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Malcolm Robinson

Councillor Robinson - February 2020

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February 2020.

 

Just into February and already meeting times and dates are clashing.  I had to be at Whitley Bay for 11am so I had to give apologies for a planning site visit this morning at Widdrington.

I then had my monthly surgery and again quite a list of things to do resulted.

I had another Fell-a-Ship meeting today about men’s mental health.   Again quite a few representatives turned up all dedicated to promoting good mental health in men.   We now have enough groups enlisted to support initiatives within Bedlington.  What we need now is for people to come forward to put those initiatives in place with the full backing of this group.  Hopefully when people see this sign and banner they will recognise it for what it will stand for.

Fellaship

 

Strategic planning tonight and with only one application on the agenda it might be presumed to be a short meeting.  But this is planning and this single application took nearly 2 hrs.  This was the Widdrington application and going through the paperwork I did have several questions.  In fact as the meeting progressed I had even more!  At one point I had to say planners had done their usual and pulled out the trump cards to curtail me getting reasonable answers to my questions!  It annoys me when they do this, use seemingly arcane planning law which we don’t know about to answer quite open and honest questions.  In the end I agreed with the application because this development was aimed at and costed for first time buyers.

I had requested a visit to the old council offices in Bedlington and I had the guided tour today.  I really wanted to see just how bad the state of the building is in so I have a better idea of what usage it might be put to.  There is a huge problem which seems to have put everyone off this building and seeing it first-hand I can understand why.  However it’s not insurmountable in my view, although it will be costly and fraught with legal and technical problems!  Yet another grim legacy from the days of WDC!

 

Meetings galore today but first off a MOT for my car.

The rest of the day was spent trying to sort out some of the concerns residents have passed to me and for once a few resolutions after I insisted on face to face meetings with the appropriate personnel.  I also had the Plessey Woods event to tie up any loose ends.

Saturday and the Superheroes were at Plessey Woods.   Again it’s another event I can’t attend for work commitments but I’m more than happy to make these things happen especially as it was enjoyed by so many of our kiddies.   I have even arranged for canopies and seating in case it rained, thanks Tony!  It didn’t and the afternoon was another great success, thanks Charmaine, Danny and the ground staff.

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Another busy day today with a Scrutiny meeting at 10am kicking it off.  One of the main items was the proposed budget and once again Jeff Reid and myself raising most of the questions.  I had further questions about the proposed rail link as this was another agenda item.  The full cost of this will be in the order of £160+M and we are looking for around £100M off the government through one of their funding streams.  Other funding will come from other applications with NCC putting in nearly £30M.  Listening to the officer things are now proceeding in the right direction because we have built up a good tail wind with support from most if not all bodies which will input into this.   I did have several questions about finance and ownership not least.  Also the fact that these new stations, or newly used stations, could and should be attracting economic regeneration in their own right and this was generally acknowledged and agreed.  I had a further question about the actual rolling stock which will be used, particularly how it would be powered, given that we have called a climate emergency and we are supporting a huge infrastructure in green energy production.  I said not using our own green energy and relying on old diesel rolling stock was such an obvious own goal I hope this won’t be the case?  The officer responded by saying electric seemed the way forward and we could very well see the pantograph raised near Newcastle but then lowered in Northumberland where battery power could take over.    Sounds like a plan to me!

hybrid train

The last order of business was the proposed new arm’s length trading entities NCC want to initiate.  Possibly up to 5 new trading companies all controlled by NCC.  I wanted clarification as to what was going to be included in any business models (looking at the last time this was done and the associated ‘indiscretions’!) and the fact that it said these would be looking at new income generation, NOT SAVINGS on existing service deliveries!  The CeO replied to my questions and assured me she was going to make sure safeguards were in place this time and only trading outside of our existing service provisions would be considered.  Given what I have seen of her ridged insistence on proper governance at Advance board meetings I was happy with the answers.   This might go some way to respond to my calls for the biggest employer in Northumberland (NCC) to seek out contracts within the private and public sector to generate income and not to solely rely on putting up tax rates year after year. I expect this will be used to create more discord for political reasons but as I was the only member to question this item in its details then once again disingenuousness would seem to be the order of the day.   Having now seen the political manipulations in the press it seems my prediction was spot on!  Instead of getting to grips with this stuff at committee where changes could possibly be made some are happy to sit on their hands only to wring them in public later!

This meeting closed then it was a dash to get back to Bedlington for some tree planting.  I was struck at the previous scrutiny meeting where the new urban tree planting initiative was discussed that this should be opened up to our youngsters to get involved with.  So I contacted the schools and youth groups in my area and arranged for them to come down, with the environmental portfolio holder, and help plant these trees on the 20 Acres.  29 sites have been identified within the urbanised SE to be used for planting new trees.  The ambition is to give every young person in the county a tree to plant so they can identify with it as it grows and matures.  That is the bigger countywide initiative as well as planting up a new ‘People’s Forest’.  It was a very cold windy day but we had a good turnout of young people to help and they seemed to enjoy it.  This is only the first batch which will be going into Bedlington so I’ll do the same for the next lot which are going in behind the Hartlands.  I have been asked what sort of trees were used and I now have the list….5x Acer campestre, 5x Alnus cordata, 5x Crataegus laevigata Paul’s Scarlet, 4x Malus tschonoskii, 6x Populus tremula, 5x Prunus padus and 5x Tilia tomentosa.  So 35 in all and they are semi mature not the usual wisps.

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I had to be up at County Hall today for my LAC community chest meeting.  I chair this one and again insisted we held this extra one to use up every last penny in the budget, given that is all goes to community groups and voluntary sector.  Once again after going through all the new applications and doing a bit of jiggling we spent everything in the budget!

As I left I had the chance to collar cabinet members and press them to attend a ‘talk’ I have organised.  There is another ‘talk’ being held about councils, democracy and environment with some of our young people, thanks to the help from Leading Link!  It’s something I have always been keen to support and I normally go myself and talk to any of the youngsters interested in politics, with a small ‘P’.   This time I have invited most of the big shots in NCC and failing to get our first choice of chair I have agreed to chair it myself.  It will therefore be something like a Question Time.  Great chance for our youngsters to put their questions directly to the movers and shakers up at County Hall and given who will chair it there will be no hiding places!!!!

Another Friends of West Lea Cemetery tonight and again a good turnout.  This time I had invited the officer responsible for cemeteries within the county and he duly attended.  It was good to see how each side can help and interact with the other to get our cemetery not only up to expectations but surpass them!  The group has designs on the old building there and this is something we are starting to look at in greater detail.  The officer responded to all the questions and concerns which were put to him and in fact sorted some out as he sat there.

I had pushed Advance to hold regular Bedlington Business meetings and our second one was today.   Good turnout but I still would like to see more Bedlington business making use of the help and advice on offer.

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Been putting together the funding for the new fence and hedging for the front of West Lea Cemetery and I expect to see work starting very soon.  I think this will tidy up the whole of the front of the cemetery, which was the first ask from residents who live opposite, and provide a bit more security.  Thanks go to WBTC for agreeing to a contribution for this cemetery project, I’m hoping it’s somewhere we can all take a renewed pride in soon.

I have a full council meeting coming up, it’s the budget one, and going through the reports and papers one stands out as inconceivable.  It’s the report into the county council planning function.   Once again like the Active report and the Arch one we read previously, the more exasperation and incredulity took over.

Here is the link………

http://committee.northumberland.gov.uk/Meeting.aspx?MeetID=9674

When anyone reads statements like this you know something is very wrong……….

There is now significant evidence that appears to suggest that attempts were made to subvert these functions in respect of a major planning application, namely the application for Dissington Garden Village. This is clearly of significant concern and is explained in detail further below.”

Also……

The independent investigation report found that, in respect of the specific planning application (which was for a large residential development of some 257 hectares on a green field site), decisions and conduct in relation to that planning application were not transparent or appropriate.”

“It appears that significant efforts were made by several persons in positions of authority and control within the County Council to collude with and secure a 5 number of inappropriate advantages for the planning applicant / developer in the application in question. Such advantages would not be conferred on any other planning applicant in the normal conduct of the Authority’s planning functions.”

There is evidence that discussions between the previous executive / senior management of the County Council and the developer / planning applicant had been ongoing and in addition to other discussions reached an advanced stage regarding the provision of a loan, from the County Council to the planning applicant concerned. This loan, for which heads of terms and other correspondence have been obtained, offered the planning applicant an initial £34million from the County Council to fund the development with further funding of 55% of the site value “once outline planning permission was granted”. The ‘site value’ is not clear but the planning applicant has indicated that the site was forecast to “have a gross development value of c.£772million”.

This correspondence was conducted by a former chief officer of the County Council, on that chief officer’s personal email account (not that officer’s County Council email account). It is now clear that senior officers within the Planning department were similarly using personal email accounts to transact County Council business in respect of this same planning application, this is further outlined at paragraph 21 below.

It would be highly irregular for any local authority to enter into a funding arrangement such as this with any planning applicant. That Northumberland County Council appears to have been offering such substantial funding to a planning applicant – and that the Authority is the Strategic Planning Authority which would determine the planning application in question – may well raise valid questions as to the impartiality and objectivity with which the application would be determined. In terms of financial governance, the values concerned in turn were likely to represent a serious financial risk to public finances.”

“There is evidence that the applicant and / or their advisers in the specific planning application were invited / allowed by a very senior officer in the Planning department to write and alter parts of the Planning officers’ report to the Strategic Planning Committee. This report ultimately recommended approval of the application. The applicant was also allowed to view confidential drafts of the report which would not normally be published outside of the County Council.

There is therefore serious concern of undue influence / conflict of interest on the part of the planning applicant, enabled by a senior officer in the Planning department having already offered and given significant hospitality to a very senior officer.”

“Anonymous Allegations – in December 2017, two anonymous letters were sent on to the County Council by two elected members. However these elected members then circulated the anonymous letters widely, not only sharing these with the External Auditor, but also the (then) Police and Crime Commissioner, many officers, and a number of elected members. The anonymous letters were clearly politically motivated and much of the content was pejorative in nature. Notwithstanding this, those aspects of the anonymous letters which were capable of checking back to facts were thoroughly examined. This involved interviews with officers and elected members, as well as gathering and analysis of all available supporting information.

Following this detailed, impartial and evidence based investigation, it was established beyond any doubt that the anonymous letters were wholly without basis. However, that these letters were relied on so prominently in the legal action brought against the County Council and others, again the Authority would contend is further evidence of the spurious nature of the claims made against it in the writ and underlines the lack of any evidence to substantiate those spurious claims.”

I’m going to have to question this at the meeting!

Full council today and a meeting with the Leader just before to make sure we are on the same page with my sports centre proposal.  I have been working on getting a small sports centre up at West Lea for about 2 years now and this is the final push.  I have had planners there, sport professionals there, builders and funders and all of them have backed my ideas to change the small changing rooms there into a proper sports multi-use complex.  I have negotiated half a million pounds to kick start this and I wanted to know the in’s and out’s before it was put to members in the budget proposals.   Happy with what was discussed and if the budget gets approved later we can finally start the next stage in the process.

Just a picture that no one in Bedlington has ever seen before! A stand along budget item for a community sports facility in the town.  It’s been a lot of hard work and although not the multi millions other towns have had its something to start with and build on.   Its half a million no one else has ever been able to get in writing, even those belonging to whatever political party in charge, so much for an independent member not being able to get things done!

BSF2

 

Went down for full council and I was expecting fireworks on one of the agenda items.  I wasn’t disappointed.  When the audit report came up and questions were allowed it didn’t take a genius to see who was on the war path and who were battening down the hatches!   Several members voiced their outrage at what had happened and I was particularly keen to suggest we needed some resolution to this and previous reports if only for the reputation of the council.  I expect to see more fireworks about this over the coming months!  I have to say yet another debacle deriving from the last administration, surely there can’t be anymore?  As we have seen Active Northumberland report……lacking any sort of competent administration, Arch……lacking any sort of financial governance at all, and now this……..and all done under the last Labour administration, what were these people thinking of?

The budget came up and after the presentation and questions it went to the vote.  It passed by about 38 to 1 with 25 abstentions!

Now it wasn’t that long ago I was accused, very vociferously and vocally, of letting my residents down by abstaining on a vote, even though I explained my reasons why I had chosen to take that path.  I was also “told” abstaining wasn’t in the remit of a decent councillor!  The very same people were now abstaining en-mass.

Might be worth a look at a dictionary……..

hypocrite

At the very least it clearly shows a political whip in play!

As it now stands the video of that meeting has been taken down even though it was a live recording and available until late this morning!  Also there were plenty of members of the public in attendance at the meeting so if this is an attempt to stop the information coming into the public realm it seems flawed.  Two members were named in the meeting for the actions they had taken and I can only assume there has been some sort of complaint by either, both or a political party which has resulted in this public account being taken down!  I will be pressing to get it reinstated so everyone is aware of what has been going on.

Well the video has been reinstated with only the names edited out.

Gets exciting about 22 mins in…………and why they tried to stop me from speaking I don’t know!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDto-qIHd0g&t=1329s

Unless and until we get some sort of resolution to this and other past ‘events’ then I have to disagree with the legal opinion expressed in the video.  I would be more than happy to abide by any verdict which resulted from a group of 12 open minded citizens which had heard evidence presented to them in a court of law.  Not allowing that outcome can only result in more accusations and allegations because there is not a final and transparent result.

jury

Just had reason to look at the comparison data matrices for the main towns in Northumberland.  Bedlington has a greater population than the towns of Alnwick, Berwick, Hexham and Morpeth but town centre footfall is the lowest.  My argument is that there is little reason to walk down into our Town centre, comparatively, until we see the investment into our town centre redevelopment start to bear fruit.  Of course we actually need the infrastructure built to enable that!  Considering the downturn in the fortunes of high street retailers shouldn’t we be looking to augment that footfall with other non-retail usage?  That’s why I keep lobbying to get Bedlington taken seriously as a site for an Enterprise Hub with training and mentoring and even small units for bespoke businesses to try out in.  That would help footfall for the retailers in the town, new and existing, and start to make Bedlington a destination town rather than the crossroads it is at present.  I hope someone has been listening to me droning on about this and I can only wait until June to see if that has happened!

Local Area Council meeting tonight and only the Local Transport Plan on the agenda.  We heard the presentations and then quite a few members had questions.  One big bugbear came out to not just me but Russ and Bill as well.  Once again it seems Bedlington, as a whole, is faring less well in terms of funding than other areas, even though we have meticulously gone through the scoring criteria to make sure our proposals were vindicated, so we have made a complaint!  Getting around 1% of the budget for the 4th largest Town in the county wasn’t something we feel we can accept!  Further meetings have been agreed now!

I had to call into Leading Link today to talk to the youngsters about this upcoming Question Time.  One of the teachers led it and we went through some of the types of questions they want to ask.

Well it looks like the 5th Column are out again drip feeding their one sided views to anyone who will give them time.  Have to say it’s a bit disingenuous to suggest I haven’t kept people aware of what’s going on after publishing a monthly diary of my time as a NCC councillor from the very first month.  In fact the feedback told me I was publishing too much at one point!

As for taking a role in Advance Northumberland, I said at the time I was accepting this poison chalice if only to get the Bedlington Town Centre development over the line and it may have taken some time but I have brought it up at every board meeting and been party to quite a few tense and terse meetings about it.  As it now stands a press report is going out this week detailing the agreed timetable for the works but I don’t see why it can’t all be achieved earlier than listed and that’s a line I will be taking and pressing for!

https://www.investinginbedlington.co.uk/2020/02/25/Bedlington-town-centre-redevelopment-update-on-project/

 

LGPS today at County Hall and again a very intense session not least because of the proposed merger with another body.  We have been examining this merger and it has been worked on for the last 18 months and had been agreed at the last full council meeting but we still have months of oversight to complete.  So half the meetings was taken up with the intricacies of this merger, the other half business as normal for the panel.  I had to leave at noon and had already told the chair but we were just getting to the nitty gritty of a proposed new alignment in our investment portfolio so I had to stay for the vote.  This meant I was running late for the next meeting at Ashington.

I made it to the next meeting an Advance Board meeting just as it was about to start.  Again another large agenda to get through with all of the new governance procedures in place.  Advance is now so far removed from what Arch used to get up to its unreal and I feel the popular view that’s its one and the same in its conduct is unfair.  New web site about to go live which if anyone takes the time to go through it they will see for themselves just how different the two companies are these days.  Just one item to note will be the publication of board minutes something unheard of previously but one which can only increase transparency.

Same day and the trees and overgrown hedges have been taken out for the Town centre development.  Seems lots of people are saying they are distraught at this action but it had all been listed in discharge of conditions attached to the planning application.  Also new trees are included in the proposed landscaping to make up for taking these out.  Not only trees but shrubs and flowers are included too to soften the hardness of this commercial development.  We are finally seeing some action which can only mean the real build out is a matter of weeks away.  Aldi have their planning application due on 16th March after which, if successful, they will issue a timetable of works.  I have already insisted the Advanced works and the Aldi works run in tandem to minimise any necessary disruption a build out of this size will inevitably result in, for Bedlington residents.

plan2

 

 

 

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