7 Feb 2014

Tories' housing strategy fails to impress


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.

I asked what the other aspects of the strategy were, beyond the so-called "key" ones, but officers were only able to say that other elements might be added to the strategy in the future. There is almost no mention at all of the importance of improving the housing we have, in particular making it more energy efficient. That would reduce bills for tenants, and make their homes more comfortable. It might even give the Council scope to increase its income from rents, in return for the savings in energy bills.

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

Climate Change on St Albans Council's agenda

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

Signs of progress at the Odyssey Cinema

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

Carbon Reduction Group finally launches

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 candice.luper@stalbans.gov.uk or phoned her on 01727 866100

10 Jan 2014

Strike your lights, Premier Inn!

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

Six great initiatives proposed for St Albans budget

St Albans Greens are proposing six new initiatives as part of the Council's budget this week.

I'll be proposing an amendment to the Council's annual budget on Wednesday 27th November.

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.

6 Oct 2013

Give me your ideas for St Albans' local budget

The Conservative administration in St Albans will be presenting its annual budget for debate at Council on 27 November. Government cuts mean St Albans has to find over £1m spending reductions, or find other ways to generate income.

The other parties can propose amendments to that budget, usually by suggesting different cuts in order to save or introduce different services or initiatives. In the last two budgets, since I've been a councillor, I've done the same.

I'd like to hear your ideas for this year's budget.

Anything you think the Council should be spending less money on?
And anything new it should be doing?
And any comments on the cuts and savings that the Conservatives are proposing? (You can see a summary of these here - they include charging for the Splash Park, pest control and parking on Sundays, and cuts for verge maintenance, the Arts and public toilets)

For inspiration, have a look at the amendments I got last year and the year before.

Of course, I can't promise to take up every idea. But if it seems doable, I will certainly look in to it.

Either leave your comment below, or email me.

Thank you!

20 Sep 2013

One-page guide to new recycling system

Following numerous questions about the new recycling system in St Albans, I've produced this one-page guide that gives you all the main information you need.

You can download it here.

In a nutshell:
  • you can now recycle more plastics (essentially trays etc that food comes in)
  • your cardboard should now go in a recycling box with your paper
  • you should have received a kitchen caddy to make recycling food waste easier
  • envelopes and junk mail can go straight in with paper - no need to remove the windows
The main problems people are reporting at the moment are with cardboard and food waste recycling:
  • If you have more cardboard than you can fit in the recycling box, tear or fold it in to box-sized pieces and put it under the box. The operatives are still getting used to the new system too, so if they don't collect something, report a missed collection
  • Don't put runny food waste in your kitchen caddy or the liner will perish. You can wrap this waste in newspaper before putting it out for collection. This will also help keep your bin clean. Experiment with what suits you best for recycling your food waste.

12 Jul 2013

Summer Report - or, What I Did Before The Holidays


As the summer holidays approach and most council work winds down for a month or so, I thought I'd let you know what I've been doing for the last 12 months.

At a constituency level I have helped residents with planning applications, both their own and opposing others. I’ve commented on license extensions, helped with residents parking issues and housing problems. I’ve got dumped rubbish taken away, got a disabled resident a free TV connection, and reported damage to roads and pavements.

I’ve continued to have a range of emails, phone calls and meetings on all sorts of subjects, with residents, council officers, and other councillors.

I constantly badger First Capital Connect on various issues, with a notable success being the creation of four new disabled parking bays outside platform 4.

As a professional copywriter I ran a series of free consultations with council officers to improve their written communications. In this guise I also helped put the new Street Trading Policy into Plain English, and have offered advice on several other projects.

Highlights from the last year as a member of the Local Services Scrutiny Committee include quizzing representatives of FCC and Network Rail, examining the proposed Local Plan, and looking at energy efficiency measures.

I’ve continued to be a member of the car parking working group, and made sure that its terms of reference include looking at a move to an emissions-based parking policy.

I’ve also sat on working groups on how to help the new neighbourhood forums under localism, how to improve the administration’s new tenancy policy, and what the Council should ask for in the new Thameslink franchise. I continue to badger the portfolio holder for the environment to set up a climate change group – one of the many promises he has made to me that he seems to find hard to keep.

At the Council I have continued to be leader of the two-man Independent and Green Group. As a member of a group, I am able to get my council motions seconded, and have to be offered a certain proportion of committee places. As a Group Leader I get consulted on a wide range of council matters, from the legal challenges on the rail freight issue, to the appointment of the new Chief Executive. As a Group Leader I also have better access to senior council officers, and feel able to ask more of them.

At Full Council meetings I have asked questions on low wages, energy efficiency, the Green Deal, recycling, solar panels at Westminster Lodge, the Clarence Park trust, and, this week, the proposed German-style Christmas market and loss of income from broken ticket machines in the Westminster Lodge car park.

I have also proposed motions on emissions-based parking charges, making Council meetings more open to the public, supporting the Energy Bill Revolution campaign, restoring free parking for blue badge holders at the hospital, and, this week, the bedroom tax. All of these have had at least some measure of success, and have at the very least stirred up debate.

The elections in May this year made no difference to the overall balance of power on the Council, so the Tories continue to have a minority of one. This in theory puts me in a strong negotiating position, and I have sometimes joined with the other opposition parties to defeat the Tories in Council votes. Just occasionally I have been surrounded by other parties’ councillors in meetings, all lobbying for my vote. And I get quite a number of friendly phone calls from the other group leaders, including the Tories, trying to sound me out or win me over.

For the second year in a row, the highlight in terms of achievement has to be the 11 measures that our group successfully proposed during the budget debate this January. These measures ranged from using more local businesses as suppliers, to implementing a cycling action plan. There was also agreement to invest up to half a million pounds in more renewable energy or similar projects, and £50,000 in quick-win energy efficiency measures. That is on top of the £250,000 we secured in 2012.

It’s early days for most of these new measures, and indeed I am still chasing council officers over many of last year’s budget measures. Some will inevitably fail to come through, but others have already started to happen – such as solar panels on Verulamium Museum, insulation measures in Council properties, and the expansion of the Farmers Market.

I look forward to being joined next May by at least one more Green councillor, so that we get on more committees, have more influence in council votes, and achieve more of what we are here to do.