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Malcolm Robinson

Councillor Robinson - February 2019

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February 2019.

Busy start to this month. First up was a corporate scrutiny meeting at 10am in County Hall. This was a pretty important one as it scrutinised the medium term financial plan and this years proposed budget. I was a bit shocked to see so many unoccupied seats because members from all scrutiny committees were invited. I had several questions and again it was a bit of a two man show as the Lib Dem Leader and myself monopolised the question and answer session.

My questions were about post 16 school transport and why it only had one year listed in the accounts, why do we see a 2.99% council tax rise when at last year’s meeting we were told if we agreed a 2.99% rise for last year we would only need a 1.99% rise for next year, or this year as it now falls, a further question about recurrent financial pressures, the adult social care proposals, delegation of the strategic regeneration budget to 4 officers and members and could someone explain the quote ‘flexibilities of capital receipts’ when we are told time and time again capital and revenue budgets cannot be mixed. I was satisfied with most of the answers that came back. The opposition made a comment but did not question the financial plan or budget at all?

That meeting finished around 11.25am and it was a rush to get down into the council chamber for the State of the Area debate tabled to start at 11.30am.

Again I was surprised when it became apparent the Labour group and Lib Dems boycotted this meeting. Not sure how you can represent constituents by not attending meetings but that certainly seems to be the modus operandi of the opposition at present. I would make the point that I feel to effect change to prospective NCC policy, which is basically put in place by cabinet, I can only do that by engaging at committee level. Or before it becomes NCC policy. Trying to do it after the cabinet has accepted or declined suggestions, changes and amendments, and then voted for it is almost impossible, given they are the administration.

We heard the Leader talk about future plans and in particular those on education and tourism, in fact the cabinet members responsible for those, gave presentations. During the educational presentation we heard about large investments in new schools etc throughout the county. The portfolio holder said this is all about viable business cases being made. I was a bit annoyed at that and asked if that is the case then tailoring your offer to customer demand, or in this case schoolchildren’s needs, how do we see large investments in lower residential density areas and whilst I note there is a single new school planned within the South East of the county, where over 50% of the population resides, we do have extra educational needs based on huge influxes of new residents. The cabinet member responded and again said any investment would be based on sound business principles so I said I would welcome the undoubted investment coming into Bedlington in that case!

Next we had a presentation about tourism and the Discover Northumberland initiative. I did want to ask for help with a particular problem we have in Bedlington at present and I had to think of a way to factor it into a question. I used the antithesis of what was being presented to ask for a multi agency task force to help with the anti social behaviour Bedlington was being subjected to at weekends because that flew in the face of presenting a positive image for the county as a whole. The deputy Leader said he would get someone to contact me and tell the Northumberland Youth Service to get involved.

Next I had a mad rush to get home have a cuppa then out back to the Advance Northumberland HQ in Ashington. Bill and Russ came and again we discussed the Bedlington Town Centre Regeneration Project, this time with the MD and head of investments. This 30 minute meeting turned into 2 hours and some pretty straightforward talking took place. These meetings have been subject to strict commercial confidentiality and it’s a bit soul destroying seeing and reading huge swathes of social media principly put out by a local political group for their own political benefit at the cost of so much discord and division in the town.

I then had my usual monthly surgery for residents at Netherton Club, so all in all quite a busy Monday.

Strategic Planning and no real issues with any of the applications for a change. I did want to challenge planners on one item, wagon access to a opencast coal mine. I was particularly concerned this application was retrospective and was about road safety issues as highlighted by a local school and local residents. Our recommendation off planners was based on a new access route to the site not any alleviation of road safety issues especially for minors. Other members expressed their disquiet about this being a retrospective application too looking to change conditions as laid down when the original application was heard. Exactly what I have been banging on about for the last year! What’s the point of laying down conditions if developers etc just ignore them. Given there was just a very limited time left for this site to run we asked for a strongly worded letter to go out to the operator and I hope we keep our eyes open in future about such conditions breaches!

I have a meeting with planners at Westlea today and I hope I can get some resolution to their impasse.

Well you are never too old to be shocked. After listening to the arguments put forward by our planners I rebuffed their arguments one by one and they actually agreed with my take. So much so I now have their help in making this project happen. I would like to thank them for being so reasonable and open minded.

I then had to go down to the police station for another meeting with the officers charged to look after Bedlington. No prizes for guessing what took up the whole of the meeting. We are going to see a different tack from now on with police being far more proactive, something which I said I welcomed.

Had to be up and ready for a pick up at county hall today at 7.45am. Bill, Russ and myself have been asked to travel on the hopefully soon to be reopened Ashington, Bedlington, Blyth Tyne rail line and we should be able to speak to the minister for Transport directly outlining our support and the reasons why our Town needs this so badly. After he was taken around the recently started upgrades happening to Morpeth station we got on a special train and first stop, according to the announcement, Bedlington. Had a nice ring to it!!! Once here we were able to get off, onot the old platform and press the minister for his support in getting this line reopened. Everything he said was positive! In fact 2022 is now being bandied around for the first passenger trains onto this line for decades. For my money this not only helps people travel out and into central station Newcastle where the full monty of rail destinations is available, it also helps bring people in which in turn will make Bedlington a destination instead of a crossroads to other towns. Lots of hurdles and lots of work still to be done of course but it does look like the political will is there now.

Sad news today, out of the blue, Councillor Bernard Pidcock has died. Bernard was a heart on his sleeve sort of bloke and spoke passionately in support of his particular beliefs. He took part in a number of committees I work on and many more. I for one will miss his mischievousness especially at full council meetings.

Next meeting was our community chest committee. Bernard was on this committee and even though a great deal of thought had gone into the make up of this committee so it was balanced politically he was usually the only opposition member to attend. His recent death has now resulted in no opposition members being present! So I had to check with the officer to make sure we were quorate. We were so I started the meeting and given this was about underspent monies in the normal community chest I suggested, as normal, considering any applications which had not had funding before. The three which met that criteria were assessed and then we went into the rest of the applications. Couple of hours later and we had allocated all of the outstanding monies at our disposal. This is something I believe we owe the local groups and charities based in our locale because I know first hand how difficult it is to actually get funding for community projects. Some of the other areas are still under their funding criteria, however ours is 100% paid out!

I have a site meeting with Miller Homes today after many months of complaints from residents about the way they have conducted the build at Broadoaks, most especially the effect it has had on the Green Letch.

Well we have just had the meeting and it looked like Miller had turned up mob handed with the North East manager, north of Tyne manager, technical manager and site foreman in the office with me. Our enforcement officer turned up to even things out a little. We spoke about the planning problems the site still has and I told them residents concerns. There was some pretty straightforward talking done and I have a new respect for our enforcement officer after she refused to back down on her demands and backed me and my resident’s claims up! They did agree to the proposals sent in by our ecology officer and I asked for them to be written down and sent back so we all had them in black and white.

We then walked along the site and on a couple of occasions I had to draw their attention to things which in the office they said they were not doing! I think in the end we both knew where we have to go, in fact the boss said we have heard things neither of us wanted to hear but at least we have cleared the air and solutions have been agreed.

The only thing I didn’t get was some answer to the Great Wall of Bedlington. Sitting in the officer when I asked about it I was told there was no building going on top of this structure. I asked to make sure, so it’s only going to be gardens and the reply came back yes. When we walked along the site I stopped the boss and said you have just told me there is no buildings going to be on top of this retaining wall and clearly there are foundations, footings, bricks up the damp course level and one half built house. He said he thought I meant directly on top of the gabion wall cages? He assured us that the foundations were at a depth and angle that no stress would be on the gabion wall anyway. OK but that’s not quite what was said half an hour ago in the office!

All in all I agree with the ecology officer who suggested to enforcement that sympathetic restoration rather than going for an out and out breach of conditions was the way to go and as long as we get what was agreed in writing and they complete, I think that is the best we can demand now. Course if we had some proper oversight in the first place…..

Busy week this week, first up we had a budget and financial plan presentation in our office at county hall. This is given to all parties and groups before the full council budget vote. The financial officer and the corporate cabinet member came and we had a long session of going through their budget and 3 year plan.

My first question was about the regeneration budget for our town centre development because this time it wasn’t shown separately. After going through the budget spreadsheet we were shown the line which contained it by the finance officer. It was a separate item in last year’s financial plan, this year it was included in the budget proposals for other Town centre regenerations. That done loads of more questions about where our Town fitted and might fit into this 3 year plan. We did have many questions about the proposed cuts to the social care budget and I made the point that these people by their very nature were passive and couldn’t really make representations for themselves.

I had the opportunity to question these financial plans at the corporate scrutiny committee at the beginning of the month but I was still able to drill down into the detail.

We eventually finished this meeting and then it was a rush to get back have a quick cuppa then get to Cramlington for the monthly LAC. This should have been a planning meeting only but we had a couple of presentations to hear, first one the Local Transport Plan and the other the new Local Plan. Nice to see several Bedlington residents had made the time to make the meeting.

Seems to me that a lot of places are faring quite well out of this year’s LTP, (Local Transport Plan) Bedlington not being one even though each of us had given our three priorities. I did question this and asked why over 12 months ago I had been turned down on two out of my three priorities but for one I had been assured I was going to be invited into a meeting to discuss it. This one was about school parking issues which affect residents in my ward. Again I was assured by the officer that he would look into it and get back to me within a day. Seems to have slipped again!

Next presentation was the new Local Plan and a brief rundown was given before questions were fielded. Again I did have several questions for the officer even though I had worked on this at committee. Very interested in the house build design strategy.

The chair did open these presentations up for any residents who attended to ask questions. Much better way of doing things.

Long day today, work at 6am a mad rush at 2pm to get back have a shower and change then up to County Hall for full council at 3pm.

The main bones for this one was the proposed social care cut and the budget. I argued that this social care cut was not the way to balance the budget and specifically questioned why do we seem to be charging carers to look after people? The answer came back that we charge for any specialist help carers need to look after people, people that are probably loved ones. What an insensitive policy and as its a continuation of the existing policy I wonder who put this in place? The vote came and we lost by 10 votes. Looked like the administration had all of their councillors there, pity the opposition didn’t or we might have been able to turn that over! Other non aligned independents voted against too.

Next came the budget vote and questions were asked specifically about the Bedlington Regeneration funding. The Leader said we are getting our regeneration, the chair of regeneration said its included and I said I had checked to make sure it was included and it is. Thanks for the concern! I was a bit taken aback when all labour members voted against the budget knowing full well it contained our much needed regeneration funding and not just Bedlington’s but other town centres too. Again putting politics before the needs of our communities.

Before I got home that night yet another report on a local political page saying I had voted for the social care cut? That seemed to entitle several people to make personal comments about me and people close to me insisted I made a counter statement. I did and put up the video of the meeting leaving people to make their own minds up about who was or wasn’t being truthful. The accusation was then changed to say that because I had voted for the budget I was in fact voting for the social care cut by association. I would just point out the advice given by the NCC solicitor during the meeting which resulted in the opposition Leader taking out his counter motion pre vote concerning this social care cut. It couldn’t legally be included having just been approved by the full council unlike our town centre funding!

I will just say this in conclusion, if I had voted against the budget knowing full well our town centre funding was included how on earth could I look anyone in the eye and tell them I was working for our Town’s benefit? I can just imagine the faux outrage if that had happened!

Local Government Pension Panel meeting today and as usual quite complex and long. It’s one thing keeping abreast of the current regulations but we also have to consider the new shared admin with Newcastle as well as the new Border to Coast group we are part of. It was good to hear off all the independent examiners, pension board chair, employee reps that they consider this panel to be out performing and our commitment to training was very commendable. Must be doing something right then! One of the questions I did ask was about this shared service and was the expected savings and improvements being seen. Seems they are.

Next meeting was another long training session, this time for planning. Improving planning design and delivering better homes not just in terms of build quality but also running costs is something of a soapbox for me and it was good to hear support for this when I mentioned it. In fact our new head of planning said he understood and supported what I was saying. Let’s hope we see real movement towards these ends soon. This session certainly gave us food for thought. It was a pity once again not all members made it but there was a good smattering of officers present.

Russ and myself had a meeting at the WBTC office today, this with NCC highways and the Town Council. Matters under discussion were the suggested road safety improvements we want to see. I was particularly interested in getting the new speed interactive signs fitted, seeing as I have agreed to buy three. Also getting new road markings to slow traffic on certain roads was again something we tried to get through. We did agree the upgrades we wanted to see and we were assured the final costings should be available next week. Many thanks to WBTC for their help and input, so much easier when we are all just trying to improve our area for residents.

I have been contacted by our road safety officer after my questions at our last LAC and we are meeting on Ridge Terrace to look into the school traffic problems.

We did meet and walked from Bishops Meadow along to the school exit on Netherton Lane. Several points were raised along the way and some agreed on. So hopefully we will see some further upgrades designed to aid the safety of our school children as they go to and from their schools, as well as some relief for residents!

Looks like I’m now being castigated on social media again for going on that train with the government minister. Well sorry but if I get the chance to talk directly to a minister advocating investment and regeneration in our area Im going to jump on it. Who was and wasn’t invited wasn’t in my remit but being able to tell the transport minister that this project is integral to the regeneration of this area for several reasons was reason enough to take part. I think a passenger rail link is one of the most crucial keys to lasting economic growth for our area, if its handled properly. I make no apologies for taking part, in fact I consider it part of the job!

Had an interesting meeting today about the new High Street Fund. Lots to consider even though Bedlington isn’t one of the 3 priorities NCC have listed or the one, Blyth, they are putting forward for this funding. I asked for and now have the data matrices concerning our Town. Looks like there are quite some options and I don’t see why we can’t go for them, albeit in a slightly different context.

Back up to County Hall for another meeting this afternoon. This one in response to my call, at the State of the Area debate, for a multi agency approach to the adolescent problems blighting this town at present. Nice to hear this is something being taken seriously and actions will be forthcoming from NCC. NCC Youth Services and Neighbourhood safety teams are initially being tasked to get involved and liaise with the Police.

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