Report on County Council Matters
to North Nibley Annual Parish Assembly, April 13th 2015
This of course can only be a very brief summary of what has been happening at the County Council.
County Council Membership
An Independent member of the council died a few months ago and the by-election was won by a Conservative.
It is still a minority Conservative administration with a political composition of:
24 Conservative; 14 Liberal Democrat; 9 Labour; 3 UKIP; 1 Green; I PAB; 1 Independent.
At 34 years I am now the longest-serving county councillor in the history of the present Gloucestershire County Council, taking over that role from Basil Booth, who retired in May 2013. Basil’s area included Ham & Stone and Alkington which I now represent. Sadly, he died last year.
My roles on the County Council
In addition to the roles I detailed in last year’s report, a Highways Contract Advisory Group has been set up, on which I am a lead member. Its current job is to have “oversight and input into setting the outcomes of the LED street lighting contract procurement.” The contract was due to be awarded on 6th April.
County Budget 2015/16
On 18th February the council agreed a budget for 2015/16 of £420.03M, a decrease in cash terms of £8.075M. However the council has suffered a £17.5M reduction in central government formula grant funding, offset by increases in the council tax base and surplus of £5.4M. Public Heath funding to the council has increased by £3.1M but this is because of the transfer of responsibilities to the council for 0 to 5-year-olds.
The total precepted (council tax requirement) for the new financial year is £231.116M. For the fifth year running, council tax has been frozen at £1090.50 at Band D.
Such cuts limited the scope for amendments to be made to the budget. However, it took on board nearly the full slate of budget proposals put forward by the Liberal Democrats which included:
Last September, Liberal Democrats asked for the County Council to carry out a study to identify routes that cyclists found problematic, and used the results to successfully propose that £100k was put in the budget to do the advanced design work needed to allow schemes identified by the study to be delivered in the future.
Around £100k is to be invested to provide free Wi-Fi in every county and community library.
With concern over the state of trees near highways, each councillor is to be allocated £2500 this year that can be used on tree maintenance or tree planting. This is on top of the £20k annual “Highways Local” allocation to each councillor.
and a further £100k – worth of proposals.
Most suggestions put forward by Labour were rejected as they had not calculated the cost of them! The exceptions were implementation of the living wage increase for staff at £36k and a useful £100k to invest in maintaining rural bus services. The Green Party were successful in a £30k bid for a rural sustainable drainage pilot scheme in the Frome catchment area.
Active Together Grant
Arising from last year’s budget each county councillor was allocated a once-off £40k to be used to support the prioritisation and delivery of sport and physical activity within their electoral divisions. I have now recommended grants to six projects in my division from this fund, fully spending the £40k.
Another £100k was allocated jointly to the ten county councillors within the Stroud district area to fund healthy projects and healthy living campaigns in disadvantaged communities. We met earlier this year to discuss how this should be spent, having previously agreed the priorities should be on stopping smoking and reducing obesity. Nine projects have been agreed in whole or in part.
In addition an annual Children’s Activity Fund of £5k per councillor was set up. I submitted three projects all of which have been agreed.
County Residual Waste Disposal Project – Javelin Park
Early in 2013 the County Council’s Cabinet, despite many objections, pressed ahead with its plans for waste disposal using an incinerator, to be located at Javelin Park, close to junction 12 of the M5. Against advice from its Environment Scrutiny Committee the council signed a contract with Urbaser-Balfour Beatty (UBB) before UBB’s planning application was considered by the county’s planning committee on 21st March 2013. It was unanimously refused by the 18 members of the planning committee, of which I was one.
The grounds for refusal were based on environmental considerations, essentially that the harm to the landscape outweighed the benefits, that it introduced a prominent building into a rural area overlooked by the AONB and the Cotswold Way, and that it would have an overbearing effect on nearby residential properties. The council was not able to object to the proposed technology.
UBB appealed against the decision and a public inquiry was held. The Secretary of State “recovered” the appeal, which meant that the planning inspector did not determine it himself but submitted a report with his recommendations to the Secretary of State. Originally Mr Pickles was supposed to announce his decision in May 2014. After several further missed deadlines, in January this year the Secretary of State announced he had decided to allow the appeal.
At an emergency meeting of the county council in February, called by the Labour group, a vote was taken to call on the county’s cabinet to cancel the contract for this (really a censure against the Cabinet since it was known they would not agree). It was narrowly lost when UKIP joined the Conservatives in voting against it.
My group had initially tabled an amendment asking for an independent inquiry into the procurement process used (including the matter of the contract being signed before the Planning Committee had determined the application) and to establish the cancellation costs, reputed to be close to £100M, but it turned out the full information would not be revealed even in strictest confidence to councillors.
New Highways Contract
Amey were awarded the contract, which started in April 2014. There have since been considerable concerns raised by county councillors and the public over work not being done when promised and over its quality. In addition some requests seem to get lost in the system – several of mine for dealing with light outages and potholes marked for repair in North Nibley which then fell off the computer due to human error. Renewing double yellow lining and white lining, particularly at junctions, is still outstanding. I raised this issue months ago and was told there was a backlog of work at 29 sites which would be cleared in the next few weeks. I am still waiting and asking when it will happen.
A former county council officer was brought out of retirement to help sort things out and I had a long discussion with him.
A Liberal Democrat motion tabled at the March County Council meeting criticising Amey’s performance was supported by all but one of the members of the council, including the Cabinet member responsible for highways. One UKIP member abstained. The motion called for the continued close monitoring of the contract performance and for financial penalties to be imposed if performance targets are not consistently met in 2015/16.
Once again £20k was allocated to each county councillor in 2014/15 to spend on highway issues within their divisions. A year ago I put forward a list, some of which have now instead been done to various levels of satisfaction from the general highways budget. I was advised last month that, in common with other councillors, none of my £20k-worth of schemes was currently programmed and they will now have to be rolled over into the 2015/16 financial year: Amey has not been able to progress them. Unfortunately in this part of the county we were also missing our local highways manager for part of the year through illness. He has now ceased employment with the County Council. His replacement was due to start last week.
Drive for Life
In February I attended this full day of talks and practical demonstrations for Y12 and Y13 students at KLB School as Chair of the County Council’s Stroud Area Road Safety Liaison Group. The event was well received by the students, a number of whom have already passed their driving test. All the emergency services attended together with the Gloucestershire Road Safety Partnership. I hope that other schools and colleges in the county will have the same opportunity. A number of organisations helped to fund the event including Wotton Town Council and Kingswood Parish Council.