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Malcolm Robinson

Councillor Robinson - September 2018

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September 2018.

 

First meeting was economic and corporate scrutiny at 10am.  I got there in good time and took a seat.  We had several cabinet members and the Leader there for this one because there were several bits on the agenda which we would be asking questions about.  We also had the ex-Leader there and as he sat at the table I presumed he must be speaking directly to us.

The meeting was called to order and we started with the chair altering the agenda because of clashes with some of the members and other meetings which they had to go to.

One of the agenda items was about the legal advice members could receive from outside the NCC legal team.  It had been proposed that due to legal action against 3 or 4 members and a member of staff by a multi-million pound offshore company, NCC should underwrite some of the cost of advice or we could well face say a rich development company from almost picking off any members who disagreed with it, especially in terms of planning!  The ex-Leader had headed up a counter proposal supposedly denying members and officers this help and he presented his case.  I was surprised at his opening remark that his group actually agreed with the proposal and it was only the way this had been brought to cabinet that he disagreed with.  I’m not sure given the time frames involved that the convoluted way which was the counter proposal could have been actually delivered.  I did agree with a couple of the points raised but given that a writ had been issued, time was of extreme importance.  The legal advice off the NCC solicitor was pretty unambiguous and the proposal failed.

We went through several items and then hit on the most controversial.  This one was about a report and consultation into possibly reducing the level of council tax working age claimants received.  I listened to the presentation given by the cabinet member with the responsibility and started asking questions.  This was soon drowned out by one member shouting that this should not even be tabled.  The reply off the cabinet member astounded me.  What was being proposed was the possibility of reducing this benefit by 8% from 100 to 92%.  During his reply the cabinet member mentioned the fact that the last administration were going to reduce this benefit by 50% not the 8% the current administration wanted to look at.  Seems only us and Durham give 100% reduction these days with most councils facing some hard facts as they try and balance budgets.  One of the members said yes but they weren’t going to do it straightaway.  Flipping heck the last administration were a curious bunch looking at what’s coming out now, in fact I’m starting to wonder if I’m in some alternative universe where the Labour group cosy up with multi million pound offshore companies and think about halving benefits  and the Conservative group are keeping any reduction to a bare minimum?

Anyway the three labour members were asked if they wanted to make a counter proposal and after quite some prompting they proposed taking this proposal for a report off the table.  A very dangerous option in my opinion because the administration could easily push this through without any due consideration or consultation!  As there were 5 conservative members, 3 labour members and myself their proposal fell and I asked specifically what the original agenda proposal was.  Producing a report and a consultation exercise only because this committee was not a decision making committee it was a scrutiny committee.  I agreed with this now because I felt getting a report done and a consultation exercise would give us the understanding of what the impacts of this measure might actually be.  The current administration could just push it through if they wanted so at least this would gave us the background needed to make any recommendation.

I left the meeting and hurried home in time to grab a cuppa before going up to Alnwick for a strategic site visit.  Once again I have to say the access route to the site leaves a great deal to be desired but at least the site is in the agreed neighbourhood plan.  Also the fact that the neighbourhood plan recommends the same number of houses went some way in my decision making.  The matter in question was the fact that the outline plans moved an area of housing nearer to the existing dwellings there so there would be a much better aspect to the development.  It was half a paddock nearer but this meant that the development could be built in the low lying area and not spoil any view looking from the conserved Alnwick fields just over a hill.

When I got home I had several messages about me being the target of attack by the mother of our MP’s communications manager?  Seems I had to stop everything I was doing to reply to her political accusations on social media.  In fact they were getting more and more deranged as far as I could see.  As well as these tirades the ex-chair of the local labour group joined in but that was just par for the course! (Hi Alex!).

I did do a reply the next day and I received an inbox full of well wishes!  Thanks to everyone who sent them!

Again once home I only had time for another cuppa then it was up to Netherton Club for my monthly surgery.

Today I had the strategic planning meeting and one item on the agenda was the detailed planning for the Bedlington redevelopment in marketplace.  The Alnwick application was before and that was eventually agreed.  One application had been pulled and another pretty straightforward.  Finally the Bedlington application came up and after seeing the application on the screen I asked about the parking provision.  Looks like it’s been reduced but adding in the parking for the anchor store it’s actually increased.  There were no other questions and I asked the chair to move to the vote.  I proposed it and it was duly seconded and with no comments from members I said we have waited 50years for this let’s get on with the vote.  It was passed unanimously.

Third day of my holiday from work and full council meeting today.  We had an update on some confidential matters pertaining to the Bedlington development and then downstairs for the full council meeting.

I had submitted a question for this meeting again, this one about the conditions we attach to planning applications where members feel they are necessary.  I had already asked our head of planning who oversees these conditions and her answer was our enforcement team.  This question was a bit different however because of what I have seen locally I basically asked if it was worth members attaching conditions to applications because developers seem to be agreeing conditions but then not adhering to them once they get their permissions.  I will let people make their own minds up about the answer I got back.

 

Full council meeting September 2018

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVbuTqINJPk

 

I had two constituents to see and ask questions on their behalf then I was off on holiday for 3 days!  It should have been 2 weeks but unable to sort of the respite for one of the lads meant our holiday had to be cancelled so we could look after him.

 

When I got back I had a meeting to sort out which company got the contract for the new play park in Plessey Woods.  It took hours to go through all the responses and score each one but eventually we got it down to three.  Each had their good bits but we all eventually agreed on one.  If it goes in exactly like the plan it will be quite an improvement!  This is just one way I hope to make any parking charges for using this park worthwhile.  We already have the undertaking that monies raised will be used to further improve the park so getting these initial upgrades is really the icing on the cake.  Still working for more of course!

One concern has been raised by adjacent residents who are probably rightly concerned about conflicting parking.  I have requested a meeting between the park’s management, NCC highways and myself to see what can be done for residents along the road outside the park entrance.

We had a full council planning training session given by two QC’s specialising in planning law.  Seems the politicos wanted to pay games at question time but the QC’s weren’t playing those games.  I did ask a question, this one about the weight given to applications in consideration of any emerging strategies or polices.  I said this by it’s very nature was a subjective call by planners and maybe they didn’t fully appreciate the local ‘flavour’ as much as local members did so could this weight be challenged by members?  The answer was maybe, but given that the same information should be used the same conclusion should be arrived at.  Well that’s as clear as mud then!  Seems they didn’t appreciate my subjective comment?  Well it has to be doesn’t it?

The monthly Town Council meeting was on tonight but I had to meet constituents so I couldn’t give my usual monthly update.  It turned out to be a pretty productive meeting and I think we all know the direction, albeit a new one, we are taking now.

Well I have now been accused of voting for personal gain, again off the mother of our MP’s communications manager.  My legal advice, because this was something I wasn’t going to put up with, was that she either presented the case and listed where and what this personal gain is or apologised and took down her social media posting.  The posting was deleted but no apology has been forthcoming!  Might be worth looking at the recent BBC Newsnight update on NUM funds if we are to consider personal gain!

Last couple of days of my Holidays and I had a site visit with our chair of planning for our LAC.  This gave us a much better understanding of the application which is before us on Wednesday.

Today I have another site visit asked for by a resident.

After all the planning visits I’ve done over the last few weeks it was now time for another planning committee meeting at our LAC.  One of the applications was in my ward and after seeing first-hand the site, with the chair of planning, I thought it best to request a full site visit by the whole committee.  This was felt necessary by other members too as we progressed the application because it turned out the advice by the officer as he freely admitted was only his judgment.  The second application was pretty straightforward so went through unanimously.

As the chair couldn’t attend this meeting  I chaired it and after starting then passing over to the chair of planning for that bit, after which I took over again.  Public questions and only two were forthcoming.  Those answered, it was on with the agenda.  The police had come to introduce our new police neighbourhood officer and they gave a brief presentation about how they policed and the stats for Bedlington.  A few questions ensued and I opened this up to questions from residents.

First meeting of this week and it was corporate and economic scrutiny.  I had read through all the associated papers and had quite a few questions on several of the agenda items.

The chair changed the agenda items at the request of the Leader so we could hear the new Borderlands deal.  This was given in private because it hadn’t even gone to central government yet and had repercussions to their budget but I can say that if we had been given some of the details we heard today I wouldn’t have needed to abstain from the vote at full council.  I did ask to formally recognise and include the micro businesses in the resulting consultation where there were direct business links.

We then resumed the normal running of the agenda and had the initial budgetary report.  I had a few questions about this and almost seemed to monopolise the debate.  Again I have to say all my questions were answered in what seemed to be clarity and honesty by the cabinet member and financial officer.

One of my questions was about the £65M “black hole” which had been presented at public meetings last year.  This is now been reduced to £36M and I asked how that had been achieved, if only to make sure the previous figure was justified.  The answer came back both off the cabinet member and the financial officer and I was satisfied with their responses.  I then asked about the large potential reduction in children services for year 21-22.  Again the answer was about the culmative effects and their bedding in time more than putting off the biggest hit for future years!  I then asked about how the debt management figures for Arch were suddenly put into savings?  The reply was more about how the debt figures have now been effectively managed but more on that later!

My further questions were about “operational efficiencies” and “fee optimisation” as listed in the report and again I was satisfied with the answers.

I apologised for the time spent answering my questions but in reality I think many were happy to finally get questions based on the actual papers instead of political rhetoric.

I also asked about the proposed savings were had previously examined in our shared service project.  These have not been included and I then asked if or when would we see any given the bulk of the project has been put off until Universal Credit has bedded in.  That wasn’t really answered but the intent is to complete the shared service project at some point.

One last thing to mention is that I asked that commercial income generation opportunities which were listed are explored in detail and with even small incomes capable of enhancing some service provision this is something I have been working on and could really help with some of the more very frontline services.

One thing I did like is that this process (budget setting) is starting off earlier than it had been done, which means we can all have greater opportunity to see and examine it.

We then looked at the loan governance for Arch and again the loans, almost £300M, and their specifics were something of a direct risk worry given the way they have been written.  Some members complained about the way this was presented but the answer came back off the cabinet member that the way it had been handled, where the CEO and Leader of NCC sat on the board of Arch and proposed borrowing and then took their place next door in Council and accepted the proposal to loan Arch the money they had requested.  As the cabinet member remarked, that cannot be right, the conflict of interest has to be immense!

I had several more questions about this subject but they were getting more and more technical in a business sense.

My last question was about our social housing programme and would we be using Arch to deliver it.  My concern was that if we are now going to ‘tighten’ up any loans insofar as the interest and liquidity is concerned then my request that rents were genuinely affordable might be a casualty in that power play.  The reply was that social housing was seen as very low risk and it was hoped that would not be the case.  I said I will be watching!  I did get some support off other members on this question.

I have to say if this committee is supposed to be strictly scrutiny, making overly political claims and introducing political plays is something I hoped would not happen or even be allowed.  There are perfectly legitimate ways to examine the administration and its policies without resorting to the much easier politicking which is becoming the norm.  In fact the distinct lack of opposition members on several committees seriously compromises NCC to represent a balanced view in my opinion!

In fact the very next meeting was one I have been co-opted onto, the LDF committee.  This was because essentially the opposition have withdrawn from this committee and as it has to be quorate other members were needed.  I did voice the opinion that as all parties and members should be represented on something as important as this committee there should have been a place for an independent representation anyway!

This committee looks at the LDF or Local Development Framework which became the Core Strategy we hear so much about.  Strikes me that a group which pulls away from the working group looking into and suggesting the details of this  subject while at the same time bemoaning the fact that the one they worked on had been withdrawn for a revised version is not being as upstanding as they should?

We heard the results of the consultation completed by many thousands of our residents from all over the county then looked at how their opinions could be used to influence the current proposed draft.

As I was the only member from the south east of the county, where about half the population lives, it fell to me to speak for that area.  I could only reiterate the concerns I have with the basic infrastructure we have now never mind thinking about the huge influx of new residents given the house building and pre-applications we have recently seen.  I also had a discussion with our new head of planning about some of the terms used in planning, such as affordable, and especially listing all of our towns into a hierarchical structure.  I asked if that is the case will we see business rates in say a B or C town be less than those charged in an A town? And given we are seeking inward investment will that be naturally directed at the A towns first?  I was assured that wouldn’t be the case.  Well why not itemise our towns listing their natural assets and development potential rather than classify some which seem to be better than others.  The meeting continued and it is obvious there is a huge amount of work being done by staff to meet the government deadlines.  One of the other things I mentioned was based on a housing application I heard on the strategic planning committee.  This had suggested the affordable housing, which has become the norm for planning applications these days, is passed to the local parish council.  I was and still am very much in favour of this sort of arrangement because who knows local need better than these very local councils.  I was told there are problems with that application regarding this matter but I said regardless this is a good idea and one we should adopt across the board whenever possible.  This could have put up to £200K into that parish council pot annually if it was allowed and clearly would have major impacts onto either the parish precept or enhanced service provision or a mixture of the two.  Would have cost implications for the parish council in terms of management and oversight but the benefits would far outweigh any associated costs in my opinion.

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