Southend Labour have done it - free school meals in half-term

Leadership is one of my favourite subjects. It is the foundation of what I do for a living and from personal experience there are so many mistakes to be had and opportunities to make a difference.


The more familiar I have become with local politics, the more I have become aware of a trend that points culpability towards central government when things are not right. Issues surrounding the stroke unit being moved to Basildon is one such example. There is nothing we can do, the decision is out of our hands.


Yesterday it was announced by Southend Council that free school meals will be provided for during the half-term, which is in direct contrast to central government. The debate had begun only recently and yet the speed at which this decision was made and now implemented is a real victory for morals driving policy towards what is right.


The bureaucracy that surrounds the democratic nature of politics is so laborious that this would have taken unwavering and uncompromising passion by the people behind this success. “No” could not have been an option.


I am delighted with all those unsung heroes that collectively brought this together, and the leadership of Cllr Ian Gilbert and the Labour-led coalition. Because of this decision there will be children with food in their bellies and parents or guardians whose despair, worry and pain will be only ever so slightly and temporarily relieved.


This will not be the fix that changes their lives and so it is not a cause for celebration. The struggle, stress and strain for families in this position will still be there every day. But for the first time in a long time I actually feel a sense of hope. That this might be the start of a mentality in local political leadership that when issues negatively affect Southend people, we stop at nothing to smash the barriers out of our way to fix the wrongs that are right front of our eyes.


We walk around our town every day and we know what needs to change. Have you ever wondered why we do not have enough beds in the hospitals? Why your child is struggling to learn alongside 35 children in a class? Why there is homelessness? Why drug dealing is rife? Why the high street is desperately failing? Why so many people are out of work? It’s because local government really doesn’t have the powers it needs to make the necessary changes, even when the will is there. Watch the Full Council meetings online and you will note a repeated theme.


And this is why I am even more encouraged by what has happened. It coincides with the decision not to follow Essex County Council’s request and subsequent acceptance into Tier 2, which would have been so easy to follow because we are part of the county – but we didn’t. There would have been a strength required to stand firm and stand up to what was right for Southend, particularly because logic might have suggested that neighbouring towns would be in the same situation and would therefore need the same remedy.


For a moment it almost feels like something has changed. That when things are clearly not as they should be, our first thought will no longer be we cannot do anything about it because it is out of our hands. No. Instead it will be that every time central government acts against the interests of Southend, the leadership of this town will be an unrelenting force that will never stop in making them put it right.


It is a leadership that I would be - and am - proud to follow.

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