14 Jul 2015

My year at St Albans Council - annual report

Here's a summary of what I've been up to in the last 12 months in my role as District Councillor for St Peter's ward in St Albans - the only Green councillor on the Council

Full Council meetings

In July 2014, I supported Labour’s motion for Council to examine the idea of the Council and its contractors paying the Living Wage. This issue has rumbled on, continually delayed by the Tories. Just last week the Tories again set up yet another sub committee to look at the issue, following on from George Osborne’s announcement about a National Living Wage in the Budget.

I supported a motion in favour of a local levy on supermarkets to help local retailers, but this was not successful.

In the December budget debate I got an amendment passed that agreed up to £200kfor solar car parks (solar panels on car shelters, spread across council-owned car parks), plus £5,500 for an online budget simulator to encourage the public to get involved in how their money is spent. The Council has done some work so far on the solar car parks, and I’ve continued to talk to council officers about it, but nothing concrete has happened yet. If it does happen it will be possibly the first Council scheme of its kind in the country. In the meantime, some of the money I secured for renewable energy in previous budgets has been spent on features at the new Batchwood Sports Centre, including solar panels, wind-driven air conditioning and low-energy technology.

In February I got a motion passed at Full Council to explore whether St Albans Council could get involved with the government’s Syrian Vulnerable Persons RelocationScheme. Several unitary and metropolitan councils have used this scheme to get government money to help house a few Syrian refugee families. If this happened in St Albans we’d be the first district council to do it. I’ve since had two meetings with council officers to take this forward. The last one was quite encouraging, and we are doing what we can to make this happen.

Local Services Scrutiny Committee

I spent another year on this committee, which can examine any aspect it chooses of the Council’s public services and local matters of interest. I’ve also sat on a number of working groups set up by this committee. Issues I’ve been involved with include:
-       helping set up a Bus Users Group
-       the Christmas Market and reform of the High Street Markets
-       how the Council distributes grants to local charities and voluntary groups
-       progress of the Green Ring cycle and walking path
-       the continuing failures of First Capital Connect and Govia
-       the new museum project, including taking a tour of the old town hall
-       changes to doorstep recycling
-       developing a Youth Council event for Local Democracy Week

City Neighbourhoods Committee

I’ve continued on this committee too, which is a relatively new body that acts like a parish council for the main part of St Albans that is not covered by parish councils. We’ve looked at parochial issues like:
-       St Albans Football Club’s licence
-       Coach parking at schools
-       the ramp into Clarence Park
-       St Albans Carnival
-       Allotments
-       And of course, public toilets

The committee has also introduced locality budgets for each ward in the centre of St Albans. For this first year this is £5,000 that the three ward councillors in each ward can decide to spend on whatever they like. In St Peters ward, we’ve allocated money for a planter in Albert Street, a bus shelter in Normandy Road and some cycle parking hoops – the kind that are fixed to lampposts.

Outside of committees

In my ward, I’ve:
-       called in various planning applications to committee, and leafleted groups of neighbours about some of them
-       helped residents with a noise complaint
-       had a meeting with the chair of Look! St Albans
-       been to Residents Association meetings
-       responded to parking consultations
-       spoken at the Rotary Club
-       got some illegal advertising taken down in London Road
-       got some yellow lines painted in Lattimore Road to stop dangerous parking
-       helped a family fleeing domestic violence to get temporary housing
-       helped a local company install the district’s first electric taxi charging station in Adelaide Street
-       helped residents in Sopwell Lane clear an overgrown green space so they can put it to some use for the community

St Claire’s

The biggest local issue for me this year has been St Claire’s. This former nursing home in Church Crescent is owned by Hightown Housing Association. Hightown agreed with the Council to create plans to turn it into a 16-room facility in which the Council could house temporarily homeless single people. There was initially very little consultation, and a lot of local people got very upset about the idea. For me this has meant nine months of many many emails, meetings with Hightown, residents and Council officers – trying to get answers on what is being proposed, whether it’s what tenants want and need, and whether the deal with Hightown gives the Council good value for money.

One of the Council’s most important duties is to help people who need somewhere to live. But there’s a right way and a wrong way of doing that, and St Claire’s has been a fine example of how to get it wrong.

There have also been problems with the ‘guardians’ who are occupying the property while it’s empty. Hightown has just submitted a second planning application, and I’ve written a note about this to inform residents, that we have distributed to streets in the area.

6 Dec 2014

New train operator worse than ever

At a recent meeting of the Council's Scrutiny Committee, I joined other councillors in quizzing Govia and Network Rail representatives on recent events on the Thameslink route.

The Chief Operating Officer of Govia confirmed what passengers already suspected - that since Govia took over from First Capital Connect, service on the route had got significantly worse. We were shown the graph of performance above - truly awful.

Some of this has been due to bad luck - there has been a high number of suicides recently, for example. However, much of it is down to the operators. We were dismayed to hear that the aim for Govia now is to get back up to First Capital Connect's performance levels. Hardly an ambitious aim.

I asked about a number of specific issues, including the problems of the area on and beyond platform 4 in St Albans, and the extreme way that vegetation is removed along the trackside.

I was pleased to hear that Govia is going to redevelop the exit and area beyond platform 4, as there is currently very little that is good about it. It's also pretty shameful that this ramshackle area should be an arrival and departure point for visitors to our city.

I was less pleased to hear the response about clearing vegetation. Network Rail says that to protect overhead lines from increasingly fast-growing vegetation, their policy was now to be "more aggressive" in cutting it back. Residents will know that this means razing every living thing to the ground from trackside right up to the bordering fences.

Network Rail says it can't afford to maintain these areas very often, so when they do, they have to be brutal. Meanwhile residents suffer from increased train noise and loss of enjoyment of trees, not to mention the implications for wildlife.

29 Nov 2014

The Odyssey Begins

After years of increasing excitement, the Odyssey Cinema on London Road in St Albans has finally opened its doors. I was lucky enough to attend the official opening this weekend, and was hugely impressed with what I saw.

Though there is still a little work to do in advance of the public opening in December, the project is essentially complete. The huge screen with beautiful arch, the big, comfy red chairs, the amazing sound system and state of the art projector, and even the bespoke carpet are all in place.
There's an attractive, white foyer, with lots of nooks and crannies to explore instead of the usual vast area that you find in most cinemas. Then one door leads up to the gallery and another through to the 'orchestra'.
Whilst the gallery is very comfortable, and arguably has a better view, it's the orchestra area that is the talking point. Like the Rex in Berkhamstead, the owner's other cinema, this boasts cabaret style seating - tables and chairs, that you can move and swivel round to make yourself comfortable. There's a bar, and there will be food eventually too.
Appropriately enough, the film we were treated to was 'Back To The Future', both a classic film and one with a title that truly suited the occasion.

Congratulations to James Hannaway and all the team for a remarkable achievement, and for giving us a cinema in St Albans once again.

25 Oct 2014

Update on Hightown's proposed homeless hostel at St Claire's

Hightown Praetorianand Churches Housing Association is proposing to turn its building at St Claire’s in Church Crescent in to a short stay homeless hostel. This is an update I have written for residents of the local area, following my meeting with the Chief Executive of Hightown this week.

On 23 October I had an hour-long one-to-one meeting with David Bogle, the Chief Executive of Hightown Praetorian and Churches Housing Association. This update includes what he told me about Hightown’s proposal for St Claire’s, along with some other information I have gathered this week, and what my plans are for next steps.  

21 Oct 2014

Council's tax freeze is a false economy

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

£1.8million a year for local shops?

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.

Councillors in St Albans are to debate whether to support a nationwide move that would allow councils to raise a levy on the largest retailers in their area. The proposed levy would be up to 8.5% of rates. It would be payable only by retailers with a rateable value over £500,000. The money would have to be spent to support local independent businesses.

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

Digging away: a year of activity on St Albans Council

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

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.