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.

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.