pay has got to be reviewed.

ER: Should we limit the number of jobs going to foreign workers?

PC: Over the last 10 years nearly two thirds of people migrating into this country are coming from outside of the EU. Certainly this migration needs to be tightly managed and tightly controlled by central government. A lot of those individuals came into the job market to fill work places, and they are much needed individuals to fill those posts.

But if we get massive rising unemployment, we need to be aware of what skills are within the indigenous population, and train and re-skill individuals in this country, while at the same time closing the valve of inward migration outside of the European community.

Concerning migration within the EU, under the EU Treaties there is a freedom to move and travel within the EU. So we can't stop it, we have got to keep to the rules.

ER: Could we see more protests across Kent in the face of growing redundancies and unemployment?

PC: I hope not. I want to try and remain optimistic, but we haven't yet reached the bottom of the trough.

Hopefully, we will be there very shortly and we will start to see some green shoots. From my 30 years in business, this recession is very, very different from any that I have seen in my career and I think the global economy and the banking economy has fundamentally changed for the next 20 years.

ER: What do you think of Boris Johnson's airport proposal for the Thames Estuary?

PC: I am vehemently opposed to Boris Johnson's idea. We are going to agree to disagree on the issue, and I hope we can still do significant business with the Greater London Authority.

Do we need another runway in the greater South East? I don't think we do.

In Kent we have Manston airport which has enormous potential to grow, with owners and operators that would like to see Manston expanded by up to six million passenger movements.

I am totally opposed to the estuary airport idea. I think we are in dreamland. It will never happen, not in our lifetimes. During a global recession, where is aviation traffic growth going to come from? I think the growth in aviation travel will not be as extreme as has previously been suggested.

ER: The Dartford Crossing causes a lot of congestion in north Kent. Should the tolls be scrapped?

PC: Instead of stopping the tolls altogether, I would like to see the revenue the government collects from the tolls every year spent on improving the highways network in Kent and Essex. Currently that is not the case.

We need a third Thames crossing - anybody that travels regularly from Dartford to Essex knows that.

According to the Environment Agency and the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, we desperately need a second Thames barrier.

We should look at incorporating a big civil engineering project that acts as a second Thames barrier and an additional Thames crossing. If we could utilise the £55 million worth of surplus money made from the tolls every year, that could go towards delivering this.

ER: How do you respond to the criticism that Kent TV has received and do you think the 800,000 hits in its first year are good enough.

PC: We have invested in some really exciting technology in Kent TV. I suspect that in 10 or 20 years community television, which is what Kent TV is, will be pretty commonplace up and down the country.

The content is obviously really important and significant and I know that we have got to develop and edit some of ours. I admit that some of it is a bit tired and stale. In July and August we will look at the first two years and we will make a decision as to whether to roll it out for another couple of years or not.

We have just saved £1 million in publications because we can now communicate cheaply through Kent TV I have no idea whether 800,000 hits is good or bad.

You could say I should as a leader of the council, but when we decide whether we will go again for another two years we will do a proper evaluation.

ER: The British National Party (BNP) were victorious in the St Mary's Ward in Swanley. Was this result a surprise?

PC: It's a great wake up call for both the Conservatives and for the Labour party and I would hate to see the BNP gaining credence in Kent. I think for too long now we have had middle ground politics, and I think we need to open up a bit of clear blue water. We need to make sure that our Conservative policies are relevant to the people that we represent and articulate it to the residents of the county. That is at a national level with David Cameron, and with Paul Carter in Kent, Jeremy Kite in Dartford and Mike Snelling in Gravesham.

ER: The Ebbsfleet Landmark. Do you like the winning design?

PC: The design is very old fashioned and I am certainly not a lover of it. It is not my choice and it is not my style.

You need something there that is contemporary, something that looks at the past but also mixes that with a vision for the future. I don't think a white cart horse really does that.

ER: The Olympics comes to London in 2012. What benefits will it bring to Kent?

PC: It will bring a great deal. Most importantly it will motivate young people to engage in sport. The Olympics will leave a legacy of the importance of sport and quality of life for new generations to come.

It is a great shame that we are not hosting any of the Olympic sports and I think it would be great for Dartford Shooting club if we were to have the Olympic shooting event staged there.

It is regrettable that the county is not being chosen as a place with venues, but I think we are doing quite well in securing training camps. I am sure an enormous number of Kent residents will be volunteering and supporting the Olympics in 2012.

ER: Finally, what is your vision for the future of Kent?

PC: We want to continue building momentum for the transformation of education in Kent.

We want to create an economy that will give job opportunities to all of those young people. Making sure that we plan ahead, in a very fast changing world, and have a bit of "Victorian vision" to make sure that we start to plan now for significant changes that are coming to Kent.

Doing nothing is not an option.

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