Report on County Council Matters to North Nibley Annual Assembly 2nd April 2012
This of course can only be a summary of what has been happening at the County Council.
County issues that could also have come under my report as Town Mayor have been put here to avoid duplication (and since this report goes to three other councils).
What I do on the County Council
The Liberal Democrat group continues as the official opposition and I continue as Shadow Portfolio Holder for Strategic Planning and Transport matters, European issues and those issues involving carbon reduction and climate change.
I have continued to be my group’s lead member on the Environment Overview and Scrutiny Committee, Planning Committee, Traffic Regulation Order Committee and Commons and Rights of Way Committee. However, reductions in county council staff mean that the last only meets about once a year and the backlog of requests for modification orders is growing.
During the year I have been a member the County Council’s Severn Estuary Task Group, looking into flooding issues and the Environment Agency’s proposals for the future.
The county’s Stroud Road Safety Liaison Group has continued to meet, but with little support from the county’s Road Safety Partnership. I continue to chair the Stroud one, with Paul Smith as vice-chairman. The other five liaison groups that existed in the county now barely exist.
I am a member of Gloucestershire’s Climate Change Panel and I also attend meetings of the Cotswold Energy and Environmental Management Group, of which Gloucestershire County Council has membership.
I continue as a member of the Severn Estuary Partnership, but now as an individual member paying the subscription myself, rather than representing the County Council, who have now appointed a Conservative member.
With the run-down of regional bodies my role there has decreased, but I continue to be a regionally appointed member of South West Councils.
During the year I was re-elected nationally to the Local Government Association’s Rural Policy Review Group and I also attend the LGA’s Rural Commission where I represent Gloucestershire. This body met on Wednesday last week, the day after the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework. We were pleased to see that many of the LGA’s concerns about the draft had been met in the final version. One win was that for the next twelve months decision-takers can continue to give full weight to relevant policies adopted since 2004, even if there is a limited degree of conflict with the Framework. This will include Stroud’s local plan which was adopted in November 2005.
County Council Budget
The County Council has set a standstill council tax equivalent to £1090.50 at Band D. To achieve this, the county has cut costs by £29.5M. The intention is to cut expenditure by £114M over 4 years of which this has been the first. During the financial year 2010/2011 staffing (FTE) fell from 4266 to 3576. By 1st January this year it had fallen to 3192.
The County Council has total reserves of £106M. Parts of this are in the Transformation Reserve standing at £19.7M, set up to meet redundancy and retirement costs, much of which is unlikely to be needed and in an Impairment Reserve of over £7M held against potential losses from investment in Icelandic Banks. Paying back by the banks of the whole of the latter, plus interest has already started.
A Liberal Democrat amendment to the budget would have invested a further £7.7M in the county to improve services, boost the economy and create jobs, without increasing council tax. The council adjourned for about an hour for the administration to consider the amendment. In the end all they agreed was the freezing of the cost of Meals on Wheels for the coming year and also freezing the cost of on-street parking in the county, which mostly affects Cheltenham and Gloucester. The proposal included £2M for road maintenance, without which the county will not be able to meet the £13.4M needed each year just to stop the roads deteriorating further.
These continuing cuts of course entail a significant cut-back in services and an expectation that local communities will welcome the “opportunity they have always wanted” to run things for themselves.
The County Council administration made a decision last spring to cut back the library service as one of its savings measures. This decision included the closure of ten libraries. At one stage the proposal was to sell off the current Wotton library building and for the library to share the police station with the police.
A lot of lobbying led to a much improved proposal to keep the present library as a county library opening 12 hours per week with two members of staff but with another 10 hours of opening available with one member of staff and one local volunteer. In addition the police would move out of the police station and would have a “policing point” in the library; this has happened. Under this arrangement the Town Council was to pick up the costs of cleaning the library and grounds maintenance. The police move was not welcomed, but it has helped to keep the library open.
Last summer the library proposals were successfully challenged in the High Court and at a subsequent judicial review in September. All the proposals for cuts were put on hold, including the scrapping of the mobile library service.
Consultation took place on a new library strategy between 30th January and 12th March.
The new proposals reinstate three libraries in Gloucester and Cheltenham as county libraries. They also take another look at the future of the mobile library service, with the possibility of combining it with other mobile services.
On six occasions in County Council Cabinet meetings and in a full meeting of the Council I asked whether under the new proposals the opening hours of Wotton library
would be equal to those proposed prior to the judicial review (assuming the volunteers are still available). Only on the sixth occasion did I get what appears to be a straight “yes”. Other libraries do not seem to have been so fortunate.
At its next meeting on Thursday the Cabinet will decide on a 300+ page report on libraries, following the consultation. It remains to be seen if the County has met the concerns of the Judicial Review.
Youth Centres and Youth Work
The county’s administration took a decision last year to close all traditional youth centres and to cease funding youth work activity apart from an intention to develop a targeted service to support the most vulnerable.
The county would assist local organisations in setting up their own youth provision, in the case of Wotton by providing up to 50% of the sale proceeds of the former youth centre to enable the conversion of another building. Wotton’s youth centre was put up for sale for £200k as a “three-bedroom house in need of renovation” and the speed with which it was sold suggests the county council will receive close to that figure.
Wotton put in a bid for funds to convert the former police station, which belongs to the Town Trust. The initial offer from the county was “up to £50k”. Rather like the library position it has taken a long time to improve and firm up what was on offer, firstly to £50k, and then two weeks ago, again following much badgering of council officers and cabinet members, to the town’s requested figure of £69k, with an agreement to be completed and signed. In the meantime the Town Council has received planning permission for the change of use of the former police station.
Another cut has been a 40% (£2M) reduction in the budget for subsidised bus services. Consultation took place last May and June, marred by inaccurate information on the date of the local “roadshow”. To make up for this I contacted a large number of local residents and Wotton’s “roadshow” attracted the fifth highest attendance rate of the 23 held. The top four were all principal towns in their districts.
(This has left Wotton’s bus services unscathed. The Wotton Hopper (288) is continuing. There was a local request for a change of day from Thursday to Friday, with Tuesdays continuing. This is taking place this month with Stroud Ring and Ride running the service.)
Consultation on Mike’s Travel (201), the only direct service between Wotton and Gloucester, received more questionnaire responses than any in the county apart from three urban services in Cheltenham.
The result of a further round of tendering for services earlier this year, mostly affecting Berkeley Vale and Dursley is being analysed. It may marginally improve services to Wotton. One intention is to provide a service to the new hospital. (In the meantime the NHS is in trouble for not providing transport from the hospital to existing bus routes, which was a planning condition.) We should know what has been achieved shortly.
County Residual Waste Disposal Project
The County Council is continuing to press ahead with its plans for waste disposal. In a series of steps the bidders for this project have been whittled down to one. In December the cabinet meeting decided to award the contract to the Urbaser-Balfour Beatty consortium who are proposing an energy from waste facility (incinerator) at the county owned site at Javelin Park, close to junction 12 of the M5.
A call-in of this decision by members of my group failed, but the committee hearing the call-in was critical of some inaccurate information in the report to Cabinet.
The planning application has now been submitted and is likely to come to the County Council’s planning committee for determination around the end of this calendar year. I am already receiving several e-mails each day from objectors.
Waste Core Strategy
This will provide the planning framework for waste management across the county from 2012 to 2027. A planning inquiry into the proposals has recently taken place. This has been used as a pilot for running an inquiry under the curious rules of the Localism Act.
County Council Electoral Boundary Review
The Boundary Commission were asked to review the county council members’ electoral divisions to remove the disliked and unexpected two-member divisions resulting from the last review.
However, the Commission said they could only do that by looking at all the electoral division boundaries in the county. During a consultation and based on very limited support, mostly from the Conservative county administration (and not all of them agreed), the Commission decided that the number of county councillors should be reduced from 63 to 53. This was done without any thought to the effect on the ground, an especial consideration in rural areas. This led eventually to the Commission’s final draft proposals that locally extend the current Wotton division to include the District Council Vale ward. (Next to us, it also puts Cam and Berkeley in the same division.) This is a 20% increase in electorate and a 75% increase in the physical size of the Wotton division.
The proposal was resisted locally by parish councils and by district and county councillors. Objections centred on the lack of community and transport links between the two areas and the disregard of existing links between parishes around Berkeley. Nevertheless, unless Parliament who have the final say throw out the plan this month, it will happen.
In view of the likely reduced number of councillors and a reduction in the staffing of Democratic Services it is being suggested that the number of scrutiny committees will have to be reduced. In addition, because of the scrapping of the Gloucestershire Police Authority it is proposed to set up a Police and Crime Panel: a joint committee of the seven Gloucestershire councils to scrutinise the new Commissioner, the police precept, the police and crime plan and to review the appointment of the Chief Constable.
On-Street Parking Agency Agreements
Currently the county council has agreements with the six district councils to undertake enforcement of on-street parking restrictions. The Cabinet has decided to give notice of ending these agreements and probably set up a county-based system which it expects to be more efficient in use of resources. Four of the agreements, including Stroud end in 2013.
North Nibley specific local interest
Divisional Estimates Meetings
The latest of these was held on March 8th. There has been considerable concern from county councillors that these have been reduced to one a year, following the budget, whereas previously there was also one before the budget was set, allowing us an input.
I also raised concern that this year, for the first time, there was no indication of the cost of the schemes.
There is one item which is of direct interest to North Nibley and this is a proposal for
patching of the Class C road 3/259 Blanchworth Lane (Frog Lane) Phase 1 (Alkington/North Nibley) in the provisional roads programme for 2013/14.
Thank you for your hospitality during the year, making me very welcome at your meetings.