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Malcolm Robinson

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Malcolm Robinson last won the day on November 15

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About Malcolm Robinson

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  • Birthday 09/09/1956

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  1. I said I would write a thank you to the people who helped make the Commemorative Plaque at the West Lea Cemetery possible. Some might not know but West Lea Cemetery in Bedlington is a nationally recognised War Graves site and with this in mind I came up with this design for a commemorative plaque which could be attached to the entrance. With over 28 graves directly attributed to the second world war and many more annotations on family graves mainly attributed to the first world war it was time we saw a permanent memorial plaque. Taking my idea and design down to Mike Robertson and his innovative team at Barrington Metals they came up with an all metal plaque which exactly matched my expectations. After a whirlwind week it was produced and fitted in time for Remembrance Day. Thanks go to Tony and Stephen, NCC cemetery management, and also the CeO of NCC who I needed special permission off to pay for the project. I am especially grateful for the kind words and recommendations off so many people in our community when they have seen this new plaque. With a new Friends of West Lea Cemetery group I can only see this usually forgotten and neglected important local asset improve and become something we can all take pride in.
  2. I was challenged to explain S106 developer funding recently and I can now have a go. Pretty complex subject and to get it right here is the latest government guidance: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/planning-obligations Part of the question also related to what’s been achieved and what has it been spent on, in the last 3 years? I’m going to presume new house building which has been started, completed or planned for, is what this question is about. Obviously I can only comment specifically on the applications in my ward because I’ve spent quite a bit of time on them, usually onto NCC enforcement! Taking the 14 new houses on Netherton Lane, there was no S106 funding applied for! Inexcusable in my view but that was before I became the NCC elected member and it did have to go to a planning inspector to overturn the original refusal. Even the planning inspector raised eye brows and mentioned the fact that no S106 funding had been applied for. Onto the Broadoaks development now and again before my time but once again no S106 funding. Although only a Town Councillor at the time I did question this and the reason came back that adverse ground conditions mitigated the S106 funding. I made the argument that if that was the case then the community were paying for the work needed to overcome these adverse ground conditions seeing as no community funding was attached! Again inexcusable in my view! There were some ‘affordable homes’ within the development which I believe have been passed to Bernicia for affordable rents. I have a real problem with the term ‘affordable’ because in my view they aren’t for the vast majority of our young people and I have argued that point at several planning meetings! Now onto the proposed new housing on the land north of the Chesters. This has been at committee 3 times now and on each occasion I have voted against, one reason because of a lack of suitable S106 agreements. Again this scheme had been originally planned for before I became the NCC elected member but I now had the chance to sit on the committee and question it. In the first outing for this permission I saw the original £3.4M (I think!) allocation for education had been reduced to £1.3M and there was no allocation for Health. Even the Sport and recreation allocation had been agreed to go down to East Bedlington? This I challenged and managed to change so we saw a £346,500 allocation for health and West Bedlington are now included in the sports and recreation funding. ” 7.77 Objectors have raised concerns regarding increased pressure on local services and infrastructure. This matter is addressed through the Section 106 Agreement that runs alongside the outline planning permission with contributions secured for education (£1,331,000), primary healthcare (£346,500), off-site sport/recreation (£229,000) and the strategic highway network (up to £155,000).” The strategic highways contribution is going to a Highways England project at the Moorfarm roundabout at Cramlington? I did make the case that there were plenty of highways works needed around Bedlington but Highways England seem to be holding a gun to the head of Planners because in quite a lot of cases around the SE of the county this has become the norm and they will object unless its included? Maybe we should take a leaf out of their book! Having spoken to our local health and educational professionals it seems the education allocation is almost entirely going to Special educational needs and as we have little if any it will go to Guidepost. The health contributions off this and others are being rounded up and our health centre will get a share of that? How much I don’t know. At the second hearing I argued the point that the proposed development was actually outside our settlement boundary as well as the reduced S106 funding. The reply was that planners needed this development to show government an agreed land bank for new housing. This time I did manage to convince one other member to back my assertions and there were two objectors at committee this time. This week reserved matters came before committee and I had asked planners specifically to make this happen. The Town Council submitted objections and I wanted to examine the proposed site access. Again planning law has to be understood because ONLY matters in the application could be discussed and debated. This severely restricts what could be brought up because outline permission and detailed permission had already been agreed by majority vote. This was really only about site layout and reserved matters. There are some affordable units included…… “7.18 The level of affordable housing provision for this site has already been agreed as 15% under the terms of the Section 106 Agreement which runs alongside the outline planning permission.” After a lengthy and pretty protracted questioning session the application was agreed with only my vote against, citing the loss of the original £2M in the S106 agreement as the main reason! Immediately after the meeting I was told by a member of the public that he was shocked to see all the party political members voting for this apart from me after receiving a political leaflet saying I supported wholesale housing without adequate infrastructural funding. The opposite is actually the truth! The only other sizeable application I know of is the 16 houses opposite West Lea on Netherton Lane and again I believe no S106 funding has been attached? Although this never came in front of any planning committee once I was aware I did challenge the lack of S106 funding. I hope that answers the questions.
  3. October 2019. October and after a short break straight back into it. Being a Thomas Cook customer on top of everything else is sending the house into meltdown! Having had to cancel my surgery because of a change in travel plans I now have several home visits to do. First one in the Chesters. After a nice chat and seeing first-hand what the problems were it was then a quick trip up to Netherton Village for another home visit. This one will be more problematical but given some of the meetings I have this week I should be able to get this mentioned during them. Along with Russ and Bill I had a meeting with the local police team today but it had to be cancelled at the last minute. I had some constituency concerns to address so I insisted on a private meeting with them anyway. Lots of food for thought with this one and I’m afraid more questions than answers, which wasn’t really the fault of the local cops its just the complexity of the issues. I have been trying to get a meeting with the NCC leadership for some time and received a message off the secretary saying if I could make lunchtime today they were all in one place at the same time! I went up and waited in the secretary’s office! We had what I would consider a positive meeting and one I expect results to flow from! I put my positions forcefully and had agreement in the end. There were several topics covered, each with their own nuances but in I think we worked out a strategy for each. Once home I had a quick cuppa then it was off to a meeting at Gallagher Park. This one was with the Barnesbury Cycling Club as they try to get funding pulled together for a renewed BMX track. The other independent councillors, EBPC and WBTC had met earlier in the week with them and most had pledged some funding to support their ambitious plans. I had already shown them how to apply for one funding source and they have been successful with that one. Strangely only EBPC and the Labour councillor for the Sleekburn ward have refused their plea for funding help. Seeing as they need to match fund a generous Sports England grant it was a no brainer for me because helping them reach half the amount unlocks so much more and improves the offer down there for all our young people, I just wish I could have offered more. Again once home a quick cuppa then out for a WBTC meeting. During my update for them I told them about the Halloween event in Plessey Woods and the event aimed at our youngsters for next February. I have even arranged for shelters for the seating area for the February one, just in case. Part of the challenge I was given when I got the money for the new play park down in Plessey Woods was to increase visitor numbers and I know how much extra its being used now and given we are using it for extra events as well even these numbers can only increase in the short term. I also know there is another event for which a funding bid has been worked on and submitted. Just had an audit committee meeting for Advance and good to hear the new governance and polices which we have been putting in place for the new company is starting to have the desired effect. I did have several questions for the external auditor which were answered in their entirety. We were also given reports by internal audit and again very helpful as we transform the company. Been up to see a couple of my constituents who are both reporting problem with roads and paths within the ward. For some reason NCC have been out and marked the bad bits of roads but have never completed? In fact its been that long the marker paint has eroded off both. Why NCC fail to keep residents informed is beyond me and seems to me to be a prime requirement for any ‘business’. I think a question at full council is called for because I have had many such issues! Another likewise problem is with trees situated in our housing estates. Seems to me at some point in the past we have planted the wrong type of trees and they are now mature enough to cause real problems for residents. The pretty rows of nice looking plantings the developers left as they moved out of the estates are now pushing up paths and pavements, undermining foundations, touching roofs and blocking reception and making some paths unusable. Forward planning at its best! Given the amount of contact I have been having concerning these problems I will do a spreadsheet to list the item, concern and any actions forthcoming. Thats the only way I can think of to keep on top of this seeing as some have been listed for action but in fact nothing has been done since the problem was reported. Had to attend an internal audit for Advance and nice to hear things seem to be changing. We did ask for a more contemporary update taking into account the changes which we have put in over the last few months to measure their performance. That was agreed and I hope it shows the huge change in corporate governance we have put thorough recently. No more “Arch” type shenanigans! Had another Friends of West Lea Cemetery meeting tonight and I hope there are some actions forthcoming. Plenty spoken about so getting them seen to is the way forward now. Pleased the ‘spoil’ heap has been moved! Local Area Council or LAC meeting tonight but it was just for planning matters. In fact there was only one item on the agenda, the new play area for WBTC. Christine the Mayor gave a presentation about the project and we heard the response off the legal consultees. One really surprised me. It was off public protection and made mention of a noise assessment and secondly went on about floodlighting the area? I said I was bemused by this seeing as floodlighting wasn’t even in the application so by planning standards we shouldn’t even be able to consider it, but I wanted to know exactly what the noise assessment was about. Are we really going to measure the cheerful noises off children playing in the new park? Seems it was more about the noise off the new equipment so I made sure that was listed as the sole reason for the noise assessment! It was only in front of us because NCC own the land and it went through unanimously. There was a Locality event on in the Community Centre today and I had tried to promote it as much as I could. This will lead to a directory of local voluntary groups etc and should show people exactly what’s going on in the Town and environs. There was a good turn out and I hope it all gets listed. A directory of local groups would make my job of telling them where funding is available much easier so we get as much inward investment into the voluntary sector here as possible. Fire fighters pension board meeting today and as usual a whole swathe of papers to go through. In fact I suggested doing this in bite sized chunks might be advisable so we have doubled the amount of meetings. So much to consider and much of it very technical in nature. Having shorter meetings but more often would make it much easier to keep on top of. Just had a meeting with highways technical after residents got in touch to complain about their estate road. He agreed their road is needing quite significant works done but that has to go into the LTP for consideration and budgeting. He did promised remedial action on the worst bits would be done ASAP though. I had a meeting with NCC about my sports project this morning and after discussing the best way forward it was agreed to ask for the feasibility funding as a first step. That is now proceeding! Its taken 2 years to get to this stage! On my way home I called in to report back to a resident about the concerns she had been onto me about and whilst they are going to be addressed I couldn’t tell her exactly when. That depends on budget pressures but if not this financial year then certainly next. I then had to call in to see a Development Trust member because they have agreed to fund an item for another voluntary group. Next up a visit to the manufacturer for the memorial plaque I have commissioned for the West Lea Cemetery to make sure that’s still on track. With all that done I could then get on with my own stuff for work this weekend. I had a meeting with WBTC and NCC Cemetery’s about West Lea Cemetery. Good positive meeting and the new Friends of Group is a welcome addition according to NCC officers! Plenty to get on with and agreement on most. Advance Board meeting this afternoon and again quite a lengthy meeting. We recapped the new strategic strategy we have put in place for the group and explained what the internal audit had said. The Chair had to pull my horns in when I spoke about Bedlington but apart from that the company is being turned around slowly but surely and with a large new project in Blyth…… Ahem Mr Chair that will be Cambois or Bedlingtonshire, its our side of the river, not to be parochial of course! Still lots to do but at every meeting we see a whole swathe of new governance and policies put in place. I hope we soon see some business help put in place in Bedlington and help the businesses we have as well as help anyone thinking about starting one. Just heard thats coming this month! https://www.northumberland.gov.uk/News/2019/Jun/Council-to-declare-climate-emergency.aspx All member Climate Change meeting tonight and a decent turn out of councillors for once. We heard two presentations about the problems and what NCC intend to do about them. The projects are aimed at making us carbon neutral in about 10 years. There were some pretty impressive facts and figures quoted and at the end we did have a chance to ask questions. I asked about how much of our current energy usage is delivered by renewables, given the trends we see in vehicle production and the fact that gas supplies into new houses is to be ended in the near future are we reasonably able to take all that extra usage and still be carbon neutral by the anticipated date and lastly do we assess carbon footpaths into our calculations given things like battery usages. Seems we are just over the 50% in renewables at present and if we get all the subsidies and grants off central government etc we stand a good chance of achieving the outcome we want. As for measuring the carbon footprint of all associated items the answer was no but the speaker did admit there are some pretty nasty ingredients in batteries which would skew any resulting calculations! Trees and peat bogs were spoken about as a means of carbon capture with a large investment going into tree planting in urban areas. Keilder was mentioned and I asked if broad leave or pine trees were better at carbon capture. Broad leaf trees are much better but to me that means decades of growth before they reach their potential. One item which did prick my ears up was the hydro power generation which is being looked at. I think we have a reasonable possibility for that using the tidal estuary on our river. In fact I have just wrote in and suggested looking at the possibility of using modern designed hydro units to generate power for Bedlington! Maybe the old Iron Works could still yet give us an insight into using water to provide power for Bedlington! Whatever happens change is coming and I want Bedlington into the forefront of any possible investment.
  4. September 2019. September started off with a bang! First up was a site meeting up in Berwick. I had to be at County Hall for the bus then up to a pretty chilly Berwick leisure centre to hear what the proposals were. Had a pre- planning meeting today about a possible new large scale development. I did have questions, one of which was about offering apprenticeship schemes within the projects seeing as it would probably last 3 years plus. Strategic planning and a rush to get down into the full council chamber to take my seat. I had to declare an interest in one agenda item so I had to leave the room for that one. First one was the Berwick proposal and I questioned the officer about various aspects but especially pedestrian safety seeing as there are two schools at the other side of the main road and whatever way the kids cross they have to cross a road on quite a steep hill. There was also the question about the roundabout which is actually on quite a slope. Other members echoed my concerns and some asked if we might impose conditions. I said could we not include a suggestion after the planning offer said we shouldn’t really impose conditions. Again after some discussion that was not allowed either! During the course of my interchange with the highways officer it emerged that they could only consider present and historical pedestrian figures in their assessments? Now that sounds crazy to me, here we are proposing to build a new leisure facility with 2 schools opposite and we cant consider any future usage figures in the application. I thanked the officer for giving us an insight into the crazy rules and regulations they had to operate under! The application was passed with only one member abstaining. I had to leave the meeting for the next item and halfway through I was joined by another member who realised he should have declared an interest too. Returning there was another two applications to hear and after some discussion both passed with one member abstaining on one of them. Full council today so I left work early to get home grab a quick shower and change before getting up to County Hall in time. Seems our usual seats have been taken over by the last opposition leader and his cohorts so Russ, Bill and I found seats near the front. Lots of the usual political shenanigans at full council but I am more and more thinking that we could be doing this better, its all too stage managed! I did have a question this one about the report by the standards committee which said anything I said in public, and that is verbally or written, I did so as a member of NCC. I said I believed that subjugated my right to freedom of expression because I have a life outside these walls! That had to go to the solicitor to answer because no one else understood what I was getting at. He did and assured me it wasn’t a policy proposal only a repeat of a central government line which wasn’t even being proposed yet if ever! It did produce reactions from other members one of who supported my warning. Another said he expected conversations he might have in public places to be treated as confidential, but that isn’t what this sentence said! The opposition leader said we were under the guidance of the Nolan Principles anyway which actually backed the point I had made when I said as elected members we operated under strict guidance anyway but as private individuals we were entitled to have personal views as well. If this comes back I will fight it because it curtails my ability to have a personal life. I did say I realised there was a problem with this issue but gagging people wasn’t the way to fix it! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BqxN2M-_1XU&t=3716s Had a meeting with our highways technical officer today and we walked around the area I wanted him to look at. Pleased to see the interactive speed signs have been fitted and working at Netherton Village and Hartford road. Still more road markings to be done and taking out the 60 MPH sections as we leave/enter the Town on the B1331 and the A1068 in an effort to curtail speeding cars. Had our Classical concert tonight and for once I was able to make it. Absolutely stunning performances with something for everyone. I was pleased to see so many people turning up for this and many messages of congratulates. I passed them onto the organiser who along with the Staff at Plessey did a superb job for us all. Working on more events down there with the next at Halloween. I have to say here that trying to make them free events while putting on real professional entertainers isn’t easy, but if it was everyone would be doing it! STOP PRESS……..STOP PRESS………..STOP PRESS………..STOP PRESS…… Just heard the funding for our next Plessey Woods event has been agreed. Look out for a kiddies spectacular just after the New Year! It will be super…..literally! >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Had to go to Blyth today and do training regarding State Aid. Interesting session with lots of legislation to consider. Given some of my ‘hypotheticals’ and the answers which came back I have to wonder how some of the more outlandish historical schemes and the associated funding by Arch was even considered never mind rolled out! Had a meeting with the Advance officer who is in charge of project management and an officer from Active Northumberland. I started off by asking about public loo provision within the Bedlington Town Centre regeneration project. Again I was told it was never considered which seems strange seeing as I now have the planning application which actually lists a public loo! I said he had better get an answer to that because I will be using it at any future public meeting! Discussing a sporting provision then produced some interesting results, none of which I wanted to hear! Only one thing to do now so I’ve put a request into the top echelons of NCC for an immediate meeting. Getting back from Ashington I had a detour to the WBTC office for a meeting there. Pension training today along with North Tyneside Council up in Edinburgh. It was their session really but the Actuary used it to give us a private update on our, NCC, valuations. Everyone is pleased at the valuations because going from a £200M deficit to an above 100% coverage is quite extraordinary and definitely a much better place to be in. It looks like my pleas for trying to protect this position has been listened to as well and we all agreed to some de-risking in the portfolio. LAC meeting tonight at Concordia. With no planning on the agenda its wasn’t the usual mad rush back from work to get ready and the meeting started at 6pm. Didn’t seem to be very much on the agenda but as ever these things change! We had updates off the NCC public safety officer and the police and these turned into quite a long session, firstly with the safety officer. I did have several questions some based off what he told us. Next up was the police update and I think all the Bedlington councillors thought it was great! He said he had just taken over the inspector role and the softer line taken by the police with regard to anti social behaviour (ASB) in Bedlington is now changed and a much harder approach is going to be taken. Previously we had worked hard to stop our youngsters being criminalised but that obviously hadn’t worked given the repeated levels of ASB we have seen so back to old fashioned policing. I nearly gave this new inspector a round of applause! Funding had been acquired to increase on the beat policing and we all thanked him after the meeting and said if we can help with anything just ask. Had the chance to speak to our manager for Local services and again asked him to look at the hedging along the front of the cemetery seeing as I have had more complaints about the fact that pedestrians now have to walk on the road to get by because of the state of the Blackthorn hedging. He promised to look into it straight away and he has because it was cut the very next day! Well done Local services. Good meeting with the new Friends of West Lea Cemetery tonight and a constitution was adopted and officers elected. We now have a formal group to look after public interest in the cemetery. https://www.facebook.com/Thefriendsofwestleacemetery/ Had a meeting with constituents today about some concerns they have and I have forwarded them as I promised to do. Pension Panel today and another huge pile of papers for it. 9.30am – 4.30pm was listed for this meeting. Most of the committee had heard the Actuary report up in Edinburgh so no surprises there but that was just the first 30mins. It was good to get home that night and get sorted for work this weekend! Well the weekend wasn’t the normal because on top of everything else my holiday has disappeared! Thanks Thomas Cook! I had a LAC chairs meeting today and there was two presentations as well as the normal agenda to hear. First one was the Library service. There is a public consultation going to be rolled out soon as we try and increase library usage figures, which at the moment are declining. I have already submitted my ideas for bringing the service into modern day usage and having been assured non library users will be included in this consultation I will be promoting it when it comes out. I think Library provision is important for any conurbation but changing it into something which appeals to a greater amount of users is important to keeping it. Next up was a report and presentation about social care apprentice scheme, which seems to have been a huge success. Knowing first hand some of the problems within this service I asked if these apprentices would be subject to follow ups because I would be very interested in seeing how they interacted within other parts of our service. It seem they will and given that education and increased qualifications are offered to all carers it will be interesting to hear how it all rolls out. One item came as a surprise to some members, the fact that 82% of the workforce in this service was made up of women. I assumed it would be quite high anyway seeing as the vast majority of carers I know are women. Anyway good to see it being presented as a credible career with good prospects for anyone. We then had a presentation about the way some types of anti social behaviour is going to be reported and the figures collated and shared. This was for things like dog fouling. I asked about the way we respond to reports and could we do anything to bring the response more into real time. I had to explain that so I said I have several football pitches in my ward as well as a cemetery and there will be reports going in on say a Saturday when the footballers use the pitches but the ‘offence’ could well have taken place the previous Wednesday, Thursday or Friday and there might well be someone who saw it taking place. I think the answer was no we can’t react immediately which was what I expected to be fair. It was good to hear the chair of this committee saying we really need to make these LAC meetings much more relevant to members of the public and drive up attendance figures. Well its taken a year but at last my message seems to be getting through! Wonder what’s happened to my lists of possible agenda items? Had a follow up meeting with officers about the Bedlington Regeneration meeting we had last month. Bill and Russ were there too and we thrashed out some ideas for potential future strategic projects in Bedlington. It was a pretty positive meeting with follow ups expected! Last meeting this month is the Advance Board meeting. Again dominated by putting new governance policies in place which are all aimed at putting to an end any possibility of malpractice from now on! It was quite an intense meeting lasting nearly 7 hours non stop!
  5. August 2019. Second of August and I have a meeting with WBTC about the Local Transport Plan trying to get some real benefits out of it for all our residents. What a refreshing change to talk to Town councillors and other county councillors about schemes which address concerns residents have raised and the only thing on the agenda was improving the current situation. We went through all the concerns and suggestions which residents had sent in to NCC highways and settled on the ones which hadn’t already been addressed or were in the process of being addressed with a view to support them. Strategic planning today and going into county hall for the meeting I chatted to other members of the committee who all asked me to curtail any objections or suggestions I had. Looks like I’m being blamed for the meetings overrunning, ha ha! I did have to declare interests in two of the agenda items, as did another member, because Ascent Homes were the applicant and they are a division of Advance. First application was about new school facilities within Haydon Bridge High School. This is a maintained school so NCC was the applicant. After the presentation by the planning officer and as there were no speakers we went into members questions. Seems I was the only member to have some questions about this and I could almost hear an audible groan! I said while I had no problem with the school extension I did have a problem with the fact that we were cutting down 44 trees, which to me seemed an inordinate amount, with zero mitigation? I went on and said we have just declared a climate emergency and here we are ripping out the lungs of that area, we can and should be doing better! I pointed out that there was already a condition in the application which specifies “agreed landscaping” and I suggested we insert the need for replacements for the trees lost. To add insult to injury some of the trees are to be cut down to provide more parking spaces! The rest of the members agreed with my comments so at proposal and vote we included this “aimed” condition. The legal officer suggested allowing the exact wording to be delegated to the chair and lead planning officer which I agreed but insisted it had to feature mitigation for the lost trees! The application passed unanimously. Next up was a varyco to a plan for an extension to Kyloe House at Netherton Park. Again this passed unanimously. I then had to leave as did another member while they heard the Ascent applications. I had a meeting with the head of Active Northumberland. We talked about the proposal I made at the last full council meeting about giving our armed forces veterans free access to our leisure centres. I did get a reply and it was quite thorough in explaining what discounts veterans can apply for now. I said I did understand the constraints imposed on Active but made a further proposal that any armed forces veterans injured in the line of duty get free access to our leisure centres. That seemed to fit in with the aims of a charitable company such as Active is. That proposal is going to their next board meeting and would at least be a step in the right direction of recognising service to country! Two steps forward and one back as usual. Phone call today off Bernicia telling me the table I acquired for a group of residents is causing a problem? I was asked for help in tidying up a communal area within a block of flats in my ward and I got them some hanging baskets, thanks Brenda, and paid for the compost and hanging brackets myself. They also wanted a table so they could sit outside in the summer once the area had been cleaned up. So I asked around and one of my contacts within NCC came up with a suitable table with integral seating. I even got them to deliver it and helped get it into place. Seems one of the residents has complained about it and I now had to have a meeting with the Bernicia officer. She did understand what was being attempted and we tried to get it sited in a couple of other places but the resident wouldn’t have it. So it now has to come out! This reminds me of the green at Red House Farm where I worked with a resident group to turn it into a kiddies football pitch and gardens. Again one resident complained and that kicked the whole project into the long grass! Maybe when people complain about things not being done they might like to consider the stuff going on in the background and the real reasons for the associated unrealised projects! Well the Bedlington Regeneration meeting finally took place yesterday after many months of trying to get one sorted. I didn’t like the make up anyway with supposedly 3 members from WBTC and 3 from EBPC which I said would unbalance the group and mean very parochial items were forwarded instead of strategic aspirations for the Town as whole. It was said by one member that NCC should be doing everything but as the officer who lead the meeting explained that isn’t how this would operate the people present would have to do it all but they would get administrative backing off NCC. We did discuss the Town Centre development of course and as the chair of Advance sat next to me and we had the regen officer from Advance too they gave an update on the current position. The 2hr meeting overran by 30 mins and I had a chance to speak to the officers who had led it. I know what I took away from this meeting and told them so. Busy few days as I keep up the pressure for the traffic improvements at Netherton and outside Hartford Home Farm. They have been paid for and I’m wondering why we haven’t seen them installed as yet! Had a meeting with our manager for local services and as usual took him around my ward showing him the problems and concerns residents have contacted me about. I also had a couple of suggestions about improvements at the West Lea cemetery and again they have been well received but I now have to get the rest of NCC departments on board. The problem is most of the people I need to speak to are on holiday at the moment so a couple of weeks before I can progress them. Well all the posts for the new interactive speed signs have been installed, just the signs to be fitted and by the mail I have received off Highways that happens next week, once the concrete has hardened. I have been invited to go up to Hadston today and take a look at their sports centre. This is a smallish centre catering for local need and I have been told there are ideas there which might well translate well into one for Bedlington. Open to all and any ideas so a trip up there is called for. I did go up to Hadston and met with Active Northumberland officers who showed me around and told me how they manage this centre. Few lesson there for making a small sports centre sustainable, something which we have to get right if we are to have any hope of getting one in Bedlington. At last Christine Taylor the chair of West Bedlington Town Council has called a meeting to try get a Friends of group for West Lea cemetery. Lets hope we get a good turn out. Its not about doing what we expect the council to do its about keeping up the pressure so they know what we feel is important and trying to get even more done there than what’s currently being done. Well done Chris. Just had a reply off my question about needing planning permission for one of my projects. Seems its not needed so I can at last progress this one. Just had the first meeting about forming a Friends of West Lea Cemetery. About 20 people turned up and some interesting suggestions, now to get it formalised and see what we can do. There is already a list of actions and more to come by the sound of it. Great start!
  6. As it passed through Bedlington............
  7. This month my surgery was on Monday the 1st and as usual plenty of questions to get answers to. Next day I had to be at county hall before 9.30am to get a small coach for this site visit to Kirkwhelpington. I think only one member of our strategic planning committee did not show so most of us got to see the spectacular scenery the rural part of our county has to offer. Getting up to where this monument was proposed to go was quite something as we had to stop and inch past tractors quite a few times. Eventually we stopped beside Tit Hill where this was being proposed for the top of. A few protesters lined the route with their placards but we were told not to speak to them under any circumstances because this was a delegated planning site visit under strict regulations. Didn’t stop a couple of members engaging with the protesters and the chair had to call them back in! Once we had a good look at the proposed site from this vantage point we had another two to get to and look from. It was difficult to imagine what this monument would look like imposed on the landscape but the planners had done some mock up pictures with it superimposed. I have to say this site visit did give extra gravitas to the proposal. We made it back just after lunch and I nipped home for a cuppa then back up to County Hall for a meeting at 3pm, this time for one of my pet projects! Once we had conducted that business it was about time for the strategic planning meeting at 4pm. Again we heard off our planning head, residents, councillors and the applicants agents each with their own version of what should be done. After many questions a proposal was made to reject this application and this time it succeeded. It was gratifying to hear the reason put forward for refusal was exactly the reason I had stated at the last meeting about this, namely there was merit in the idea but not at this location! This time I had done the background and listed chapter and verse within the NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework) why I thought refusal was the correct outcome. I could see the head of planning nodding at my assertions. Again I was left wondering if some members were just playing to the audience as one even stopped to get a round of applause! Never mind I think the right result was reached. I was supposed to have a meeting with our local services manager today but something cropped up at the last minute and he couldn’t make it. I would like to see him sooner rather than later so I can progress residents requests. Had a Corporate Scrutiny meeting this morning but I had to declare an interest in one agenda item, that being a revised governance of Advance Northumberland. Getting the relationship correct with NCC is vital in making progress on the new internal governance within the group. We also heard about the current position regarding NCC debt with regard to council tax and business rate payers etc. Next came a report about the new road which is being proposed for Blyth and finally a last minute addition, a report about a new countrywide lottery. Plenty of questions all of which got answered! Had the afternoon meeting cancelled because of an accident. It needs to be back on sooner rather than later because it’s about additional Bedlington investment! Today, along with Bill and Russ, I had a meeting with the Leader and some of the other senior NCC cabinet members. We have all been pressing not just for more investment into Bedlington but also having some of our basic social needs addressed properly. It was a very businesslike meeting and there are some, what look like, halfway decent results. I did make the point that we have heard plenty of rhetoric from the Administration it was now time for action! Once that was over I had to run to my next meeting because I had to chair it. This one was the LAC Community Chest and we had to go through several applications. I would urge everyone who applies to actuality read through the guidance because we had to take some of the applied funding out and dismiss one or two entirely because they clearly breached our guidelines for funding and that’s something we all hate to have to do! That done I thanked the members who made the time to turn up and closed the meeting. I had an extra LGPS Panel meeting this afternoon and I expected it would be quite a short meeting. As usual it didn’t turn out that way because there were so many interconnected things to consider and we were making a fundamental change to our strategic asset planning. Again I did make the point that we are in the middle of a pooling restructure, considering a merger, implementing a strategic review and considering an asset reallocation, each one worthy of very careful consideration in itself and each one putting extra stress on our team, most of all our officers and the Board members. That was acknowledged but we did finally make a decision to de-risk some of our assets, something which I have been arguing about for over a year. I had a brief talk with one of the police officers who oversee our Town about a suggestion I had made at the last meeting we all had. I have expanded that suggestion and I await the reply. Hopefully it might help tackle the seemingly growing anti social behaviour we are seeing. Nice meeting today at a special school in Cramlington. This came about because of my comments when their new play area came in front of our LAC planning group. The questions I asked were later answered by the school’s new head of comms and funding. We eventually chatted about the school and the pupils and I was asked to go to an opening event they were holding for a new garden area the pupils had done for themselves. I suggested asking all the LAC members and said I would ask our Civic Head to officially open it for them. The invites went out and Ian our Civic Head of Northumberland and his deputy Eileen agreed to officiate. Lovely to see all the undoubted hard work paid off in such an inspiring garden area. I chatted to the school liaison officer and suggested ways they might try and attract extra funding into their school. Today I have our LAC to chair because Christine the chair is away on personal business. So quickly back from work for a shower and change then straight out for the pre planning meeting at Seaton Sluice. Only two applications both of which were uncontested. As Bernard was the chair of planning and I had to take it on temporarily until a new chair was found, this was the first planning meeting for our new chair Councillor Ian Swithenbank. I opened the LAC gave a brief explanation how it operates went though the first three agenda items and then passed the meeting over to Ian for the planning part. He took us through the two applications with the planning officers and both were agreed unanimously. We had 30 minutes to wait until I could restart the LAC! One restarted straight into public questions and the very first one was something we couldn’t consider. I gave the speaker as much leeway as possible to eak out a question to us but in the end what was being said had no relevance to our LAC and I had to stop the line of questioning. His next question was about members conduct during elections and I asked if he wanted an explanation of Purdah? He said so and I gave him my understanding which was about the types of communications members used and the tools allowed to do it. I was corrected when I suggested members should even say they were already elected members in the authority. In fact the new Labour leader said no one would stop her saying she was an elected member and supported her preferred candidate. After one other question, which I requested a written reply to because we couldn’t give a definitive answer verbatim, the meeting carried on and we had several updates from our local area managers, notably highways and neighbourhood services. We then got to an update on the cycling Tour which is coming through Northumberland again. A presentation ensued from very enthusiastic officers and they answered our questions afterwards. I then wrapped the meeting up. Today I had a meeting about the old council offices in Bedlington trying to get something done. Thats seems all but impossible given the way this was put together originally. It’s almost like one step forward and two back sometimes! Had to go to a planning training meeting today and again more empty seats than full ones. In fact it looked like most of the planning department was here so even less member attendance and we all sit on one planning committee or another! In fact the head of planning stated the Central government guidelines which says members have to undertake training or they wont be allowed to sit on planning committees. The head of planning then gave the presentation and launched into ‘what is planning’ as the first part of his presentation. Some interesting points were brought up and in the Q&A session I had a few questions. One bit I did want clarification on was the assertion that planning had to ‘facilitate economic development, that I hadn’t heard before. I asked if that was a material consideration and the reply was yes it is. That was a bit strange because profit, per say, isn’t and do you get one without the other? Second presentation was about houses and again I have several questions. I asked for specific training along the lines of what the Strategic Planning committee had asked for several times, S106 developer funding, and also I asked about conditions and varyco’s attached to applications both before and after a decision. I said I had sat in committee and attached conditions to applications only to see them changed or just taken out as soon as a developer started work. I said that wasn’t right because the development didn’t now look like what we had considered. I also questioned him about the term ‘affordable housing’ saying I thought the term at best misleading and I postulated that in actual fact infrastructural improvements were much more rewarding to a greater number of people in the local communities than half a dozen ‘affordable houses’ and the fact that they are now dished out to housing associations behind what looks like closed doors only adds insult to injury as far as I was concerned. He took my points and said they warranted further consideration. Well just come back from a site meeting with a sports facilities funding officer and he said he was impressed with my ideas because they were far more inclusive than just applying to one sporting body. He is going away to do some work to help me progress this and I now have to think up ways to fund another feasibility study into need in Bedlington. Last time I did this was back in 2010 and we got KKP to do a report but their conclusion was that a £20M investment into a new school with modern sporting facilities at Bedlington Station couldn’t be ignored and the easiest option would be to make them accessible for the greater community. Of course what we actually got was a £10M new school and very limited community accessible facilities. So the fight goes on to get Bedlington what it deserves! Just come back from another Advance board meeting and again it was dominated with new governance and policy matters. Anyone might suspect we could possibly end up with a regeneration company fit for purpose at this rate! I did have to stop the meeting at one point to raise a concern and that will now have to be addressed before that particular item is progressed. As an aside it looks to me like the company really needs to assert itself and not be held back by quasi public sector restraints and ways of doing business. Fleet of foot and agile of mind would be my maxim regarding how this company develops now, with the proviso that the governance is sorted of course! Well someone was listening. Several phone calls off Advance today but finally my concerns were addressed and we can now proceed with that particular project. I did use this time to further ideas for more investment into Bedlington of course! First meeting today was the LAC chairs. I’m only there because I am vice chair of ours. Several item on this agenda and a presentation about the possible Northumberland Lottery project. The chair moved the presentation up so the presenter didn’t have to spend all morning sitting listening to the usual meeting before she got to her bit. She did say some of us would have heard her presentation before and I was one because she had given the same to scrutiny earlier. As she explained this was all about getting good local causes potential funding because players picked which of the good causes listed they wanted to support with most of their stake monies. I did have another couple of questions about this such as how long would players be subscribed for, seeing as it is entirely internet based. Also was there any constraints on how the good causes spent their possible windfalls? Other members had their questions answered too and the whole thing is going to cabinet for their approval, or not, at their next meeting. On with the normal meeting and again I said I wanted to see a much greater turn out at LAC meetings so making the agendas interesting for the public was essential. This time the business chair intervened and challenged me directly to list all the possible updates and presentations I wanted to see and send him the list so each one could be checked off as it was delivered. I have already made a start on this list! Back home for a quick cuppa and get some mails sported then back up to county hall for another meeting , this one the LDF or Local Plan update. We had the update and its expected the governmental hearings will start in October with Morpeth Town Hall booked to deliver the public sessions. A couple of items were on as separate updates, one being affordable housing and the other planning obligations. Both of these topics enlisted several questions from members and I had a few of my own. The SPD’s or supplementary planning documents will be going out for consultations quite soon because we all want to see this local plan in place. Again it was stated today that pretty soon if members do not take up planning training they will be barred from sitting on any planning committees. Seeing as all members sit on at least one planning committee there could be sparks soon with that one! Planning law, like Local Government Pension training, isn’t the easiest thing to get your head around but the new head of planning is insisting members have to attend. Might start to improve attendance records for some! Had a meeting with our Highways Technical officer today about the road issues and the solutions we have been working on. Russ was there too and he got his issues sorted while mine were about the new speed signs I have already paid for and other traffic calming measures especially on the B1331 and Netherton Village. I had told residents I would not let this officer go until I have a set date for the installation of these signs because we seem to have been waiting months and months for their installation after being agreed and paid for! Well I did get assurances that both the signs at Netherton and Hartford Bridge will be in within the next 2 weeks. There are also other measures to go in and these are hoped to be completed before the end of the school holidays. In fact it might look to some like overkill but Netherton Village especially has suffered far too long from excessive speeding and if these measures don’t have an impact a far more drastic solution is in the wings! One of the measures is to reduce the speed along sections of both the B1331 and the A1068.
  8. Looks like the info you got is flawed minitoonmook, or its a case of comparing apples and pears. NCC took over all legal responsibilities when WDC was abolished. Bernicia is just a social housing provider and whilst they ended up with our old council houses they have no wider legal responsibility. So to me at least it would seem you need to be dealing with NCC as it is they who took on all covenants etc. I am presuming, from what you have written, you are buying your house and not renting off Bernicia? I would suggest trying to get indemnity off NCC in writing regarding this covenant.
  9. June 2019. June already and last week we had an LDF, or Local Plan, update. Lots of last minute items to go through and several cases to be made but in the end the document left on time to go to central government for inspection. Like I have said this has been a mammoth task and all credit to the team of officers who have done such a diligent job on its production. Next meeting was an LAC, Local Area Council, chairs meeting. I get to go because I’m the deputy chair of ours. Several items of business went through and one in particular I was very interested in, this being the new “council housing” initiative. The lead officer gave an update and as I was one of only a few who had actually attended his wider presentation earlier in the year, I mentioned some of the concerns I had spoken about at that presentation specifically the fact that the administration have done press releases suggesting we are building 1000 new houses for social rent whereas when I asked if we would see 1000 new council houses built the answer had been somewhat different! I did press this point and said I didn’t know why the opposition, who were at least at this meeting, had let the administration away with that claim! Seems I was being overly sceptical? Next item was something I again wanted an input into as this was possible items for future meetings. I said we had been told when these LAC’s were initiated, that they would bring decision making closer to the local populace and they would hold their own budgets for things like regeneration projects and I haven’t seen any evidence of those! I said we always got a good turnout of Bedlington residents but even they are not attending because they have little input and the agendas are too weak. This caused a bit of a furore and I was told we had just seen a Bedlington regeneration presentation in Bedlington so we did have regeneration in our remit. I said that has nothing to do with the LAC and was only a presentation by an existing project. I was told in no uncertain manner to list what I thought should be included so I said things like the social housing project we have just been talking about, the proposed new rail link, the North of Tyne devolution deal which has just had its mayoral election, the Borderlands deal and I could go on. These are all things which affect residents in all our wards and we should see the local flavour. I was told to send my comments to the chair and business chair so I will! Strategic planning today and only one application. I went along open minded and listened to the arguments for and against. The more I heard the less I liked the scheme on offer and had to ask several questions to the Head of Planning about it as he seemed to be taking over this application. Of all the questions I asked I think I only had one proper reply, in fact the chair had to say I was drifting towards debate which I refuted straight away because I wasn’t getting any straight answers. That bit done we had a proposer and seconder for approval and I spoke against. This application was for a piece of artwork installed in the middle of the Northumbrian moors. I understood the concept and even given it was to be 56M high I did like the idea but I said I just couldn’t accept it at this location. I said I would support it in 100 different locations throughout the county but in this location it was just too confrontational. Also the fact that it was being touted as a tourist destination but the road to it was a single track, there was to be no facilities such as toilets or restrooms, and the current parking which could accommodate one single bus or a handful of cars wasn’t being upgraded meant that argument was a complete red herring. Who ever suggested this was to be a tourist destination but didn’t want any tourists to actually visit it baffled me. Anyway we eventually voted it down but then one of the members who had proposed it and refused a site visit before the vote then proposed a site visit. I asked what were we going to look at because there was nothing 56M in height nearby which would give us an indication. I was told we were going to see the moors to which I responded I could see them on the pictures on the screen behind. So we now have a site visit to go on for an application which has been refused. I have said many times planning law has it own incongruous set of rules. It wasn’t just me who wondered what was going on either! My application for the central government High Street funding which although turned down has born some fruit! I saw the way some other towns had been given a lead and that is done through business forums so given what I was told at recent NCC economic presentations all areas would be given equal consideration I asked for one to be set up for us. Just learnt we are getting one set up and it will include the parish councils in the first instance. Thats a step in the right direction but we then have to turn the rhetoric into real investment and regeneration. I have my own ideas on how this should proceed and I’ll wager there might be some fireworks because I don’t want to see some anodyne and insipid lip service being played out with this chance. Another meeting with the head of Advance and this time we locked horns! I just couldn’t see the sense of what was being proposed and said so. We were joined by the head of investments and it was nice to hear some of my ideas have been taken seriously. Still gagged by NDA’s but that will soon be over. Our Town Centre regeneration will happen and once we can tell the real story behind this epic tale people will see for themselves why there has been so many false dawns! I can only see one way to get this over the line in the short term and that will become clear in the next couple of weeks. One of the things stated on social media by the usual suspects which does rankle a bit is the suggestion that because I, as well as Bill and Russ, are new councillors we don’t know how to represent our wards or Town. I’ll leave this comment which I overheard at a recent NCC meeting…. “You always know when Bedlington is at a meeting these days!” As for not working to get any investment into the Town, well the £6.5M for our Town Centre regeneration is there in black and white now, it never was before, as well as an extra £1.4M! Having won that fight I now want to see it actually spent sooner rather than later. As well as that investment into the Town we are pushing for other funding streams and I hope we can soon reveal details of those. Scrutiny meeting today and a varied agenda. One of the items was about devolving an educational budget to the new North of Tyne Combined Authority. This one did make sense strategically but I asked if any other budgets were going to be devolved because this was a question I asked at the very first presentations about this years go. A direct answer was skillfully avoided but I was told devolving this budget had always been the case. Actually I distinctly remember being told some of our Transport initiatives working toward an integrated transport network would be the only thing devolved at the time! I was told that had been shelved because of its complexity for the moment. I was also told back then there would certainly be no duplication of efforts and this would be new money for the twin stated aims of job creation and raising educational standards and any projects funded would be subject to a benchmarking process. Once back to Bedlington I had some things to sort out and then a meeting with the police. This time I had invited a senior NCC officer to attend so we had first hand information and a potential route to get a multi agency approach to Beldington’s ASB problems. He did offer some help and advice but I’m not sure if this will have any benefits, however we did hear how other areas have tackled the same problems and the tools they used. If nothing else the NCC officer got to hear the problems firsthand! I have now had notice of another meeting to discuss an initiative suggested at this meeting which I think could well have some merit. Personally I’m still pushing for somewhere for young people to congregate which they can call their own but with some supervision! Back up to councty for further meetings but then across to Plessey Woods to do some PR for the Park. Pension Panel meeting this morning and given the size of the papers I had its going to be a long one! Well it was another mammoth LGPS meeting and it threw some items up which we need other meetings to consider. Doing 9am-3pm for a meeting on a Friday left me little time to get sorted for the weekend at work so back to Bedders ASAP. This week we had a full council meeting and as usual I finished work early to make it up to County for the 3pm start. I had two questions tabled at this one and other members have said how they were going to be interested in the answers I got back. I have to say out of 7 questions tabled to the Administration 5 were from independent members with the other two from a Conservative member. Got to wonder just who is trying to hold the Administration to account these days? Out of 7 questions tabled to the Conservative Administration at this full council meeting 5 were off Independent members and 2 off a Conservative member who really took them to task on his questions too. (Meeting starts about 16 minutes in?) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIO8oFaxXDE&t=2024s I have Director training at Advance Northumberland today. The only way I can see to get our Town Centre regeneration on anything like a proper time frame is to work from the inside so I have agreed to take up the poison chalice and become a director of the company. Having been one of the biggest critics about the way Arch conducted itself I will be making sure Advance isn’t allowed to go the same way. Of course I now have further constraints on what I can say because being a director places its own requirements on what can be reported. Having had all afternoon with the Chief Executive and the financial officer it was refreshing to hear that a complete set of new governance and accounting is being put into place. Today I have my first board meeting and once installed it was a very open, amiable and accountable meeting. I did take part and all my questions were answered and suggestions considered. Looking at next month’s calendar the days are being filled up with meeting after meeting. It’s going to be another busy one.
  10. May 2019. Once again May is a bit different to the other months and this one especially so with all the elections and purdah. For anyone who doesn’t know about purdah….” The term ‘purdah‘ has come into popular use across central and local government to describe the period of time immediately before elections or referendums when specific restrictions on communications activity are in place.” So I have been under some restrictions with my diary and when and how it has been published. I think a brief overview of the major items of business going on over the last year, as I have done previously, is the best way forward. I will preface this with the fact that I have been contacted by more and more residents with their concerns and questions and they are naturally confidential but I welcome the fact that people seem to have a renewed faith in contacting their elected representatives and asking for assistance. This time last year we saw Arch transform into Advance Northumberland with a much stricter local remit. Regeneration and investment has been curtailed so its directed at Northumberland only instead of seeing investment made into other councils and county areas. Lots of issues with Arch which have been well documented in the media so I won’t go into specifics but I do feel that to regain the public trust we have to see a full and independent investigation carried out as a minimum. We can now see the full council meetings in “glorious Technicolor” live as they happen on the NCC YouTube account. While I welcome this step forward in transparency I do still have reservations about the nature of these full council meetings. I have just been informed some committee meetings will be recorded now too and I have one next week which is one of the first to be recorded to see how it goes. If nothing else I will bet we see members turn up who don’t usually or who very rarely do! Work has been going on all year putting together a new Local Plan or Local Development Framework, as it was originally named. I have said the last one which took about 8 years to bring together was just a carte blanche for housing developers. It contained estimates for over 26,000 new houses with no associated infrastructure provision. The new one, which has taken just over 1 year to put together, links all sorts of things to house building and has estimates of about 17,000 new homes. Having worked on the committee which helped put this together, although in truth it was hard work by dedicated officers which has seen it produced, I can say incorporating most of the ancillary infrastructure needed is the way to go. It isn’t a cure all but at least it starts to link policies and projects NCC now have in place. This new version was listed to be finished and sent off to central government for inspection yesterday! If it gets agreement then it will underpin our planning strategy in the short to medium term. The new North of Tyne Mayoral authority was discussed and given cross party support. Initially this was to be the 7 local authorities but that had been reduced to 3 because the others refused to sign up to a publicly voted in Mayor acting as chair. We have now seen the election held and the new Mayor installed. What struck me throughout the campaign was the suggestions by the candidates about how they intended spending the money government is providing. This wasn’t part of any deal when we debated backing the creation and I will be asking questions about it! It was supposed to be about job creation and raising educational achievement, using the funding as seed funding to lever in even more. As far as I understood it wasn’t supposed to be used for any pet projects for whoever got elected. I’m not even sure it can be given that it should be overseen by a committee of elected members from the 3 areas. We started the work to enable a new play park and other park upgrades in Plessey Woods about a year ago. We worked on an outline and then sent out tenders for the work. I specifically asked the companies who tendered for the new park equipment to look at the site and see what they might recommend, given that I wanted exciting and innovative play equipment suitable for a good range of children, including disabled children. I think we had 16 tenders to go through and score then see which 3 came top. Again another session to examine the 3 in fine detail and at last we chose one. Once that went out we had meetings with the company chosen and I pressed for some tweaks so the new equipment would be exciting to all age ranges. We had a target completion date set for Easter 2019 and it did open on Good Friday 2019. It looks like a great success with a huge swell of visitors to the park these days. More to come with a bit of luck! I couldn’t not mention our Town centre redevelopment and having called it a staccato development at the recent presentation I now see it being likened to Brexit! For me the whole thing was badly judged at inception with at first housing which was then squashed in favour of a wholesale retail development. The way that was underwritten led to a whole raft of problems as work progressed to bring the scheme forward. Unlike other developments all the proposed units had to be prelet to retailers and given the changes happening to our high streets up and down the land this was always destined to be hard work! We have at least seen the preparatory work done after a main contractor was appointed. Again unlike any other development there has followed a period of inactivity on the site and even though there is a considerable amount of pressure to get this development back on track I think there is only one way to get it across the line now! On top of all the evidence of a change in shopping patterns up and down every high street in the country we really need to be innovative and imaginative with ours to make it as attractive as possible to as many folks as possible in an effort to make it sustainable. I will mention the initiative to get the Blyth and Tyne line reopened for passengers. Again this seems to have been a perennial promise by one administration and council after another. Having been invited onto a specially sponsored train to travel the line from Morpeth to Blyth, stopping off at the old Bedlington station platform where I had the opportunity to shake hands with the Transport Minister and along with Russ and Bill press the case for the line reopening, I have to say the message coming from the Minister was pretty encouraging! He took all of our concerns and suggestions on board even saying this was possibly the easiest of the national closed lines which were being looked at to get reopened! It will take a considerable amount of funding but with NCC agreeing the seed funding and it now being a commitment by the new North of Tyne Authority to bring it about, I think we have the best chance in decades to see passengers on the line in 2022 as has been suggested. I think we have to think about this not only in terms of people being able to travel outwards more easily, but also the fact that it will encourage people to come in and actually visit Bedlington. This can only have a positive effect on infrastructure at the Station and the immediate surrounding area but also once we get our town centre redevelopment done it could encourage people to visit that too. The over rider is of course, as I have suggested, we have to make our Town Centre redevelopment innovative, successful and fit for the 21st century and so entice added footfall. Just to close there are now several new initiatives aimed at getting Bedlington the upgrades it has desperately needed for many years and as these are publicised I have no doubt the vast majority of people will see the work which has been going on over the last couple of years to get the needs of Bedlington up the pecking order within the county.
  11. Having been brought into the social media froth by the Bedlington labour group I think I should be allowed the right of redress. Looking at recent postings regarding the forthcoming East Bedlington Parish election it seems some are suggesting an almost malevolent Independent Party has been formed to suppress the democratic wishes of the electorate. As usual in these cases the truth is far more mundane! When first elected to County Hall the three independent candidates for Bedlington formed a group, not a political party, to impose ourselves onto the committee structure within County Hall. That meant we had to be given seats by ratio on the major committees as all ‘groups’ have to be awarded. This we believed best represented our wards and Town. Instead of possibly being frozen out of major committees we had to be included and we each took seats on committees which we felt best represented not only our constituents but our own past experiences and interests. That would seem quite sensible to me? There has also been a suggestion that party politics shouldn’t play a role within Parish level of government and indeed this was quite clearly written in one of the first drafts of the NALC guidelines for the new Parish’s created after local government reorganisation in 2009-2010. That was surreptitiously taken out before the guidelines were agreed and put in place! The question is who could possibly benefit, in my view certainly not the residents who would be asked to vote! One further thing to note is the plain fact that even at parish level votes were and probably still are being ‘whipped’ by political parties. That means party political elected councillors have to follow the orders they are given to vote certain ways on certain items of business. There is clear documented evidence of this even a video so let no one be naive enough to suggest this doesn’t happen! That to my mind says political appointees will look after the best interests of their chosen party before the best interests of their electorate. These are some of the reasons I stood as an independent candidate for NCC and why I think the sooner we get rid of party politics the better!
  12. April 2019. First of April and straight into a corporate scrutiny meeting. At least this time there was no mention of potential criminality! We had several previous cabinet reports to acknowledge and then future ones to scrutinise and advise on. First one was a potential Cultural Fund to support a Great Northumberland initiative which would be aimed at boosting both culture and tourism. My only concern really was to question if this in any way shape or form was designed to replace the Community Chest scheme and assurances were given that it wasn’t. In fact this fund would seek out new projects to back. It was agreed unanimously. The second item was about increasing the Regeneration Development Reserve and I had a few questions about this one. Again eminently sensible and again agreed unanimously. I had to take several detours on my way home to look at various problems residents had contacted me about recently. Once home I had a few emails to send out too! Monthly surgery tonight and it took longer than the normal hour listed. Again quite a few emails to do tomorrow! Strategic planning today and with only 3 applications anyone would expect a quickish meeting, but this is planning! First one was a new supermarket for Amble and my initial thoughts were with the existing small traders who have helped transform Amble over recent years. Having said that and as I said at the meeting why shouldn’t Amble residents have 21st century shopping facilities on their doorstep, as long as we don’t lose sight of helping existing traders. There had been a retail impact assessment done which didn’t raise any concerns. However once the contents of this report were considered it was obvious it was just a desktop exercise done by someone who had never even visited Amble. So many inaccuracies it was unbelievable and I had to say that. The supermarket passed but we were able to ask for measures which are designed to help footfall down into the town and Marina from the supermarket site. Next came an application which to say was convoluted wouldn’t do it justice. Houses were being applied for on green belt land and the only way that could happen is if several exceptional circumstances overcome the green belt listing. The officers told us only one exceptional circumstance was in place and this was what looked to me like a hotchpotch, designed especially to try and get around the green belt designation. In fact, given the level of questioning by members of the committee it wasn’t just me who was uncomfortable. This was a 3year old application (?) and the 3 labour members who had sat when it first came up wanted it pushed through. As the planning officer stated the rules had changed and so had their advice, which had gone from acceptance to outright refusal. Normally we hear applications for houses and there are S106 developer contributions paid to the likes of education and health locally. What was proposed here was that the land owners wrapped up the money they were getting in a S106 agreement but the only beneficiaries would be themselves, ie nothing for health or education etc. I specifically asked the head planning officer about this because we usually have a run in about S106 agreements at every meeting. I said how many times have I questioned you about these agreements and you have always told me that there are strict rules and a mechanism in place to set these S106 monies, yet here we are a situation which flies in the face of your previous guidance. What no one wanted to say was this was the only way the green belt protection might be alleviated by saying the S106 agreement was a special circumstance. Well if it was it was like none I have ever seen before! A labour member proposed overturning planning guidance and accepting it but the legal officer then wanted him to list why he thought it overcame the several green belt protections. He couldn’t and then was advised by a colleague to go for a deferral. The 3 labour members voted for that with the rest of us voting it down. We then voted to refuse the application in line with officers recommendations. This whole S106 question looked to me like something artificially designed to simply get around the green belt issues and like other members I wasn’t happy about it, in exactly the same way we saw a quick redesign to our town boundary to accommodate 500 new houses in Bedlington! The last application was for a new classroom block at a Blyth school and we passed that without almost any questioning. I had to call in on a resident on the way home to give her the information I had for her so it was quite late when I got back. Town Council meeting tonight and I hope there is a good turnout. Lots of comments on social media because this council published their budget online for everyone to see, unlike most others! Well not the turnout I hoped for but an interesting meeting nonetheless. A resident asked if it was proper that two of the sitting Labour councillors were right not to declare an interest before they pushed through a motion giving a neighbouring council, where they are members too, funding for one of their events. Seems it was a matter for their own conscience. In the Mayor’s update they featured again because while this council had given funding to a play area which is actually outside their parish, the neighbouring parish where this play area is situated refused and the two members who had voted saying it was a worthwhile cause when at one council actually voted against it when it was discussed at the other council? One has to wonder if they had some “Road to Damascus” experience or if indeed they were just following a political directive. Whatever, it seems the calls for closer working between these two parish councils is OK as long as the actual money flows one way! Thats 7 grand WBTC have just awarded projects in EBPC’s ward, it would be nice to see some reciprocity or council tax in West Bedlington will have to climb to the heady heights of other local parish councils! Local Development Framework or Local Plan meeting today and low and behold this time I wasn’t the only South East member, the Lib Dem Leader Councillor Reid from Blyth attended too. None of the Labour members turned up again so it was down to the two of us to represent the whole of the South East area, which I think we did pretty well! We went through the 20 odd pages of bullet points regarding the input from the last consultation exercise, diligently pulling out ones which we needed clarity on or wanted to ask questions about, so the meeting lasted all morning. This has been a pretty Herculean task for the officers who have worked on these studies and consultations and given it has several completely new focuses the fact that they have produced such an in depth, articulate and sound plan was something we all thanked them for. My final question was something I wanted to know so everyone who took part in the consultations would know if their time and effort had been worthwhile. I asked if the public responses, not any off self interest groups just plain old Mr and Mrs Joe Bloggs, had influenced this final draft in any way. I was assured they did even down to some publicly suggested wording has been considered and given weight in this new Northumberland Plan. Given that this will influence planning for some years ahead it wasn’t unexpected that developers had been very vocal in their submissions with many saying much of it was too restrictive for them. It certainly isn’t the developers playground the last Core Strategy intended! This one has much more joined up thinking and reasoning behind it and embraces all sorts of things like sustainability, employment, infrastructure, affordability, health and education to name just a few. Whilst this is no panacea for all the woes in the county, at least it does draw together and start to bed down various other policies NCC have now got in place. The last Core Strategy took over 7 years to produce and basically gave developers carte blanche as far as house building went. This one has taken a year and has already restricted new house builds over the course of its life by something like 8-9 thousand. In fact given the settlement boundaries and neighbourhood plans now in place most of our towns and villages have additional protection. Minor changes and details are now to be considered then we should have a plan ready to go to central government for their perusal quite soon. Our LAC planning site visit today and we all met at the designated site in Cramlington. As temporary chair of this planning committee it was down to me to set the ball rolling and I explained to the members of the public the rules and regulations we were under and the way this site visit had to operate. That done I handed over to the planners and our highways officer for them to explain the specifics of the application. Once members had their questions answered, and I had quite a few, I suggested we walk around to the temporary entrance to the site to see first hand how that was being administered. Our highways officer pointed out a few discrepancies to the applicant’s representative and they were rectified immediately. After a cuppa and a chat with Russ and Bill in Cramlington, it was then time to get to another meeting with the CeO of Advance about our town centre redevelopment. We are pushing this about as far as we can go without resorting to bad language and I think that message has got through. In fact it looks to me like we might have another meeting next week given our almost reticence to accept things at face value these days! Several other possibilities were mentioned all aimed at augmenting footfall for the retail units planned there. Time will tell how ‘received’ they were! Another dash back home then off to the dentist, this time not for me! Firefighters Pension Board meeting today and this one is different to the normal LGPS because one is a board and the other a panel. This one looks at all of the administration, legals, recommendations etc and take a view accordingly. The LGPS Panel make investment decisions because its a non funded scheme whereas the firefighters one is funded directly by employers and the firefighters themselves. Again quite a bit of reading to get through and of course the recommendations off the ‘training’ day I attended at the Cramlington fire station. It took over 3 hours to get through all of the papers and I really wish I had a dictionary of acronyms because not being involved on a day to day basis all these letter abbreviations are somewhat confusing and I have to stop and work them out as we go through. We had a rep from the Yorkshire admin we use and she had quite a bit to go through too. LAC meeting this time at Seaton Sluice. This was only a LAC Planning meeting and I have been asked to step in as chair again until someone from another political group is appointed. The meeting started with the Chair of the LAC, Christine, opening the meeting then passing the planning section onto me. We had been to a site visit on Monday morning so we all had first hand knowledge of the first application. After the presentation by officers and hearing arguments for and against we were able to ask our own questions. I had to say I thought this was a missed opportunity for some elderly housing provision but as most other members stated given the facts of the application, as far as planning matters went, we didn’t have any material considerations to turn the application down to it was agreed. The second application for a MUGA in a school at Cramlington was again passed unanimously. I did ask if this would be open to the public but it was a special school and therefore this new muga will have to be fenced off for school use only. I did mention the fact that I was dismayed to hear work had already started, hedges had been ripped out, even though we hadn’t as yet given any permission. Well it’s been a week or two of ups and downs, pleasingly more ups than downs! We saw the new play area in Plessey Woods Country Park open bang on time. Not bad seeing as it was over 12 months ago when we sat down to plan this and targeted Good Friday 2019 as the opening date. It looks to have been very well received. Now to get some good events on down there and drive up visitor numbers, as was my brief when we got the funding for the new park. Lots of two way traffic with residents at the moment and most issues have been resolved, some even to the delight of residents! Others will take more time because they need careful and considerate handling. I have been working on a project to replace all the piecemeal hedging at the front of the cemetery with cleaner metal fencing so it looks much better and cared for and at last I have the quotes needed to go after the rest of the funding. Still waiting to hear what the new speed signs for Netherton Village and outside Hartford Farm are costing and that is frustrating to say the least as I have other calls on my smalls scheme funding. Looks like the interactive signs will be fitted before I get the costs! This is not the best way to oversee a small finite budget! Never mind at least we seem to be getting somewhere after many months of trying to push these along. Been working on a large scale project too and this at last is progressing well. It’s taken well over 12 months to get this far and when it comes off, not if, I hope it will finally start to address one of the running sores we all feel in Bedlington!
  13. March 2019. Monthly councillor surgery tonight, been a busy day today. Strategic planning meeting today and there seemed no contentious issues but this is planning and you never know what might pop up. Seems I was right and what should have been a straightforward application for a new fire station turned into something else. I questioned the reasoning behind removing the green belt protection because quite simply it flew in the face of what was in the guidance papers! I fail to see how in one sentence we read that response times were perfectly adequate yet in another sentence they were being used to show green belt protection should be overturned because they needed to be improved? I didn’t really have a problem with the application but I did have a problem with this reasoning. The new head of planning explained that response times were not really a planning issue and we should disregard them. I asked if that was the case then the green belt protection stood and we had no option but to refuse permission. I said it seemed to me they were an integral part of the application and that was reluctantly agreed! In the end the application went through unanimously but I hope we see some joined up thinking behind these applications and their rationale sometime soon. Next up was an application for a new free range hen farm. This had its own nuances seeing as it was the NCC Leaders farm! In fact it was explained that the only reason it had come before us was because of who the applicant is and anyone else wouldn’t have needed to submit to such rigorous examination. The only thing I was concerned about was the ‘waste’ material handling and this was to be agreed at a later date. I said I was fed up of getting half the information when trying to decide planning applications and this was a case in point. There are strict guidelines and some serious concerns had been mentioned about this sort of waste and not having a full report as to how the applicant intended to manage this meant, in my view, we didn’t have a complete set of papers in front of us on which to make a decision. Again the head of planning responded saying the conditions would be subject to discussions between his department and the applicant. I said I understood that but I had to make this decision now and I really wanted to know if the conditions would be in the interests of the general public and residents of that area or for ease of use to the applicant. Without that I considered this a less than complete set of information! I had a LGPS panel meeting today and this really was a case of turkeys voting for Xmas! We have been considering merging the NCC pension fund with the much larger Tyneside one and we have already transferred our administration department to them in a cost saving exercise. Going through all the permutations for a couple of hours we eventually concluded this was potentially a good move for pensioners and contributors. More investigations to be conducted before our next meeting in June but if it goes ahead the NCC panel which I’m part of will be redundant! Busy day today, first up my car had to go for an MOT and with other meetings to go to lifts had to be arranged. Turned out I got my car back in the morning just in time to get to the meeting we had with the police. No guessing what mainly featured in this meeting and I was pleased my calls at the recent State of the Area debated in Council chambers for a multi agency approach had been welcomed and things were proceeding. Russ and Bill were there too and each of us had our own concerns to mention. We all feel these are worthwhile meetings and it seems the police do too. Next was another meeting with the CeO and Chair of Advance at their headquarters in Ashington. More questions than answers again but at least it seems we are moving forward, albeit in a crabwise fashion! Last meeting today was the West Bedlington Town Council one, where we all give updates. Interesting meeting tonight pity more residents don’t attend and see where their council tax Parish precept goes. Well at long last the audit report into the Arch fiasco has been released. Lots of areas of concern in themselves but taken in context with the Active Northumberland report and the recent Briardale debacle we can see a pretty distressing pattern emerge, that being, at the very least, a substantial lack of accountability and any business acumen. For a company which had been “given” hundreds of millions of pounds in loans by NCC this is extremely worrying. That’s not even considering the proposed extra £450 million in the last administration’s budget for new projects. This was to be overseen by only two people, the ex Leader and the Ex CeO of NCC! These people should not be allowed to go anywhere near anything to do with pocket money never mind figures that are being discussed now! It does give an insight of how the last administration conducted themselves when they held office because all of this had to go through various committees where all councillors should have been sitting and they had a majority, no excuse! Comments and opinions by auditors below: Internal Audit Opinion: “There are two immediate primary areas of concern regarding propriety / probity. These relate firstly to the purchase of the former Arch Chief Executive’s home, by Arch, at a price which appears to have been unrealistically high to deliver expected rental income yields; and secondly, to what appears to be an unduly generous benefits and remuneration package afforded to a specific contractor (referenced as Consultant C). There is potential for criminality to be indicated in respect of each of these two matters, which were correctly referred by the County Council’s then interim Chief Executive to Northumbria Police for further examination. Northumbria Police requested that absolute confidentiality should be maintained by the County Council / Arch, in order that any potential criminal proceedings would not be compromised. Lifting of this reporting restriction was notified to Northumberland County Council by Northumbria Police in February 2019 (confirmed in March 2019). The Police are responsible for determining whether any offences have occurred and if so, by whom; the Crown Prosecution Service would be responsible for assessing whether any prosecution would be brought. In the remaining areas audited, findings indicate areas in which procedures need to be strengthened to protect the Arch Group of Companies and its primary shareholder Northumberland County Council. During Internal Audit fieldwork, several Arch staff voiced the opinion to us that ‘Arch is separate to the County Council’ and that ‘Arch is a company and follows its own procedures, not those of the County Council’. While this is true, it would be expected that as a group of companies wholly owned by the local authority, Arch would understand the need to demonstrate appropriate and effective stewardship of public funds. Some of the decisions reviewed as part of the audit – specifically the two matters referred to above – do not appear to have been in keeping with Arch’s own agreed procedures or expected financial returns; they appear unique and without a sound commercial basis. These examples do not reflect a sense of fiduciary duty to the shareholder when dealing with public monies, or a sufficiently robust commercial approach, by those involved in taking the decisions. In the other work performed by Internal Audit as part of this investigation, there are areas in which we would recommend that procedures are strengthened. These are explained further in this report. Internal Audit has also identified as a specific risk that the nature of Arch Corporate Holdings – as a group of companies – further complicates investigative work. The completeness and reliability of records across the company group will need to be verified as additional work on the matters under examination is performed and concluded. As part of our work to date in gathering and assessing evidence in respect of the specific objectives set out above, Internal Audit has not assessed the financial performance achieved by Arch to date, or the returns which it has delivered / is forecast to deliver for the shareholder. It is recommended that such an assessment is performed as part of any strategic review of Arch, to determine the profitability and performance of the group of companies and the accuracy of projected growth and income forecasts. In turn, this will help the Board and its primary stakeholder (Northumberland County Council) evaluate which activities are delivering well, and which should be continued; and which aspects of the group’s operations are not adding value and which should cease. During Internal Audit’s work, we have begun to consider the matter of State Aid. This is a complex area which did not form part of the initial Terms of Reference for this work. It is recommended that this matter is kept under review and that appropriate legal advice is sought as required. At this juncture, confidence in and reputation of the Arch group of companies would be enhanced by a more transparent approach, clear commercial acumen and demonstrable stewardship in all aspects of the Group’s operations and decisions taken. Comment /Evaluation: One of the biggest risks here is corruption / collusion. Without evidence of a sufficiently robust competitive process in any organisation, there is a risk that firms might be appointed to lucrative contracts inappropriately – or that this suspicion will fall on the company, creating reputational risk. Documentation demonstrating a competitive process was available in five of the thirteen ‘consultant’ assignments sampled. However the robustness of the competitive process could be strengthened. For the remaining eight consultants, appointed by former Arch Chief Executive or the current Arch Chief Executive, no documentation could be provided. Some of these consultants have had long standing engagements with Arch over a number of years. The absence of information regarding the engagement exercises with a number of appointments made by Arch former Chief Executive and the current Chief Executive needs to be examined further. Regarding the engagement with Consultant C, there are a number of documents which Internal Audit has viewed. Some of these, such as the one side summary of this contractor’s skills and experience, refer to Consultant C. However invoices have been submitted under his company name (a company shown as no longer trading on Companies House website). Whilst there was evidence provided regarding a role being advertised and parties (including Consultant C) submitting ‘bids’ there was no evidence of a value for money review of quality and price. There is email evidence which suggests that Consultant C was operating in the role before he had applied for it. The relationship between Arch and the surveying firm/ Northumberland County Council needs to be examined further as a separate piece of work, to more fully understand the nature of the relationship and services provided. All consultants currently engaged by the Group should be reviewed to determine if these services continue to be required and if so whether a fresh engagement process is needed to ensure value for money is being obtained, the engagement process is transparent and financial regulations are complied with. Comment/Evaluation: From the information provided and discussions with Arch staff, there is a lack of awareness of the requirements of Financial Regulations with regard to the appointment of consultants. There was a lack of information regarding the terms of engagement with the majority of the consultants reviewed. With regard to any equipment/assets consultants are actually provided with, this is covered in a later section of this report. The letter dated 15 May 2017 from then Arch Board Members would appear to be an extremely rare arrangement, and not likely to be typical. The scenario set out in the letter does not reflect the terms set out in the advert for this work published on Arch’s website, from which Consultant C was appointed. Internal Audit has not found any evidence of similar arrangements afforded to any other contractor. Comment/Evaluation: There is no segregation of duties in the payments to the four long standing consultants and a lack of evidence was provided in relation to the work undertaken. The daily rates are very high and we refer back to our previous comment regarding reviewing all consultants currently engaged by the Group to determine if these services continue to be required and if so whether a fresh engagement process is needed to ensure value for money is being obtained, the engagement process is transparent and financial regulations are complied with. There is no process in place to verify the work undertaken by Consultant C. This would not be possible due to the apparent absence of any terms of engagement and the lack of detail on the invoices in relation to work undertaken. On the basis of the invoices reviewed it would appear that former Arch Chief Executive and former NCC Chief Executive were authorising the payments. There was little evidence of the work undertaken (seven press releases at Arch) in comparison with the remuneration to this consultant. There is evidence that the first payment relates to a period before Consultant C had submitted his application for the role / contract advertised. In respect of the construction consultants sampled properly authorised orders and invoices were evidenced. For the two marketing companies where quotations had been obtained and purchase orders issued, evidence of monitoring progress and completed work was also provided along with authorised invoices. Comment/Evaluation: The absence of an inventory of assets has hindered this aspect of the review and it is difficult to say with certainty that the information provided forms a complete record. No consultants other than Consultant C appear to have been given a house / car. A decision is required in relation to what to do with the car, and its future value and use to Arch. Comment/Evaluation: Once an inventory of equipment has been established, a decision should be made on whether or not insurance is required for any items held by consultants. The purchase of insurance for the car used by Consultant C adds to an already substantial package of benefits enjoyed by this contractor and funded by Arch. It would be unusual to provide insurance in these circumstances. Comment/Evaluation: It is not known whether the tax implications of the provision of equipment and mileage payments to Consultant C have been accounted for correctly, or whether his status as a consultant is correct. Comment/Evaluation: There was a lack of evidence provided regarding the appointments of a number of the employees sampled. For the most recently employed member of staff in the sample a relatively robust process appeared to have been followed. This could have been enhanced further through checking the qualifications of the new employee. A number of appointments appear to have been made without a competitive process being followed. The offer of a £3k relocation package to a new Director already living in Morpeth at the time of his appointment would be difficult to justify, especially as the Director appears to be living at the same address as prior to his appointment. It was not established whether this payment was in fact made, or simply proposed. Financial Regulations and MoDA do not specify anything in respect of salary decisions that are required to be considered by Remuneration Committee, other than MoDA specifying that in year pay increases to the Group Managing Director are to be approved at this committee. If the Director of Finance’s email to the former Arch Chief Executive on 21 April 2017 regarding the requirement for Remuneration Committee approval for the Chief Executive’s direct reports is correct there are further areas that need to be examined further, including increases to the Director of Finance and the Arch Chief Executive. Comment/Evaluation: The absence of a salary scale makes it difficult to ensure parity for roles of comparative levels of responsibility. The provision of company vehicles to employees should be reviewed. Where it is felt beneficial for employees to have vehicles that they take home the terms and conditions of the use of the vehicle and each party’s responsibilities should be formalised. The other vehicles used by staff appear reasonable given the nature of Arch’s work, i.e. Citroen vans and a ford fiesta van. However, the purchase of a vehicle for £24,290.65 + VAT would appear at face value to be excessive. The invoice for this purchase is not signed / authorised. The staff benefits should be reviewed taking into consideration that the company is owned by NCC. For example in the current financial climate within the public sector, it may seem extravagant for a company which is wholly owned by a local authority to have a subsidised Christmas party. Comment/Evaluation: There was a lack of evidence provided regarding the appointments to new posts of a number of the employees sampled. A number of the pay enhancements reviewed appear to be unusual and require further examination by management. Financial Regulations and MoDA do not specify anything in respect of salary decisions that are required to be considered by Remuneration Committee other than MoDA specifying that in year pay increases to the Group Managing Director are to be approved at that Committee. If the Director of Finance’s email to the then Arch Interim Chief Executive on 21 April 2017 regarding the requirement for Remuneration Committee approval for the Chief Executive’s direct reports is correct there are further areas that need to be examined further, including increases to the Director of Finance and former Arch Chief Executive. Comment/Evaluation: The absence of an inventory of assets has hindered this aspect of the review. An inventory of equipment, particularly portable electronic equipment should be established as soon as possible. The number of mobile phones in use appears to be excessive and could benefit from a review. Internal Audit are of the understanding that the former Arch Chief Executive was on gardening leave in the period prior to him leaving the company in June 2017. This raised questions as to whether the charges incurred outside of the EU occurred in this period and if so whether he was on Arch business. Comment/Evaluation: The 2016/17 P11D return to HMRC is inaccurate in that it does not contain all the required information. The use of company vehicles by employees is a particular area of concern. Further work is required by the company to ensure compliance with all HMRC requirements. Comment/Evaluation Inaccuracies found in a number of banking transactions associated with property purchases result in a lack of confidence in the overall internal processes surrounding bank payments for properties purchased by Arch. We were informed in September 2017 that the legal law firm contractor ref.1 had concluded a review and that this had identified that £42k had been overpaid by Arch. It is understood from the Management Accountant that clients’ accounts at the Law Firm should all reconcile to zero once a property purchase is complete, which would have provided a further control, but should not have been relied on by Arch as the sole source of control. The surveying firm appear to have received payments under a fee structure which sees a payment for identifying an executive property to be sold to Arch; a further payment for identifying a tenant to live in that home; and possibly other fees which at the current time are obscure. This does not assure value for money. The decisions around the purchase and disposal of property at Empire Court in Whitley Bay do not seem congruent with the direction of other Arch acquisitions and developments. As we understand this property is now being disposed of, it will only be when all units are sold that the return on this investment can be evaluated. Further analysis on the treatment of Stamp Duty Land Tax (and professional advice on the treatment applied in this case) will be required. Comment/Evaluation: Rental income monitoring appears to be disjointed with the Arch team monitoring private rental sector and affordable homes and the surveying firm monitoring the Executive Properties. Review of rental statements show high levels of arrears in some Executive Properties, suggesting that the surveying firm may not be managing this as effectively as would be expected. There are weaknesses in the end to end process for all rental income monitoring. A review should be undertaken and a process determined which gives Arch assurance that there is a robust process in place across all the rental sectors. It is of concern that the Land Registration details for the property Y were incorrect and in the name of Persimmon Homes rather than Arch, despite the conveyance having been performed by legal law firm contractor ref.1. Comment / Evaluation: The involvement and interest taken by the former Arch Chief Executive in the purchase and subsequent rental of Property Y, demonstrated in emails regarding the property, appears inconsistent with his involvement in the purchase and management of other Arch properties. Had the ‘extra’ costs been taken into account in the purchase of Property Y then calculation shows it would not have achieved the 5% gross target yield or a net annual profit and may/should not have been approved. Had a more realistic achievable rental income been used in the calculation for the purchase of Property X then it would not have achieved the 5% gross target yield or a net annual profit and was unlikely to have been approved. Comment /Evaluation: Points of good practice: Internal Audit was informed that in the earlier years of the Company, the opportunities for hosting of events were more carefully considered with proposals going to the Board and a report of outcomes also going to the Board. It was the perception of the Marketing Manager that more recently as the Company grew and with it the volume of business going to the Board, hosting became a reduced priority for Board consideration and reporting purposes. Internal Audit was shown an overall calendar of events (spreadsheet) and provided with detailed spreadsheets for the planning and monitoring of expenditure in relation to individual larger events which included MIPIM (Cannes) and the Tall Ships. Areas of concern: Due to the apparent lack of a strategy and reporting, it appears unclear what value is being gained from expenditure incurred; the rationale for hosting certain events, or the level of hosting if such events are to be attended (e.g. bar and travel to social or sporting events). There is a risk that expenditure may be incurred that does not contribute towards the objectives of the Company. At the transaction level, all transactions should be properly supported with prime documentation regardless of the method of payment. Comment/Evaluation: Under the Localism Act, elected members are required to comply with the Code of Conduct maintained by the Council’s Monitoring Officer. It is the elected member’s personal duty to declare interests. Clarification should be obtained from the Monitoring Officer as to which ‘hat’ elected members serving on Arch’s board would be expected to be wearing when undertaking various duties and roles related to Arch, or accepting hospitality. The risk is that acceptance of hospitality and gifts from, or interests with, those firms with which Arch contracted may have impeded the impartiality of decision-makers or been seen to impede that impartiality. At worst, there is a risk of corruption/collusion; and reputational risk to the organisation. There is clearly a need to reiterate the duty on elected members and senior officers at NCC of their duty to declare in accordance with the County’s codes of conduct. There is similarly a need to make the requirement to declare by Board members at Arch more robust, and to enforce this more stringently. Comment/Evaluation: Further to the lack of a separate process for the declaration of offers of hospitality and gifts by Board members throughout the year, as there exists for officers, it is apparent from the work undertaken by Internal Audit in relation to the hosting of events that the annual declarations are incomplete, specifically under the section ‘Gifts and Hospitality’. There had not been additional declarations made under the NCC policy and processes. Comment/Evaluation: The awarding of exclusivity arrangements to the surveying firm to act as agents and property management agents in relation to the Executive Homes Portfolio has not been tendered for in accordance with Arch’s Financial Regulations and Memorandum of Delegated Authority, as described in Section 1 of this report. An assessment should have been made as to the estimated fees for the scheme should have been undertaken and the appropriate procurement method followed (for example the Director of Finance had delegated authority to £20m on Executive Homes, therefore it would have been easy to establish that the fees for finding and managing these properties would have been over the threshold requiring a full tender exercise). Our earlier work in relation to the Executive Homes portfolio has identified concerns regarding the surveying firm’s management of these properties and we are aware that the Head of Estates and the Homes Manager have written a briefing paper recommending the management of these properties is brought in house. The award of the 2015/16 and 2016/17 asset valuation works has not been compliant with Arch’s Financial Regulations and Memorandum of Delegated Authority as competitive quotes were not obtained and the services are in excess of £20k. Competitive quotes should be obtained prior to the award of these works for the 2017/18 annual accounts. The annual costs of the estate management contracts is below the £20k requiring competitive quotes to be obtained, however as these contracts have been in place since 2015/16 it may be an appropriate time to obtain competitive quotes for the 2018/19 financial year. Earlier in this report we have referred to the importance of estimating the costs associated with schemes to ensure the correct procurement routes are followed. This applies to individual schemes such as the large acquisitions of Potland Burn and Ellington Colliery as the fees incurred were likely to be significant given the value of the land being purchased. No declarations were identified in relation to the engagements with this company. A number of emails were identified during the original review which indicated an apparent closeness between the surveying firm and Arch former Chief Executive (the former Chief Executive being referred to as ‘mate’ in one email). Comment / evaluation: The cost of the new stand and clubhouse by Arch and associated lease require review regarding the expenditure incurred and the financial viability of the project. That the former Arch Chief Executive and a former Arch Board member are also ACFC Board members and there would appear to be a close relationship between the two organisations with Arch providing financial support to ACFC. Further review is required to establish whether this is in accordance with Board approval. Arch has paid approximately £67k plus on-costs for 2 members of ACFC staff and in itself is a significant financial contribution to ACFC. Comment / Evaluation: From the information gathered at this stage in the investigation, the nature / extent of any relationship between Arch and Construction firm ref. 13 is unclear. No evidence has been found of undue influence from Arch within the procurement process leading to Construction firm ref. 13 being included within the NCC framework contract. A substantial amount of business has been awarded to Construction firm ref. 13 by Arch. While some of this has been the subject of competitive tender, in other cases it is unclear. With regard to the first (and largest) tender exercise the validity or suitability of some of the other requested tenderers appears doubtful. Given the status and influence which the former Arch Chief Executive would hold, it would have been expected in the interests of transparency that the relationship with his brother (an employee of Construction firm ref. 13) would have been explicitly declared. This is especially so given the values paid to this company.” Given what the police have come back with I have no doubt this will not be the end of the matter! How they could have conducted a complete investigation without interviewing anyone, even without being under caution, is something I just can’t understand. There are some pretty devastating sentences included in the auditors comments above which anyone of them by themselves demand forensic investigation! Firefighters Pension training all day today at Hartford Fire Station. Members of pension boards came from all over the North East and it was a long and quite intense session. Several questions now for our board. LAC meeting tonight and I have been asked to chair the Planning portion because our last chair was Bernard. So a pre meeting with the planners to go through the application/s then the meeting proper started at 5pm. Only one application and after we heard the planning officer outline the application then an objector and supporter we had members questions. This was followed by the debate amongst members but this was somewhat truncated when we all decided a site visit was in order. Seems strange to me that this application was first brought in 2016 for outline and then a demolition order but there’s nowt as strange as planning matters! Once the planning was done we had 15 minutes before the main event. The room was filling up because there was a Bedlington Town Centre update on the agenda. We got through the bulk of the meeting quite quickly then it was the main event. I knew this was going to go wrong and I had warned them but it was for some reason deemed necessary? So the CeO of Advance gave a presentation of where the development stood and basically it was in the same place as it was last year at this time. That’s not quite fair, there has been a lot of preparation work done so building work above ground can begin but until we see some bricks being laid I don’t think anyone will believe it’s actually happening. I asked a few questions, why has this turned into a staccato type development, can’t we look at other ways to develop the USP Bedlington could offer and lastly why is the public toilet not showing on the plans now? Seems the toilets were never included, sorry but I sit on strategic planning and saw the toilet provision clearly stated and a member of the public backed me up on this. After members had a chance to question the CeO of Advance the public had their chance and if he thought we were tough…….. Lots of questions, suggestions and concerns put forward with some people leaving early. All in all a pretty lacklustre offering with more questions than answers again. My first question now would be if we are so close to sealing the deals and getting the scheme across the line why not put off this presentation for a month or even two so a definite signed and sealed development could be presented. For my money this a just another in a long line of disastrous PR for firstly Arch and now Advance. At some point lessons have to be learnt, surely! I used the chance of having the heads of local services at the meeting to lobby for Bedlington to be included in the recent High Street Clean Up funding central government has just released. Seems I wasn’t supposed to be aware of that yet but the point was taken and I was assured Bedlington would be included. I have had several meetings with local organisations and I was offered a meeting with local services manager about this high street clean up funding. I suggested including WBTC and Russ came along too seeing as its primarily in his ward. Seems this funding is extremely time dependant with only a matter of days to submit schemes for consideration. WBTC have to put in schemes for most of the funding but NCC are withholding some of the allocated funding to do extras in the Town. Both Russ and I are trying to get maximum benefit out of that NCC withheld funding but its turned into a bit of a fight! Time will tell. Called in to make sure the new play equipment was on track at Plessey Woods so we get an Easter holiday opening. Looking good and seems with only some infilling left to be done, we are on track. Had a whole afternoon at planning training, this one about the new social rented housing we are initiating. Listening to the presentation I became increasingly worried that we might not see as many new houses to rent at affordable charges as I was anticipating. I therefore had to question the presenters about this. Still waiting for a definite answer to that one! I also asked about build quality and running costs because it’s all very well having a new council house but if you can’t afford to heat it! I asked about infrastructure and where that might feature and another point of worry was the onus the presenters put on the financial aspect to demonstrate need so I put forward that social need had to be figured in too. I said “need” was something aligned to people so it wasn’t too hard to see a lot of social need in our area given we have over 50% of the population squeezed into the South East of the county. If we only rely on the fact that there may not be enough houses available in rural areas and financial constraints when there are then we will miss out on a huge opportunity to address social housing needs in my area. With no other members from the South East in the chamber I had to be determined enough not to take flimsy answers or I would lose the point for this whole area. I eventually got acknowledgement of my concerns! I seemed to monopolise the questions and apologised but as I remarked we should get this right from the start and save problems building up later. I also questioned the fact that developers seem to say that their sites cannot support S106 schemes because of ground conditions etc. and we let them get away with it. Is it really in our job to allow developers to maximise their profits on the back of not paying any community funding, such as health, education and leisure? The new head of planning responded and said I was quite right and this was something central government has identified and were going to take steps about. All in all a very informative afternoon but once again I was the only member from the south east of the county to attend? We are shaping a social housing policy and the very people purporting to support this don’t attend therefore don’t get to shape any part of it. There might not be any newspaper headlines to grab but this is the basic workload of elected councillors as far as I can see and I have to wonder how anyone can shout their mouths off when the cameras are on yet fail to put in the work where and when it really matters? Once again it seems I’m being targeted on social media by the same person and his cronies, this time demanding I apologize for screaming across the chamber at the last full council meeting, as well as other nonsense. I think light must have to bend around these people! Well I’m not going to apologize for refusing to allow this Town from being used as a political football between the two main parties. The video of that meeting is in the public domain and I think anyone can see I certainly wasn’t screaming at anyone, passionate for the town yes, screaming no. In fact there isn’t many times fellow members indicate their support for what was said with a round of applause but that was one! But thanks for bringing up the question of apologies maybe someone needs to apologize for the many years they spent on Wansbeck District Council ignoring the needs of Bedlington and the way they and their associates allowed Arch and Active Northumberland to operate, ramping up debt levels to unsustainable heights which in turn leaves council taxpayers on the hook for many millions of pounds in interest payments. We can all clearly see the present day results of that! On another point it seems the fact that I have a “day” job as well causes mirth. No answer to that absurdity really. Also it seems I claimed I ran ‘successful’ businesses for 30 years, well the video of the council meeting can lay that one to bed. Of course given that in all that time I have never left creditors in the lurch would explain why some might see fit to insert their own adjective. It would appear the seemingly demented ex taxi driver is increasingly apoplectic in his rabid social media attacks to which I will respond with a truncated quote from an ex Prime Minister when describing someone of opposing views… “a sophistical rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity, and gifted with an egotistical imagination that can at all times command an interminable and inconsistent series of arguments to malign an opponent and to glorify himself?” I would just like to point out one extra little bit of extraordinary hypocrisy. I was castigated by a local political group for abstaining on the council tax benefit vote. I did give my reasons for that at the time and in these diaries but I was “told” in no uncertain terms that they considered abstentions an aberration, in our democracy. Well not only did we see the whole of the Labour contingent abstain on a recent vote at county we now see our MP abstaining on a vote of national importance. I’m still waiting for similar cries directed at them off the same political group, who have been strangely quiet on the matter!
  14. 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.
  15. January 2019. First meeting of the year and its strategic planning. Reading through the papers nothing too controversial but something did make my hackles rise. There was a retrospective application in for the removal of 4 trees on the new school site across the road from county hall. The biggest application was the one for over 500 houses around and behind the fire brigade headquarters at Cramlington. That looked a no brainier to me as the whole site is dedicated employment land and we have already stated our intention to protect employment land when we turned down the Alnwick application for houses on their industrial estate. Jeff Reid made a good point in that the site was always dedicated for industrial use and was originally in the remit of the RDA. With their demise the site along with many others has been gifted to other agencies who do not have the same remit as the old RDA as evidenced by this application. It was turned down and the site remains available for industrial use. In fact there were some veiled whispers that it might be needed sooner rather than later. The school application came up and I only asked simple questions of the officer. First would we see like for like tree replacement? She thought I was on about the species but I said no it’s the maturity I’m on about. No doubt the 5 new trees going in will be whips but we could ask for like for like replacement. I said I knew that would be a very expensive option but it might stop developers ripping out protected trees and shrubs with almost impunity. I then asked if it was a NCC maintained school or an academy. After some puzzles looks the answer came back that it was NCC maintained. I kept my powder dry for the debate after that. It was proposed and seconded and opened up for debate. I said I was really disappointed with this application because the new school is a flagship development and enjoys cross party support. Given that the site is ours and its our school and it’s a matter of yards away from this building if we cannot control this site we have no chance of controlling any site in the county! The builder has been given a set of plans which I presume listed these trees as being protected yet chose to just dig a trench adjacent, ripping out their roots and undermining the trees and then pulling them out. Again I had to say I was disappointed at the obvious lack of control or expertise this has shown but I don’t know where we go if we don’t agree? In the end we did vote unanimously to approve the application but I hope someone is learning that I’m not just going to rollover on this stuff because it’s happening at most building sites with trees and shrubs being removed expressly against planning conditions. Full council meeting today so straight after work it was a rush to get up to county hall. Couple of contentious things going through today, Council tax support and the Local Plan. As usual lots of silly things too and a couple of times members were throwing handbags at each other! I’m not sure I like the way this council tax support cut has been put onto the agenda. It’s in a report from cabinet and is not in the agenda as it’s own item. In fact members had to ask if they were agreeing the minutes or voting for the change. Both it seemed. The council solicitor mentioned that he had just realised that some members or their close family might actually be claiming this benefit and should declare an interest. I asked a question for clarity then the chair moved onto declarations for the meeting. I was amazed at the members who now had to declare they or family members claimed this benefit. I wondered if they would be allowed to vote on the matter because it seemed to me there was a direct financial benefit here! I had made my case at committee and I could see one of my suggestions had been considered in the cabinet meeting. I felt I could only abstain from the vote given the replies I had off my residents I have spoken to about this, 99% of whom agreed with the proposal. I would still of preferred deferring the introduction until we get Universal Credit sorted if it ever is sorted but that was turned down. Well once again another labour member has put a social media report out saying I and the others who abstained should have backed the labour resolution not to introduce this measure. First of all there wasn’t a Labour resolution for anything, like I said earlier it was brought in for a vote on the back of cabinet minutes. The only resolution was to accept or not to accept. Also I’m a bit annoyed by someone telling me I should support the Labour group, I certainly wasn’t elected to do that! If anything quite the opposite. Given that several labour members put their apologies in for the meeting, maybe if they got their own act together instead of pontificating on how I should proceed they might actually benefit. This is the real problem, long term players can only see things as a binary choice and say things like if you don’t support us then you are against us. No, let the merits of the argument decide the outcome instead of playing silly political games which ultimately do nothing for the county as a whole. Why would members elected to work for and support the county walk away en masse from important committees. They can neither represent their constituents nor do the job they were elected to do with regard to the running of NCC Ltd. So that went through and it was then the Local Plan. Several questions ensued with a lot about affordable housing, especially off one member. I had my own and started by saying I still consider the whole affordability definition a misnomer because it just means less expensive. Until we base affordability on local people’s ability to buy them instead of a super inflated market price then they certainly aren’t affordable for the bulk of our young people. I then picked up on the council house building policy saying this was something I supported but I’m starting to wonder where we might see them because we have been rushing to get neighbourhood plans and town boundaries introduced to stop wholesale development in and around our local conurbations and yet this is where we need the mass of social housing. My last point was about the build quality of new houses. Within the document it says we will get better homes and I asked how would we do that? Would we insist on a better build code which could at least give purchasers some backup because what I’m being told is that the build quality of these new boxes we all see sprouting up is shocking. Nice to see some nodding heads on the front bench. The Local Plan carried even after all the labour members abstained. Yep the ones telling me I was in dereliction of my duty by abstaining on a previous vote all abstained on this one. Seems what’s good for the goose isn’t quite the same for the gander! I have read through this document and it’s far more interconnected than the last one which was almost exclusively concerned with getting as many new houses built as possible. This one dovetails economic regeneration and development, educational improvement, infrastructure projects as well as laying down not just a housing strategy but quality improvements in housing. In my view this is more like a comprehensive plan for the county which realises its USPS and seeks to exploit the ones capable of being exploited whist at the same time protect those which need protecting. I’m not saying it’s perfect and I will be questioning a lot of the rather blasé statements it contains but it’s a whole sea change from the last attempt. I always questioned the last one with it ethos, build houses and the jobs will follow. I argued that was exactly the wrong way around as has been proved throughout history. Towns and cities have always built up around economic activity and that in turn begets it’s own economic activity. I had a meeting at the Town Council offices today about grit bins. This seems to have been going on for months and months, in fact I have already paid for the ones I need. At last we were down to the nitty gritty with the NCC officer saying none of the suggestions met with the criteria for NCC to supply. I had already presumed that months ago so I just wanted to get these new bins into their positions so they are in place when needed and given we have escaped the worst or the winter up to now…….I listed the four, residents had asked me to see about and we should see them in place within a week or two. Many thanks to WBTC because after the two free refills they will be picking up the refill costs in future. Another example of a good working relationship for residents these days! I had a meeting with Russ, the head of local services and the technical head of highways about the A1068. I have residents complaining about their access roads because they are basically hidden from oncoming traffic. I presumed asking for concealed entrance signs would suffice however I was surprised when the head of highways said no chance. If you allow them here we will have to allow them throughout the county. Errr….so what if it improved road safety? I even offered to pay myself out of my smalls scheme but again that was turned down. That now meat a full on argument because I couldn’t see any sense at all being displayed. Not only do we have those concealed entrances the speed on the road goes from 30 to 60 to 40 and back to 30 all within a mile or two. In my book that’s just unnecessarily confusing and actually makes this road worse in terms of road safety. It was suggested we have a full road investigation because Russ wants to see some improvements closer to the town and we were told we would have to stump up for it. Is now going to cost me about a grand, Russ the same, and all I really wanted was a concealed entrance sign and there is no assurance that will even be considered! All we can do now is wait on whatever the results are of this survey. I had a meeting with our regeneration manager to discuss some ideas I have for further regeneration within Bedlington. He said the governments High Street funding is extremely over applied for but he is putting together a list of strategic regeneration ideas countywide which if considered worthy will get serious consideration. He is going to send me the application process. After many months of forwarding residents complaints about certain building sites within my ward to enforcement but not really getting much further forward I had to opportunity to take a slightly different tack, on the back of another application I heard for another town in the county, this time I questioned our ecology officers. After being promised a site visit which never happened and again approaching the lead officer he promised me not only would he get his assistant to come for a visit but he would invite me along as well. This took place and our enforcement officer attended too. I took them along the main bone of contention and showed the clear breaches to the ecology conditions. Because I sit on two planning committees I know better then most the conditions laid down on applications! To say he was appalled would be an understatement and he agreed with my prognosis if this wasn’t rectified. We were there for well over an hour and he told the enforcement officer he would be sending them a letter outlining all the breaches he had been shown and he expected it to form the bulk of their letter to the developer. Let’s hope we see some teeth now! I received the application process off our regeneration officer, it’s actually expression of interest forms, and given the very limited timespan I had to fill it in straightaway. I duly sent it back for his opinion and I have been told it warrants closer examination so it’s passed the first hurdle. As well as that I have been working on a project at Westlea for some time and after getting most of the ducks lined up one final one to get onboard was our planning department. They had previously sent me an UXB saying what I have been working towards might not be allowed. That solicited a phone call straightaway and speaking to the appropriate officer I was offered a meeting to discuss my proposals. I have just sent a message asking when would we be able to have this meeting at their earliest convenience. If it’s not one thing it’s another, I have to wonder if other places get this level of negativity when someone proposes a community project. As mentioned previously I have been trying to get interactive speed indicator signs for Netherton village and after the Town Council agreed to pick up any maintenance charges that should be plain sailing. Well that’s what I thought. On the back of that I know of one other sign another member wants for another Bedlington area and maybe one might help towards the problems I have on the A1068. So will see what I can negotiate the price of four down to.
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