Council Must Decide

When it comes to the big decisions facing this City it is important that the democratically elected representatives of the people take them. Time may be short but it is our clear responsibility to weigh the pros and cons of both the decision to buy the properties and how to manage them in the future. Richard Graham MP may not be ‘bothered’, maybe the sums involved seem insignificant to the former banker, but the future regeneration of large parts of the City hangs in the balance. That is something that the citizens of Gloucester are bothered about.

The fact is the City is being forced to pay the Treasury for assets that were bought for the regeneration of the City as part of the break up of the South West Regional Development Agency. Some of these ‘assets’ bring benefits and others considerable risks. That is why I, as leader of the only true Opposition, called for the meeting and that is why Labour will be taking a close look at the recommendations to ensure that they are taken it the best interests of the City.

City assets could cost taxpayer £250,000

Saturday, June 11, 2011

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VITAL assets in Gloucester’s city council will be transferred to the council – at huge cost to the taxpayer.

Property such as the Barbican car park, the historic but semi-derelict 500-year-old Fleece Hotel and land at Gloucester Docks is up for sale as the South West Regional Development Agency (SWRDA), which currently owns them, is being wound up.

Other assets include numbers 23-25 and 27-29 Commercial Road.

But the Government has announced it will only handed to city council bosses if they pay the full rate.

The news is a blow to the city council, which was hoping to take over the assets for a nominal fee of £1.

But the bill is believed to be in the region of £250,000.

It comes at the same time that the council is having to save £3.9 million by next March.

A crunch meeting of full council has now been called for June 20, where politicians will decide whether or not to go ahead.

Councillor Kate Haigh, leader of the city’s Labour group, who called the meeting, said: “We feel this is a very important decision for the city and the council.

“There are some big risks involved in taking on these assets, and we have a responsibility to act democratically.

Sensitivity

“Negotiations are ongoing and I understand the amount of money we are talking about is significant.”

The overall value of the assets are being kept under wraps due to commercial sensitivity.

The transfer of assets is seen as vital to the regeneration of the city, which is halfway through its 10 year plan.

Councillor Paul James, leader of the city council, said: “We have agreed to take the assets on subject to negotiations.

“We aim to get the best possible deal for the city.”

Richard Graham, Conservative MP for Gloucester, said: “The Regional Development Agency and the city council have been negotiating a final price for the transfer of assets.

“My understanding is they were close to reaching an agreement.

“The sums involved will be a nominal sum for the real value of the assets so I am not unduly bothered by this and the city council has got it under control.”

Numbers 23-29 Commercial Road are being earmarked for a restaurant and offices, and a hotel and multi-storey car park are being planned on the Barbican car park site.

Land at the Docks is set to become the new headquarters for Ecclesiastical Insurance by 2015.

Life’s illusions

It is interesting to see local Lib Dems posturing as the ‘real’ opposition on City Council when this flies in the face of their recent behaviour. As noted previously they voted for the introduction of the  green bin charge, against our amendment to the budget that could have saved Shopmobility from moving and did a deal with the Tories to let the budget cuts pass. So their recent form is as  coalition chums locally and nationally.  What has changed?

Well we had local elections and their vote, on the whole, went down. They lost 2 seats and gained 1. Labour’s vote on the whole went up and we are poised to make real gains next year. People in Gloucester now realise that only Labour presents the only principled and credible opposition to the dreadful cuts. Nationally, they are in trouble too with Nick Clegg furiously backpedalling on policies he has nodded through in Cabinet and voted for in Parliament.

So local Lib Dems can gesture and posture but the people of Gloucester have seen that they are poseurs. The Tories don’t need their votes any more so they can jump up and down but we know they are as guilty as the  Tories of damaging our services and our communities.

4 more years

I have my nomination papers  signed and handed in for the start of the City Council Local Election campaign. Whilst we knock on doors throughout the year, this marks the busiest time for us. We want to listen to what people have to say, explain things that are happening that may affect them and ask if they will support us. And in particular, this year, me.

Being a Councillor for  Matson and Robinswood ward for the last 4 years has been a great  privilege. Meeting people from all parts of the ward and listening to their concerns, helping them work to improve  areas and representing the ward at City Council has been has been hard but rewarding work. I hope that I have made a difference. However, to make more of a difference then Labour in Gloucester need to win not just in Matson and Robinswood but in wards we don’t hold.

A Labour administration at the City Council would still have faced the massive cuts imposed by the Tory Lib Dem Coalition Government but we would, for example, have been able to avoid charging for garden waste by allocating money from the New Homes fund that was granted the week before the budget was set. We have argued to protect the Voluntary Sector, Shopmobility and other services and if in control would take steps to limit the damage being caused by these cuts. We would have listened to what the people of Gloucester wanted.

So make sure your voice is heard in tough times by voting Labour on May 5th.

City Budget

At yesterday’s budget meeting the Labour Group proposed a series of amendments which would have put more money to the voluntary sector, helped people struggling with debt, saved jobs, and not introduced charges for green waste that equate to more than 20% on Council tax. They were all defeated with the Lib Dems preferring to put money aside in case we need more strimming and the Tories wanting to put money aside for ‘organisational transformation’.

The opportunity that we had was given away in a back room deal between Paul James and Jeremy Hilton. To avoid the embarrassment of having their budget defeated the Tories turned to their ‘coalition’ partners and offered them a deal. Despite previous criticisms of the Tory administration’s financial management the Lib Dems gave up their votes and allowed the budget to pass.

It is now clear that the only voice of opposition in Gloucester is the Labour voice. Lib Dem protestations about cuts are feeble and without substance. Times are tough and people in Gloucester need a strong voice and that is Labour’s voice.

Pretty Green

The City Council proposals for the massive budget savings that they are being forced to make by the Tory-led Coalition Government include the introduction of a charge for emptying green bins. Free green waste collections were introduced by the Council, along with increased general recycling and funded by grants from the County and the Labour Government. At the same time black (residual) bin collections were reduced to fortnightly. This seemed to be a price worth paying as recycling rates soon increased dramatically.

Now this proposal suggests a charge of £36 for a service that many feel they have already paid for through Council tax, a charge that for many equates to a more than 20% addition to the money paid to the Council. All this at a time when VAT has increased, pay is frozen for many, and pensions and benefits increases are reduced.

What is more, it is not clear how the scheme will operate. How will the collection staff know whose bin is paid for? What is to stop neighbours from filling your bin, or bins from going missing?  What about shared bins? Will enough people take it up to make it pay? These questions remain unanswered just weeks from the introduction of the plan.

Lets not forget that everything you put in your green bin counts towards the Council’s recycling targets and saves the County money in landfill tax (but then they have to have something to burn in the massive incinerator they are planning to build near Gloucester).

These proposals show that the Tory Council have no green credentials. They are indifferent to increased burning, fly-tipping and landfill and prepared to charge those who can pay for services that were once part of the service.

So this Big Society….


I go to a lot of meetings at the moment (well I do that all the time) but at these meetings the ‘Big Society’  is frequently mentioned.  Some of those who mention it talk about the localism agenda, the empowerment of communities, the unfettering of people who want to do things and make things happen. Great, what could be better? But I do a lot of  scrutiny so I am bound to ask Who? What? and How? Apparently they’ve been making a list and on it are the Scouts, St Johns Ambulance, the CAB, GL Communities and a whole range of other fine organisations.   They will take up the challenge and bring forward a host of volunteers.

But these organisations have been around for a long time. They are not a new idea. Along with services provided by local and national government and the people in our communities  they make up what I like to think of as, umm….Society.  A society we all should contribute to and a society  that helps us when we need it. But now responsibility is being handed to us all, whether or not we are able to take it up.

The organizations that are mentioned on the Big Society list are not necessarily replacements for public sector services. They have their own aims and many are stretched financially and in getting volunteers. The ones that provide vital services such as legal advice, play schemes, clubs for young and old, are having their grants cut. Their staff are being made redundant. When they are cutting back on these things how will they run a library or provide quality respite care?

Those who are pushing forward the ‘Big Society’ agenda resist any opposition or challenge to their ideas by saying that difficult choices must be made and that any protest is somehow an attempt to undermine it. Questions like ‘where will the money come from’ can be brushed aside. There may be money from the Big Society Bank, money may be raised somehow, people may bid to run services. But in the meantime the cuts in public services and the voluntary sector will leave a gap that is not quantified or understood. I think that it is unacceptable for those who are making the cuts to be so cavalier about the impact of those decisions.

So I sit in meetings and some people talk about the Big Society with a mixture of anger and despair. Their challenges are communities with great needs, increasing demands on their services and sources of funding drying up all around. Then they make decisions to stop services, close buildings, make their staff redundant. Or to campaign to save their public services. Or to go out on the streets and protest.

Housing benefit cuts – where Gloucester will feel the pain

There has been a lot of talk about the massive impact of housing benefit changes in London where rents are high and property expensive. But what about Gloucester where it is possible to rent a 4 bedroom house for less than the proposed cap of £400 per week?

That is where this idea of the 30% quartile will bite – taking most private rented properties out of the reach of anyone on   housing benefit.  In Gloucester a quarter of those people are working, trying to do the right thing.   Overall more people who have a job claim housing benefit than those on jobseekers allowance.    But a lack of well paid, full time work means   that they need help to have a decent home. Many may have been affected by cuts in working hours as an alternative to job losses, or mothers taking part time work so they can look after young children, or carers.

Of the rest some are pensioners, some are disabled, many will be recently unemployed and just need tiding over until     they get another job. They may have moved to increase their chances of work (something the coalition is keen on) and   will find themselves forced to live on pennies or move.

Before the election Sarah Teather, then Lib Dem spokesperson on housing berated Labour for failing to provide enough decent social housing and said:

“The Conservatives’ supposed solution to the housing crisis is to relax minimum space standards so that vulnerable families can be shoved into any old sub-standard box going spare.  This policy not only exploits those families waiting for a home, but is blindly ignorant of the scale of the housing crisis facing us.”

Yet she now sits in a Coalition Government that is introducing policies that will make things worse. It is possible that London Councils will force people out of their areas and into areas with lower rents – it is possible that Gloucester, already short of affordable housing and even shorter under the new rules will be faced with an influx of people competing for homes and work. This will put rents up and keep wages low.

Further down the line we will also see long term unemployed, seen by the Coalition as the villans of the piece rather than their friends the bankers, having their benefits reduced by 10% even if they are in cheap accomodation. Young people will not be able to afford a rented room because the single room allowance will come in at 35 (middle aged) leaving older people to support their children well into adulthood and not freeing up homes for young families.

Overcrowding, slum dwelling and Rackmanism are all terms that we thought were consigned to history but these are the choices that the Coalition are forcing on decent people who deserve decent home.

A week in the life…..

Started the week helping out Clive Harriss and the good folk of Cheltenham Labour party with leafleting where the people of Springbank are getting the opportunity to vote Labour in a local by-election for the first time in years.  Reaction from locals is positive and there is some fear about the cuts ahead.

On Monday I went to work, where there was some grumbling in the staff room amongst lowly paid support staff about the pay freeze that has been imposed. This affects mostly women on part time, term time contracts.  I then rushed in to North Warehouse to have a meeting to plan the next Overview and Scrutiny meeting swiftly followed by a meeting to draft the report on Bulky Waste.  Then straight to Leaders where we discussed several items. The future of Gloucester’s regeneration company was looked at in the face of the cut of the Regional Development Agency and its funding. The Boundary review at the County Council came up with possible cuts to the number of Councillors.

Tuesday work again, then a ward meeting at which I was reselected as a candidate for the local elections next year. Members were worried about the effects of the cuts when so much good work has been done over the past few years.  It looks like we might lose the library and there are fears about cutbacks to play and advice services.

Went in to the Labour Group office on Wednesday afternoon to work on the Bulky items report. Picked up a copy of the new 3 Year Money Plan to read at home – this sets out the overall plan for cuts and increased charges for Council Services. The full details will only become clear during the budget process. What it doesn’t cover is the announcements made about the ‘freedom’ to decide whose Council Tax benefit we cut or how the introduction of higher rents coupled with cuts to housing benefit will work.

Spent the evening at the  Lampreys’ Tenants and Residents Association where the estate has been improved a lot by the efforts of the people who live there assisted by Gloucester City Homes,  GLCommunities and the police.  My fellow Councillor Steve McHale passed around a petition against the cuts to the Law Centre – their funding is being cut by the City Council.

This morning I went to join a protest outside a Board meeting of the PCT where they were proposing to transfer their acute services to a social enterprise, effectively privatising them but also more costly  than the alternative of transferring them to the hospital trusts. Most of the staff affected are women and their concern is about the services they deliver first and foremost.  But they are also fearful about their jobs and their pensions.

That is the week so far and everywhere I go I see the effects of the drastic cuts starting to be felt and I see the fear of what is to come.  The attacks on services and benefits that people rely on will make our communities tougher places to live.  Some cuts need to be made but I don’t see the people responsible for the economic situation, the bankers, paying the price. The price is being paid by families, hard working people on ordinary incomes, women and children. I don’t see how that is fair.

Play

It was Full Council last week and, given that our debates are rarely reported in full I thought I would publish the proposing speech I made on the subject of play. Although our motion was amended, it was good to see an understanding of the importance of these schemes from most members present.

I have included a picture of Ed Balls and Andy Burnham launching the Playbuilder scheme a couple of years ago – and I am grateful to them for this unforgettable image!  

 

The ability to play safely and independently is one of the defining characteristics of a good childhood. Play is first and foremost to help children have fun – but it can also keep them happy and healthy and allow them to develop and achieve their full potential. We need exciting and stimulating places for children to play which are close to where they live and easy for them to get to. Public play spaces are an essential part of any community.

We all want to keep our children safe and that means making sure they can play safely. But we also know that as our children get older they need to be able to learn to take risks so that they can thrive. Play is a vital way of helping them do that.

In the face of largescale cuts, the first who are suffering are those who played no part in the development of the global financial crisis. They are not responsible for the crisis the banks and the need of the Country borrow money to rescue them. They were not in the queues outside Northern Rock trying to get out their savings. They were out and about looking for somewhere to play.

Good play areas are well used by children and parents alike and provide an excellent social focus for the community, but they don’t exist everywhere. The Playbuilder strategy offered children a stimulating and safe environment where they could let off steam, mix with others and get active. The enjoyment children get from play can give them a life long love of being active and also build up a passion for sport.

This issue debate recognises that when money does become available then one of our priorities should be restore these schemes. It is not fair to ask the children of Gloucester to pay the price. When there is an opportunity, lets put their needs at the top of our agendas.

Roll up your sleeves!

Last week a small group of us headed to Exeter to help out on the doorsteps with their upcoming by elections (9 Sept). These have been caused by the cancellation of the Unitary Authority and we hope to become the largest party on the Council there if all goes well.

So why spend 2 hours travelling to a strange City to help out? It is obvious to me that when others need help, we don’t have to wait to be asked, we just roll up our sleeves and get on with it. Just as my CLP has benefited in the past from the kindness of strangers and from old friends now is the opportunity to give our support where it is needed.

The South West is a big region and Labour activists are often isolated physically, stretched and outnumbered. But we are no less Labour, no less important than the large and powerful parties in other ‘traditional’ Labour heartlands. We have to push harder than most to gain any momentum, but push we continue to do.

The South West is a critical battleground now – lots of Lib Dems must be sitting very uncomfortably there now. They were on the retreat from the Tories before the General Election, now we have to seize the ground that they have stood on.

So when someone commented to me that spending 4 hours driving in the M5 and doing 5 hours on the doorstep was hardcore,  I could only think that this is the southwest, this is hardcore!