21 Oct 2014
St Albans District Council has announced that it intends to freeze Council Tax in April, for the seventh year in a row.
Freezing Council Tax is a popular headline, but it hides a massive, false economy.
A freeze is of course a cut in real terms, as inflation reduces what the Council can get for its money.
The Council currently raises around £10million in Council Tax, out of a budget of around £15million. If they had just allowed Council Tax to keep pace with inflation, they'd now have £2.6million extra to spend on public services every year.
In other words, they'd have £12.6million instead of £10million - that's a loss of potential income of 20%.
To keep within their shrinking real budget, and balance their books, the Council has been cut, cut, cutting every year. This year they plan another £0.9million in cuts. That's another 6% cut on their £15million budget.
We see the results of cuts all around us, from run-down playground equipment to higher parking fees and lengthy waits to get anything done. Central government is determined to undermine the financial base of local councils by bribing them to cut their real income, and this council is playing along year after year.
It's a great shame and will ultimately cost local people dear.
8 Oct 2014
Small independent retailers in St Albans district could be in line for substantial new support from a new levy on the biggest stores and supermarkets.
I'm proposing the idea to a Full Council meeting on 15 October. The levy could raise around £1.8 million a year from the 16 largest retailers, that could help cut small shops' rates or reinvigorate local shopping areas.
This should go some way to level the playing field for independent or family-run shops that are threatened by the mega-retailers in the district.
Independent traders pay business rates that are a far higher proportion of their turnover than the warehouse chains do. Yet research shows that half the money spent in independent shops stays in the local economy, while for supermarkets it's just 5%. The rest is sucked out of the area.
The Government is currently considering an application by 20 English councils for the levy to become possible. Other councils, such as St Albans, are being invited to support the proposal. The levy is already up and running in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
The levy would be a drop in the ocean for these retail chains - it's a tiny fraction of the millions they give up in their weekly price wars with each other. But the money would make a huge difference to our struggling local retailers.
The full text of the motion is here.
27 Jun 2014
As the holiday break approaches, here’s a summary of what I’ve been doing as a councillor for the last 12 months.
Some of what I do is responding to requests for help from residents. Amongst my case work this year, I:
· persuaded the council not to evict a pregnant single mother
· helped residents to oppose controversial planning applications including at Dalton House in Catherine Street and The Spotted Bull on Verulam Road
· answered enquiries about fracking in Hertfordshire, and animal welfare policies in St Albans
· helped a disabled resident to stop able bodied people parking in a blue badge bay
· got a coach company to stop parking up at a bus stop
· organised and chaired a meeting of bus users
· got a lamppost fixed in Worley Road
· persuaded the Council to extend a parking permit for a mother in the city centre
· helped people comment on the Hare & Hounds license extension.
As a member of the Local Services Scrutiny Committee, I’ve helped examine many aspects of policy, and the services the council delivers. In particular through this committee this year, I:
· discovered that the Council was charging twice what it should for street traders such as Soko Coffee at the station. I then sat on a working group to examine this issue. This led to the charges being halved
· challenged the boss of UNO on the bus services, and pushed for a bus users group, which is now being set up
· worked on setting up and improving the new Christmas Market
· challenged First Capital Connect and Network Rail on their service
· examined new business-friendly measures, some of which I introduced through the last budget.
I also sat on the Car Parking Working Party, which advises on car parking issues in the district. In particular, this group helped to improve the emerging car parking strategy. I met with residents’ associations to discuss their ideas on this, and feed them in to the process.
This year I also became a member of the new Carbon Reduction group, which I established through the budget and Corporate Plan process. This group has prioritised some of the Council’s work on measures to tackle climate change locally, and enabled me to directly feed in ideas such as commercial renewable energy generation.
At meetings of the Full Council this year, I:
· proposed successful motions against the Bedroom Tax and for the Local Government Association’s campaign to reform local government
· questioned Cabinet members about markets, parking meters, and street traders
· proposed a range of measures as an amendment to the budget; however this year my amendment was not passed
· made numerous contributions to debates, as always!
Other ad hoc activities this year included:
· working with officers to improve communications on recycling, improve a consultation on waste collection and one on tenancies, and draft a protocol for public filming at Council meetings
· opposing a proposal to reduce the size of the skate park
· chasing up Herts County Council to activate all the electric car bays in the city
· appearances on BBC Three Counties Radio and Radio Verulam
· a training seminar at the Local Government Association on political oppostion
· joining a Question Time style panel at Beaumont School
· meeting 20 young Eco Councillors at St Peter’s Primary School
At the local elections in May, the balance of the Council was effectively unchanged – there are two less Lib Dems and two more Labour councillors. The Conservatives continue with 29 councillors, and the opposition parties combined also have 29. The Lib Dem mayor has the casting vote, so there may be some interesting votes this year. This fine balance also means I may continue to get the chance to make progress in Full Council meetings.
7 Feb 2014
St Albans Council's new housing strategy was examined last night (6 February) by the cross-party scrutiny committee. The strategy set out three "key priorities" for housing, but it was what the strategy didn't say that left councillors on the committee intrigued. The strategy report also revealed the full scale of the failure to build enough affordable homes in the district.
Councillors were also left to wonder how many new Council properties or so-called affordable homes might be provided. The strategy report shows that 4,000 affordable homes were supposed to be provided in the 20 years to 2013, but in fact fewer than 1,500 were actually built.
This is an appalling failure by successive Conservative and Lib Dem councils to look after the needs of lower-income residents. And there's no sign that this situation is going to improve any time soon.
35% of all new builds in the district are supposed to be affordable. In other words, available at 80% or less of market price. In 2011 I discovered that nobody knew what proportion was actually provided, despite this target. I won unanimous support from fellow councillors for the true proportion to be worked out and regularly published. However, housing officers were still unable to tell me last night what that figure is.
The scrutiny committee made several recommendations to the Cabinet, to improve the new housing strategy.
19 Jan 2014
Good news that St Albans Council seems to be getting a bit more serious about facing up to the challenge of climate change.
This week saw the Council's first meeting of the 'Carbon Reduction Task and Finish Group' - an odd name that gives the impression we're going to solve it all in a couple of weeks. But there are signs that this group, which initially leafed through current and possible future measures, will turn in to a more formal body soon. That would mean a permanent working party examining all aspects of Council activities and looking for ways that the whole district can reduce its carbon footprint.
Green Councillor Simon Grover was at the meeting. As the group was his idea in the first place (proposed and accepted at the Council's February 2013 budget meeting), he expects to be closely involved in developments.
17 Jan 2014
Exciting news as the Odyssey Cinema has just applied for planning permission to put up the signs pictured above. As the local councillor, I certainly won't be objecting to this visible step forward in the cinema's plans.
It's due to open later this year, hopefully late spring/early summer.
In the meantime, here's what the cinema used to look like:
11 Jan 2014
A year after I got approval for a Carbon Reduction Group on St Albans Council, the administration has finally got one started. The first meeting is Friday 17 January at 6pm at the Council offices.
The agenda and items for discussion are at http://stalbans.moderngov.co.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=473&MId=7615.
If you have any ideas for subjects you'd like raised at the meeting, please let me know - comment below or email me.
The meeting is public - if you'd like to go, it would be helpful if you emailed firstname.lastname@example.org or phoned her on 01727 866100
10 Jan 2014
It's good to see that progress is continuing with the new Premier Inn hotel in St Peters Street. What's not so good is the stream of applications from the developer to erect huge illuminated signs to advertise the hotel's presence.
The third such application has just come in to the Council (ref 5/2013/3447 if you want to make a comment on the website). The picture above shows some of the signs they want - huge, garish purple and white numbers, with letters up to a metre high, and internally illuminated so they shine in to the night.
No other premises on the high street is allowed internally illuminated signs - they're all lit in the old fashioned way by external lights shining gently on the sign. The overall effect of this really helps to maintain the character of this historic area.
I opposed the first two applications for such signs, which were even bigger, and they were rejected by the planning department. I very much hope the department will do the same again with this application. There are other Premier Inns around the country that have plain, non-illuminated signs, so why can't we have those too?
25 Nov 2013
St Albans Greens are proposing six new initiatives as part of the Council's budget this week.
The carefully costed amendment proposes:
1. £10,000 to help the most vulnerable Council tenants look after their gardens, reversing a proposed cut by the Conservatives
2. £600 to install 15 cycle racks in the city centre
3. £5,500 to build and run a web-based budget simulator that boosts democracy by giving residents and easy way to examine and comment on the annual budget for the first time - lots of other towns and cities are now doing this, and it's a great way to get people more involved in what the Council is doing
4. £750 to put up signs at major junctions, directing people to the newly-improved Alban Way. This great walking/cycling path is now beautifully smooth all the way to Hatfield, yet lots of people don't know where it is. These signs will point the way.
5. £10,000 to fund a brand new Summer Sounds music event for young people. This Council initiative is a great idea, but it had no funding. So I've found some.
6. £5,000 to support St Albans Film Festival's work in community outreach and youth provision. The city's best and brightest new event gets no funding, but does brilliant community and youth work.
These measures would be funded by a reduction in the current Council Tax discount for houses undergoing major works, and by savings in the expanded corporate repairs budget.
If successfully passed on Wednesday, these measures would build on the last two years of similar amendments from the Independent and Green group.