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Malcolm Robinson

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Everything posted by Malcolm Robinson

  1. 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!
  2. 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!
  3. As it passed through Bedlington............
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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!
  9. 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!
  10. 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!
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. December 2018. First up was a site visit to Widdrington to look at the site of a potential Caravan park. I got there early because I wanted to look at all the access roads. The main one from the village is pretty new and pretty good but the other way it’s more or less a single track road passing over railway lines with unmanned level crossings. This would be totally unsuitable for a sizeable increase in traffic in my view so that’s one question to ask later! It is a nice site and perfect for a caravan park with some provisos. A major one being the ecology report and possible mitigation measures. While the planning officer gave us the presentation I asked about the Blue Sky Forest project and if this had been included in that site. I really wanted to know if this land had been identified for this sort of development for years or was this application something new. Seems not many people, other than the Widdrington residents who were there as observers only, knew the answer. Turned out it was one of the areas earmarked for development in the Blue Sky Forest project, in fact it was the area designated for a nature reserve. Tonight we had the strategic planning meeting with several old applications having to come back because of the new NPPF guidance off central government. First off I objected to the minutes of the last meeting which said there had been no objectors to the new 500 houses in Bedlington. I reminded the chair and officers there had actually been 2 objectors, one of which was me! After a bit of fluster I was told it was only a slip of the pen and would be amended forthwith. First up was the Widdrington application. This took nearly 2 hours to get through. We were given the presentation by the officer then objectors spoke, then supports/developer spoke then members got to ask questions of the officers. After they were over we get to debate the motion once it has been proposed and seconded. I had heard several concerns the local parish council had mentioned and one in particular resonated with me seeing as I chaired our local Town Council for two years and served as a member for four. I reiterated their concerns about things like a possible litter problem which would ultimately be costly for the parish council and I specifically asked what measures were in hand to make sure this private commercial development didn’t impact onto the parish unproportionately. Given there were only 80 odd households in this parish that was understandably something of a worry. The officer replied saying some of the s106 funding was for coastline mitigation and part of that would be wardens or rangers who would be able to keep paths clear and help oversee things like litter bin emptying. I also mentioned the road to the west especially if this was the route from our main arterial road, the A1. I said I welcomed the North East Mainline Train holding objection until they assessed any impacts onto their level crossings. So we have to wait until they get back with their assessment. Didn’t stop the application going through with only one member objecting because of his concerns regarding the lakes on the site. Given that we have policies espousing the virtues of tourist potential I don’t think we had much choice. The rest of the applications were actually ones coming back because of the new NPPF guidance. As there was one about a 500 house development I couldn’t help but compare the agreed S106 funding with the one Bedlington got. Sizeable differences but given that this one was only one part of about 900 for Amble I could see some reasoning. Didn’t stop me questioning the agreed funding! In fact once again I had to insist on getting the answers to my questions and using them to inform other members that even though we think we are getting a good deal, things like the health contributions don’t actually put one extra doctor or nurse into the practices because it’s capital only funding. I said this actually does nothing about waiting times to see the likes of health professionals or even help parents get their children into their local school of choice. The interim head of planning told me they tried to get the best deals they could within the regulations and I replied I understood that and this time I didn’t blame them or even the developer but I did want to question the health authority and education authority about the way they assessed need and where and how this money got spent! Few slack jaws there with that volley and I don’t think this has ever been questioned before. We think we are doing the right thing yet know nothing about the system after our input. I also had words about another application up in Amble. This one came to us earlier in the year and members asked about a relief road as part of the development. It was mentioned not just by the developer but planning officers as well that a road would means there would be no suit of other S106 funding, it would effectively wipe them out. Members stepped away at that point but given that the local member had requested this road I asked if we were being presented with a deal for community benefit who was to say what the community really wanted? The planners insisted on the funding package as presented so I asked when had they last spoken to this community to get their view, isn’t that the job of the local member and he was asking for this road. That seems to really throw the cat amongst the pigeons again but I said it seems we were being asked to decide on which side of the deal to come down on. Seems we weren’t and any trade-off was imaginary. I think I was on planet Planning at that point! I would suggest no one play poker with anyone in our planning department because whenever I have four of a kind they pull out a royal flush. This is getting frustrating having them pull trump cards out of thin air all the time and the whole thing looks to be smoke and mirrors with the rules written on the back of fag packets! The next meeting I had to attend was listed as pension training but actually it was to hear a presentation from our new pension management officers. This because we are now in a partnership called Boarder to Coast with another 12 authorities and public sector pension providers. The officers from Leeds gave us a run-down on where we are with the new host body and then the head of strategic investments gave us his input. I did have several questions for him and one in particular seemed not to be answered even after asking it again. It was about the investment strategy and in particular the sub divisions. I was keen to know if they would be taken up whatever the market did even if that meant buying into a loss making position. Still didn’t get my question answered and in our discussions later, after these officers left, other members of the panel agreed it was a pretty fundamental question. I also asked about the strategy I had suggested several months ago about protecting our level of pension liability coverage. We currently enjoy a 100% coverage for the first time ever but my warnings about market corrections seem to be coming true. I’m pretty sure we don’t enjoy that amount of coverage now because of our passive engagement in stocks and shares. It should come back of course but I really did want them to protect our gains because we would be in a buying position given market viotility instead of sucking our thumbs waiting to see the effects. Chance lost I fear. I had a quick exam and assessment to do as part of this panel then it was off back home for the Town Council Meeting. I had a meeting with our head of Estates and the green spaces officer about a couple of projects I’m working on in my ward. I also had to raise concerns others had made to me about their relationship with our estates office. Affable meeting with no real objections raised to my suggestions so onwards and upwards! When I got back to Bedlington I had time for a quick cuppa then back out for a meeting with the police, this along with Russ and Bill. We discussed quite a few issues and I listed just about all the concerns my residents had contacted me about over the last couple of months. I think we all felt each of us got something out of this meeting and now others have been arranged. The police are well aware of what residents are concerned about these days. I had been asking for a meeting with the leadership of NCC for some time and after many cancelled attempts I finally got into the Leaders office along with the cabinet member I had specifically asked to attend. This was all about trying to get more investment into Bedlington, give it a renewed focus to address its fast approaching dormitory Town status and especially my ward and the suggestions I made were listened to and acknowledged. In fact I have to work them up into firm costed proposals now so lots of work to do in the New Year. I got up to county hall in good time for my next meeting which was economic and corporate scrutiny. One of the main bones of contention for this meeting was the proposed reduction in relief for council tax claimants of working age, to go from the 100% currently enjoyed to 92%. This was the same meeting I had previously reported on because I was told I was taking the bread out of the bairns mouths by asking for as much information as possible before proceeding to a recommendation? The consultation had been carried out and we now had the results. These were contained in a large publication which has been available in the members lounge for some time and something I had taken the time to read through. I have mentioned previously about me asking people for their thoughts on this potential reduction to benefit. In fact the NCC consulting’s got about 500 responses, I have asked probably nearly 100 people myself. Of all the people I asked I can now report that just one person was absolutely against the idea and I asked people in all council tax bands, people working in this arena and even benefit claimants themselves. So I did have a clear mandate to back to proposal however there are some salient pieces of information most people will not be privy to, such as the introduction of Universal Credit and its likely effects. I also consider the fact that with 80 odd percent of micro businesses making up the business landscape in this county and with small retailers being a large part of that, the recent downturn in high street retail with some pretty large players going to the wall means that employees within that sphere, not usually the best paid, could well be facing a bleak time, was something I had to consider as well. Like everyone else on the committee I spoke to prior to the meeting we all expected a large presence in the public gallery for this one and again histrionics from certain members. I was astounded when only one single Labour member turned up and he is on the committee. The other two submitted apologies even though at the discussion stage they shouted about this, now when the decision was to be made their votes were missing? None in the public gallery either which again shocked me as everyone had expected heckling. Back to the meeting and after the usual agenda item we came to this benefit cut. The Labour member sitting next to me asked about the consultation and both the cabinet member and the appropriate officer gave him the run-down on how it was conducted. I said nothing because I knew I had it posted on my blog and asked residents to complete it, if all 67 members had done the same I’m sure there would have been a lot more than 500 replies! Anyway the chair asked if we had any more questions and with none forthcoming from other members I said I had several. I first asked how confident we were in the numbers and the immediate response was about the consultation numbers. I said I was not on about those rather the financial numbers given that all the way through we had been told about 12,000 people would be affected, just now that figure seems to have been revised up to 15,000. How confident are we in the number of people affected and the financial savings mentioned in the report? Seems there was a bit of averaging done to arrive at these figures but NCC was the only authority along with Durham which gave 100% rebate and even after the change if it goes through we will still be the second most generous in the North East. I said it looked like that was being used as an excuse for bringing in this cut and I wasn’t bothered about anywhere else, I wanted the best for our residents, that was my only concern as it should be for the rest of us! I said I considered this proposal too much of a blunt instrument and we should really celebrate the fact that we give this level of help to people needing it. I went on and said I wanted members to consider two proposals, one to guarantee the 100% rebate for the first year of unemployment because that’s when help is really needed and secondly defer the introduction until we see how Universal Credit has bedded in. The Labour member sitting next to me immediately seconded my proposals but the cabinet member said how that would negatively impact onto the budget. I reminded everyone I had asked members of the committee to consider what I said to which the secretary gave a rather curt reply saying all comments would be taken to cabinet for their consideration. I kept my powder dry until the chair called for a vote but that never came. I do know cabinet considered my proposals but decided to put the reduction through without change straight-away. We had our usual Local Area Council meeting at Seaton Sluice this time and there was really only one planning item on the agenda. This was a revision to a condition we had laid down on this application previously when it came before us. Speakers for and against spoke as well as the planning officer. Storm in a teacup really because it was all about disguising a metal storage container so it blended into the setting better. One of the members spoke against it saying she could hear the noise when she was at church and it looked unsightly. I said she must have supersonic sight and hearing because I had been to the site visit, only the Bedlington lads and the chair attended, and the container wasn’t visible from the road and it was actually 200 metres away from other buildings as well as a wall and a wood all directly in the way of the church the member said she was inside of but could hear saddles being lifted out of mountings inside this container. Another member said there was actually churches in the middle of our largest cities right alongside major roads and that this was a complete red herring. The applicant got his change of condition. I did have to raise something else at the final agenda item of any other business. I said we were told these committees would bring decision making closer to residents and would have things like economic budgets attached. If that is the case I can’t recall any meeting where that has happened or did the administration really just meet local contested planning applications? The chair informed me that this wasn’t the right time to bring this up but another member said he actually backed everything I had said. So I look forward to an answer at our next meeting. So that’s about it for 2018 and I wish all residents the very best for the New Year. Kenavo 2018 and Salud 2019.
  14. Nov 2018. We had a pretty packed strategic planning meeting tonight, or it was going to be until one of the large applications was pulled by the applicant. The other biggie was the Bedlington application for the 500 houses north of the Chesters. Having been awarded a new contract I was at work all week for training and exams and had to get permission to leave early for this meeting and the full council meeting tomorrow. The other applications were not really contentious and we agreed with the planners and their advice. The chair knew I wanted to speak about the Bedlington application and first up was the planning officer who outlined the application and its terms. Next up was Christine, the current mayor of West Bedlington Town Council. She gave an impassioned 5 minute speech about how disappointed she was with the terms of the S106 funding and especially where it was going to be spent. We next heard off the applicant and then onto members questions. One or two members asked a question about the application then it was my turn. I said it seemed we had a dichotomy of guidance regarding this application seeing as the Wansbeck Local Plan had a boundary line which these houses lay outside of, therefore they should be disallowed. Not only that but we are being advised that the new Planning Guidance off central government which actually meant these houses were needed, to bolster our housing land supply figures. I said I saw that as an excuse, sorry for using that term, but would we as a county have enough land bank for housing if these houses were not permitted? The silence was deafening so I gave them the reply they didn’t want to give me. Yes we have more than enough identified housing land, isn’t that true. Again none of the planners wanted to say but I pushed them for an answer. It seems we do have enough but they want these as well. I asked if that justified redrawing the town boundary line and again silence. I then asked if the Wansbeck Local Plan was the only planning guidance we should consider because at every meeting we are told we can only consider material considerations and adopted policies. Again a very muted response! I then asked about the S106 agreement and said it wasn’t good enough. The reply was that there is a framework for working out these agreements and some might seems more generous than others. Well how can the same framework deliver almost £5M in S106 funding in Amble for the same number of houses and even about £4m for almost half the number in Blyth? Ours totals just under £2M! In fact the only change I could see since this was last before us is the inclusion of a £65 bus ticket for each house. It really isn’t good enough. Given highways and transportation were mentioned in the application I asked about a new road I have heard about linking the B1331 and Choppington Road. I was told I couldn’t mention that because it wasn’t part of the application but I said in that case you shouldn’t be so ambiguous in the terms used in your guidance and my question stood. No answer. Next came the debate after two members proposed accepting the application. One member even said he didn’t understand the new central government guidance but would vote for the application. Surly that should mean you don’t vote for something you don’t understand shouldn’t it? It does whenever I don’t understand what’s on the table. In my reply I said this was clearly outside the boundary line in the only policy in place and I will not vote for anything which seems to undervalue my residents in comparison to any other residents in the county. When the vote came only two of us voted against it so it was agreed by majority. I think we have lost an opportunity to get some real funding to address the imbalances we can all see here in our social infrastructure. I have to mention some of the things which my refusal to accept this paltry community funding has brought to my attention. First I hadn’t realised this application had been brought to the last administration. In fact it looks like they were the ones to agree the first mishmash of community funding. This was the agreement brought to strategic planning last year when I first heard it. This had no health funding requirement and the educational requirement had been allowed to fall from £3.2M to about £1.2M, or about £2M was allowed to disappear. To add further insult to injury the outdoor sport and play funding was to go to Bedlington Station? So West Bedlington gets the houses and the demand while East Bedlington gets the goodies. I wonder who put this deal together but I hope readers can see why I objected so passionately last year when this came up. In the course of several meetings I had with the planners over this I got planners to ask the health trust again about some funding requirement and I also had that ring-fenced for East Bedlington caveat squashed. So £335K for health funding suddenly appeared and the £229K for sport and play can stay in our ward. Still think the figures are insulting given what other areas seem to be able to demand and in no way addresses the lack of infrastructure needed to service our current needs never mind considering the huge increases we will soon see I’m sure. Full council today and it was quite a rush back from work because I’m doing training and exams all week. There weren’t really any main bones of contention in the agenda but that was before the more politically motivated members got their hands on it. So once again a political ping pong match which I think shows just how unwilling some members are to work with each other for the benefit of the county. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-_ELUoMGYA I am really quite disappointed with these full council meetings. Instead of reasoned debate which might just influence the direction we are taking we get the minutes of previous committee meetings and a chance to ask….TWO….questions….if they were submitted in time before the meeting. This isn’t the cut and thrust of modern politics for local benefit, this is an old codgers club! We really need to stop electing people because of the gang they belong to. Interesting to see just how wildly taken out of context some of the ‘quotes’ are and that’s only the ones I have firsthand knowledge about. I was truly shocked at the misrepresentation of one of the committees I serve on. I now have to question everything those members utter in future. Well it might have taken some time, months in fact, but after all the complaining, lobbying, phone calls and messages we eventually have a full set of working lights up the Netherton Village. We were promised these were working some time ago but several faults came to light; pardon the pun, which resulted in temporary traffic lights for a couple of days while the faults were once and for all rectified! Fingers crossed! Sadly it has become apparent that once again I have been targeted by certain individuals in an effort to unseat me. This was particularly distressing because it involved other people close to me and while I am fully prepared to argue my points and politically debate quite openly the oleaginous manner in which this was done left a lot to be desired! This resulted in having to close down my social media accounts until I was sure I had regained control over them and was the reason my last month’s diary was late and this one somewhat truncated. It would seem giving, principally, my constituents so much information within these diaries is not something certain people relish. I will leave the last word to one of our greatest political commentators, “In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” ― George Orwell.
  15. First meeting was supposed to be a site visit but that had been postponed on instruction from the applicant. So the first meeting became a strategic planning meeting. The huge volume of notes for this meeting had been halved because two applications had been pulled. Still left several and most were revised reports listing changes to things like S106 agreements. This is the community payback funding which should go directly into our areas for things like education, health and leisure. With that I mind I had examined the notes in detail and had quite a few questions for each as they came up. Two simple applications first then it was into the meat of the meeting. Several hundred new houses proposed for the east end of Ashington, near the hospital and spine road, with several millions of pounds paid into things like education and health. I had a few questions about that and then in was onto the thorny one. We had a developer which had challenged the contributions our planners had asked for and after two or three critical examinations which produced mixed answers the planners had finally agreed a reduced figure with the developer. Lots of questions with this one! We get to ask the planners questions first then after a proposer and seconder has been found we get to debate what we have heard. I was first to speak at debate. I said I think it’s obvious for once our planners had tried to strike a hard bargain with the developer and I applaud that. Also I would have loved to give our planners full backing for their original proposal but with the present listing I couldn’t. I could see some rye smiles appearing. I went on to say it now looks like we have been presented with a Hobson ’s choice and we could actually be folding a full house, pardon the pun. I said I would be voting in favour if for no other reason than I believe our planners that the current agreement is the best they can get at this time. I might have been tempted to a showdown with the developer over this because the funding which is the casualty is the educational allocation. I said I was really disappointed for the children of Blyth because in my view it was them paying for these abnormal ground conditions which the developer has stated makes a full suite of contributions unviable. The application was passed unanimously. New Fence for pedestrian safety at Green Letch. I had a LGPS meeting and this one looked a mammoth undertaking, the paperwork and notes were very extensive. I’ll not go into detail but it took most of the day and we had two or three managers who addressed us regarding aspects of our fund and it’s performance. We are taking steps to protect our 100% coverage at last in case we do see a market downturn. We I’ll know in the next 6-9 months if that was prudent! Looks like I was justified in pushing for some sort of protection looking at recent market gyrations over the last week or so! I had a site visit at Plessey Woods with the park management and the contractor picked to put in the new play equipment. I did know the rep because it was the same guy I used for the two play parks we put in at WBTC. I spoke to him before the others got there and asked about other adult play/sports equipment. He gave me a catalogue including the prices which was exactly what I wanted for another project. When the others got here we convened the meeting inside the café. Going through the plans there were two bits of equipment we wanted to ask questions about. One bit I wanted to changed entirely! I did manage to convince everyone that what was intended wasn’t that inspiring and another bit of equipment suited the project much better. It was more expensive but I negotiated the price down with the rep who agreed to swap this bit with the other piece. Because of this I did give way on my initial request to have a zip wire included in the offering but then argued that if I did agree to the bit of equipment instead of the zip wire it had to be of a size and exciting enough to justify not having a free play bit of kit. I said I wanted 20% more but the same cost and Mark remarked that we already had a discount applied. I said I have just put that down to us including the cost figure in the tender so consider it only as an accounting excersise! What a barmy way to put out a tender, including the exact figure we have to spend. About a dozen applications came back all surprisingly to the penny of that quoted figure. I realise we had to find some way to give an idea of overall cost but surely we could have done it without quoting the exact figure? Other bits of change were negotiated with the rep mainly to do with the finish and edging. All in all I think this will be a pretty exciting new addition to the park when it finally gets installed. Initially we are looking at spring for the installation so it will be ready and open for Easter. Lots of small stuff still to be agreed but mainly edges and materials. I did manage to speak to our head of parks later and mentioned concerns some of my residents have regarding other areas within my ward but also to ask him to look at other ways we can stimulate increased footfall. Last time I had this conversation my ideas were dismissed out of hand, this time he agreed to think about them and have a conversation about them later. Progress! I asked if he would allow me to propose things like events and other upgrades to the top end of the park right at the entrance to increase footfall and hopefully takings in the café because that’s the only way we will get the justification for future development, not only for capital items but revenue costs as well. Town council meeting tonight and even though I hadn’t prepared anything I did give as much of an update as I could because a lot of my work this month had been for constituents and that remains private. Concern was expressed at the lack of action regarding the town centre redevelopment site but I said we had just met there today and if anyone looked now the site had been cleared this morning. That I believe augers well. An update has just gone out saying the main contractor will now begin with the site preparation work which needs to be done before any building work can be started. Happy to buy one of the new bus shelters, along with Councillor Wallace, which now sit outside Lidl. I had also been invited to the opening of the new apartments on the site of the old school opposite St Cuthberts. I was quite surprised at the finish and the fact that each apartment had its own parking bay at the rear. I also asked about materials and build quality and again pleased to hear higher spec insulation had been used throughout, more efficient boilers and broadband connections into each unit were installed. Also seeing as the clientele were all to be over 55yrs old good to see a lift installed for this 3 story development. Another bonus was that the reacts were all classed as affordable and whilst I might have a problem with that actual term it did means top end private rents were not being charged. We were told all the units expected to be let forthwith and some clients were actually moving in that same day! Might not have been my preferred option for this site but I can’t argue with the fact that it must satisfy a local demand. Just been informed my meeting with highways and parks management has been postponed but only for a week or so. This is about concerns raised by residents about parking issue along the roads outside Plessey Woods. . Next meeting was for new grit bins for my ward and the others wards in West Bedlington. We met at the WBTC office and Russ and Bill came for their wards too. Our highways manager gave us the rationale behind these grit bin positions and they have to score against a set criteria. Finally got to see the criteria so I now have to present each of my suggestions within that context. I also asked about a strategic map the Mayor said she and highways technical have put together looking at existing bins and possible ones because I don’t want to duplicate efforts. Another meeting has been planned for next week let’s hope all the information will be available then. Just been to another site visit this morning and I am even more perplexed than I was before. There are several bits to the advice given by planners which seems strange to me so I asked about them only to be told they were all down to personal interpretation. As far as I can see that means I can just use my common sense which is something of a rarity for planning matters! I’ll see what other members think next Wednesday at the planning meeting before I throw my tuppence in! I have been asking everyone for their views about this 100% reduction to the council tax working age benefit claimants get because it’s out for consultation. I have been shocked at the replies which came back. I won’t mention anymore here but I will have to dig deeper before I come to a balanced conclusion. Just firmed up another debate with young people as part of the NCC local democracy week. Looking forward to that but they do give me a hard time. Nothing like young minds to see straight through any obfuscation of the facts! Young people we can all be proud of. First meeting of the week and it was a site visit for an application in my ward. 4 of us turned up at 9.30am and the planning officers gave us a guided tour explaining what was what and where things might go. We were taken around outside the site and suggested we should look at the views of the open countryside. We left after an hour and the officers had given us replies to our questions. I had to go and see a local blacksmith I knew from previous jobs he had done for me through the Town Council and the development trust. I gave him an outline of the job I needed pricing up and he said he would go and measure up that day and forward me his estimate. Tonight is our LAC meeting which this one is shared with the local town and parish councils. Immediately prior we had a planning meeting for an hour. This to consider the application we had the site visit for on Monday morning. As it had already been in front of us last month, where members have requested a site visit, we knew most of the details. We heard off the officer then the applicant and then it was our turn to ask the officers questions. I did have several questions about this one because on the face of it there should be a refusal, given that was the officer recommendation. However the site visit had been requested because it was really down to a judgment call and there were several bits of the reasoning put to us by the officer which I disputed. As we worked through the questioning it was clear other members were unsatisfied too. An interruption was made so our head of planning could interject because clearly she could see this was not going as intended. Once the questioning was over there is a call for a proposer and seconder and I duly proposed accepting the application but under the terms, minded to accept subject to the outlined conditions being met and qualified. That caused a bit of an uproar and again the head of planning interjected explaining what my proposal meant. I was happy for her to clarify for other members but essentially I had proposed accepting the outline application only if the terms and conditions which had not been discharged yet duly were. It then has to come back to us for ratification or not as the case might be. It was seconded and after a debate which included officers for some reason I was able to give a closing statement. I said I would normally vote for refusal given the designation of the site however in this case I couldn’t agree with the reasons put before us. I had looked north from the site as requested and two large black agricultural barns were blocking any views. Along the road a little and looking north again we saw the Hepscot building site in full view. Turning back looking at the site and there were no views of the proposed site at all! Looking west from the site we see another large building site just up Station Road again not obscured at all and again at least 2 story houses. This application was outline permission only for 2 bungalows with restricted heights and as far as I could ascertain only the corner of one of the roofs would be seen from a single viewing point on Station Road. Also included was that this development would urbanise the area, clearly 2 low level impact bungalows couldn’t do that especially compared with the building sites we have allowed along Station Road and the house types being built there. I said I thought we were in danger of inconsistency if we didn’t allow these and that was my main reason for going against officer advice. The vote was taken after a lot of clarification by planning officers, their acting head and the NCC solicitor and it was 6 to 2 for my proposal. This doesn’t mean the applicant can now go off and start building; they have to discharge several conditions and get professional reports before our minded to, becomes approval. I feel we have acted in good faith and not discriminated against an applicant who doesn’t have a large building firm behind her to put forward their own partisan arguments. New road resurfacing done on the Choppington Road entrance into Bedlington. It was then on with the LAC and this one was for Town and Parish councils to interact with NCC departments and officers they wouldn’t normally get to have any discourse with. The chair suggested a round table approach and taking a very relaxed oversight of the meeting. We were given an update on the roll out of Universal Credit and both Councillor Pidcock and myself registered our dismay with this scheme and they way it is to be rolled out. We acknowledge it wasn’t our officers who should be in the firing line and they had to implement this as directed. Supposedly rolling out on 12 December in our area and with payments potentially 6 weeks in arrears meant some people would have no money for anything at Xmas never mind presents! In fact they might not get their full entitlement until February next year. Also the facts that it has to be all done online and applicants have to have bank accounts are other concerns. Who thought this was a good idea, obviously someone who has never been on benefits and doesn’t understand how they work! Several more items were discussed with most members using it to further the concerns they had in their own wards. I certainly did although I did ask about where we are with the devolution project. Just had another meeting about new grit bins but I still haven’t seen a map yet. This is supposed to come out to us next Monday. As we had the manager of local services there and the highways manager I did get the chance to raise some past and present concerns residents have mentioned to me. In fact one was mentioned by the young people I met with yesterday about their safety at school drop off and pick up times. Good to see them all written down let’s hope I get the answers back we all need. I went up to Leading Link and once again took part in a question and answer session with some of our young people. All of these youngsters are interested in becoming part of their school council so I knew there would be some hard questions! I gave a brief summary of local government then tried to answer questions off the youngsters. Once again the variety of topics these young people are interested in is astonishing and nothing like young minds to see everything in black and white. After grilling me for over an hour I hope they got some of their questions answered in a manner which they understood. Monday and back to county hall for another scrutiny meeting. This one only had about three or four agenda items, with the main one about the arrangements for dissolving Arch. I had read through the papers and had a few questions about how the council was financially safeguarded. I was particularly interested in the arrangements about the purchase of the Arch share capital and it’s reimbursement through a special dividend back to Council. Arch and ‘special dividends’ are something to be absolutely certain about!! I also asked specifically about the companies owned by Arch, both trading and non trading. I was quite satisfied with the answers I got back and a bit mystified when only one other member asked questions. Another member asked about the new governance document and we were told we would receive a copy each but that was something already asked about previously. Once again I had not boiled a kettle for a cuppa when I got home before I was made aware of a report on social media which seemed to misrepresent the facts as had been discussed just this morning. As the only member of the committee to actually ask questions about the financial arrangements and their repercussions I have to say the oblique silence from opposition members during committee sessions only to see accusations and finger pointing on social media almost immediately after these meetings only leads me to assume very partisan reports go back to whoever writes this stuff and their own conclusions are added into the mix which is then regurgitated onto social media. I do not think this is in the best interests of anyone in the county much less taking responsibilities for the best practice of NCC as a body. Holding the administration to account and suggesting ways it might improve for the benefit of us all is surly the job of every councillor irrespective of whatever party they belong to? Maybe I’m still just naïve, I am certainly coming to my own conclusions! Today it’s the Fire Brigade pensions and as usual the agenda runs to almost four pages! Unlike the Local Government Pension Scheme my part in this one is as a representative for the employer and it looks only at the administration and legalities because it’s a revenue pension scheme unlike the LGPS which has investments to manage. It takes all morning and into the afternoon to get through it all and we now have a manageress from Yorkshire who come up to advise. This is because the admin for this like the LGPS is in Yorkshire. We got through all the details and I even now have a basic level of understanding although it’s still pretty complex. After the pension committee meeting I went home and had just enough time for a cuppa before it was back up to county hall for the community chest committee meeting. We had quite a few applications to wade through, sadly this time only one from Bedlington! With only myself and two members of the administration we agreed all the applications in one form or another. Some of the details were not eligible and I wish people would take their time and read through the associated guidance then we could award even more. We ended up still underspent and not wanting to see that funding for local community groups and charities disappear we decided we wanted another extra round in January! Road resurfaced at the Hartford Hall entrance into Bedlington. Just returned for a supposed meeting about residents concerns about parking adjacent to the Plessey Woods Country Park. Seems that meeting had already taken place even though my invitation clearly said today. Being there and with the manager of the site and one of the workers I used the time to go through what had been said at the meeting. Seems nothing much even after they walked around speaking to residents. Unless residents wanted to see double yellow lines outside their houses there isn’t much that can be done. I suggested a much better signage for the park which included the wording…..”parking for Plessey Woods this way”. We also had to chance to kick some ideas around for the park and I think we might be on the same page by and large. I want to see more people using the park and using the café, that way we get to retain the income and spend it on more park upgrades and personnel. I also want to see more event type things going on and pulling more and different park users down with a varied offer. I was assured the lads now wanted to help with putting together a proper Friends of group and they will be talking to users to see when we can get a meeting pulled together to discuss it with all interested parties. There are a lot of things going on with regard to constituents and their concerns at the moment, even more than usual. I try and forward each concern as soon as I receive it and when answers are not forthcoming give the departments a nudge. I had a reply off highways about the traffic survey which was asked for by residents and which I in turn asked for. This was done on Choppington Road near the Chester’s entrance road. Again like the Netherton Village one this has come back saying the data doesn’t warrant any further action. We must have the safest drivers in the whole country because that’s two traffic and speed surveys which have come back quoting insufficient evidence for further action. If I didn’t know better I might have agreed! Path extended and resurfaced. Just come back from another LDF or Local Plan meeting. This had been called by officers working on the new plan for guidance on a list of items. Again I was the only member from the south east so it fell to me to provide answers for this whole area! Good job I sit on strategic planning so even though Blyth, Ashington and Cramlington were discussed as well as Bedlington, I did have knowledge of what was being discussed. In fact I think it was a pretty ‘robust’ meeting with some very straight answers given to straight questions. Lots of housing issues as well as town boundaries and community gain funding discussed. I was pleased to hear employment land would not only be protected but enhanced as we seek to bring real economic growth to the county. One thing which came up as I mentioned concerns I have with some of the developments we have seen is that the 500 house application north of the Chesters was actually first considered by the last administration. When it came to us last year at strategic planning it was actually the second time it had come through as a minded to approve scheme. No wonder I couldn’t get it refused. As I have been asking for updates on the Devolution Deal we are entering into with Newcastle and North Tyneside I have been invited to attend the committee meeting later this week as an observer. As I have already pitched a scheme for Bedlington using not only the Devolution Deal but also the Borderlands Deal I need to go and make sure I’m aware of the trajectory they are taking. I did go to the Devolution and Borderlands presentations and found them very interesting. So much so I had several burning questions I wanted to ask but being only a spectator at this committee I couldn’t during the meeting but I did directly to the officers after the meeting closed. Talking about questions I was astounded none of note came during the official question time during the meeting. Instead members only seemed interested in promoting their own candidates into the oversight committee positions which would be created all in the name of political balance. At some point we will have to put people into these sorts of positions because of their acumen and quality instead of just belonging to a political party! This infuriated me and I couldn’t help but tell them what I thought on my way out. 2 schemes worth about a billion quid and no one had asked how we made sure we get the maximum benefit for our residents. I might be being unfair and it’s all worked out but the answers I got back, I very much doubt it. Residents roadway finished at last!
  16. Tesco wasn't blocked???????? The only quotes they had were off their own builders and no one else saw them. It looked to be a national strategic decision by Tesco to stop all new builds and try and refocus what they already had because their share price had bombed out. The whole of Front Street is a conservation area........they way thats been handled of late doesn't warrant the paper its written down on! There are no listed buildings. The build has started........?
  17. Rosco, Not quite right..........the council didn't stop Tesco......Tesco pulled out of 40 odd new developments, one of which was ours. The way this development has been set up means only the units which have agreed tenants will be built, thats one of the reasons its taken so long! Oh and they are medium sized retailers not small ones which I think is a missed opportunity and one I'm trying to remedy. The previous plan was to have 6 small starter units on the front with offices above which was to be let to Wansbeck Life who would then rent them out. I believe thats why on one can find the supposed million quid Tesco was supposed to pay for the site. I think it was a deal where WL got the shops on a peppercorn agreement for 25 years and made the money renting them out. Pity no one thought to write a codicil where if Tesco didn't develop we got our town centre back!!!!! Instead we had to buy it back off Tesco who I think got it for nowt!!!!
  18. September 2018. First meeting was economic and corporate scrutiny at 10am. I got there in good time and took a seat. We had several cabinet members and the Leader there for this one because there were several bits on the agenda which we would be asking questions about. We also had the ex-Leader there and as he sat at the table I presumed he must be speaking directly to us. The meeting was called to order and we started with the chair altering the agenda because of clashes with some of the members and other meetings which they had to go to. One of the agenda items was about the legal advice members could receive from outside the NCC legal team. It had been proposed that due to legal action against 3 or 4 members and a member of staff by a multi-million pound offshore company, NCC should underwrite some of the cost of advice or we could well face say a rich development company from almost picking off any members who disagreed with it, especially in terms of planning! The ex-Leader had headed up a counter proposal supposedly denying members and officers this help and he presented his case. I was surprised at his opening remark that his group actually agreed with the proposal and it was only the way this had been brought to cabinet that he disagreed with. I’m not sure given the time frames involved that the convoluted way which was the counter proposal could have been actually delivered. I did agree with a couple of the points raised but given that a writ had been issued, time was of extreme importance. The legal advice off the NCC solicitor was pretty unambiguous and the proposal failed. We went through several items and then hit on the most controversial. This one was about a report and consultation into possibly reducing the level of council tax working age claimants received. I listened to the presentation given by the cabinet member with the responsibility and started asking questions. This was soon drowned out by one member shouting that this should not even be tabled. The reply off the cabinet member astounded me. What was being proposed was the possibility of reducing this benefit by 8% from 100 to 92%. During his reply the cabinet member mentioned the fact that the last administration were going to reduce this benefit by 50% not the 8% the current administration wanted to look at. Seems only us and Durham give 100% reduction these days with most councils facing some hard facts as they try and balance budgets. One of the members said yes but they weren’t going to do it straightaway. Flipping heck the last administration were a curious bunch looking at what’s coming out now, in fact I’m starting to wonder if I’m in some alternative universe where the Labour group cosy up with multi million pound offshore companies and think about halving benefits and the Conservative group are keeping any reduction to a bare minimum? Anyway the three labour members were asked if they wanted to make a counter proposal and after quite some prompting they proposed taking this proposal for a report off the table. A very dangerous option in my opinion because the administration could easily push this through without any due consideration or consultation! As there were 5 conservative members, 3 labour members and myself their proposal fell and I asked specifically what the original agenda proposal was. Producing a report and a consultation exercise only because this committee was not a decision making committee it was a scrutiny committee. I agreed with this now because I felt getting a report done and a consultation exercise would give us the understanding of what the impacts of this measure might actually be. The current administration could just push it through if they wanted so at least this would gave us the background needed to make any recommendation. I left the meeting and hurried home in time to grab a cuppa before going up to Alnwick for a strategic site visit. Once again I have to say the access route to the site leaves a great deal to be desired but at least the site is in the agreed neighbourhood plan. Also the fact that the neighbourhood plan recommends the same number of houses went some way in my decision making. The matter in question was the fact that the outline plans moved an area of housing nearer to the existing dwellings there so there would be a much better aspect to the development. It was half a paddock nearer but this meant that the development could be built in the low lying area and not spoil any view looking from the conserved Alnwick fields just over a hill. When I got home I had several messages about me being the target of attack by the mother of our MP’s communications manager? Seems I had to stop everything I was doing to reply to her political accusations on social media. In fact they were getting more and more deranged as far as I could see. As well as these tirades the ex-chair of the local labour group joined in but that was just par for the course! (Hi Alex!). I did do a reply the next day and I received an inbox full of well wishes! Thanks to everyone who sent them! Again once home I only had time for another cuppa then it was up to Netherton Club for my monthly surgery. Today I had the strategic planning meeting and one item on the agenda was the detailed planning for the Bedlington redevelopment in marketplace. The Alnwick application was before and that was eventually agreed. One application had been pulled and another pretty straightforward. Finally the Bedlington application came up and after seeing the application on the screen I asked about the parking provision. Looks like it’s been reduced but adding in the parking for the anchor store it’s actually increased. There were no other questions and I asked the chair to move to the vote. I proposed it and it was duly seconded and with no comments from members I said we have waited 50years for this let’s get on with the vote. It was passed unanimously. Third day of my holiday from work and full council meeting today. We had an update on some confidential matters pertaining to the Bedlington development and then downstairs for the full council meeting. I had submitted a question for this meeting again, this one about the conditions we attach to planning applications where members feel they are necessary. I had already asked our head of planning who oversees these conditions and her answer was our enforcement team. This question was a bit different however because of what I have seen locally I basically asked if it was worth members attaching conditions to applications because developers seem to be agreeing conditions but then not adhering to them once they get their permissions. I will let people make their own minds up about the answer I got back. Full council meeting September 2018 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVbuTqINJPk I had two constituents to see and ask questions on their behalf then I was off on holiday for 3 days! It should have been 2 weeks but unable to sort of the respite for one of the lads meant our holiday had to be cancelled so we could look after him. When I got back I had a meeting to sort out which company got the contract for the new play park in Plessey Woods. It took hours to go through all the responses and score each one but eventually we got it down to three. Each had their good bits but we all eventually agreed on one. If it goes in exactly like the plan it will be quite an improvement! This is just one way I hope to make any parking charges for using this park worthwhile. We already have the undertaking that monies raised will be used to further improve the park so getting these initial upgrades is really the icing on the cake. Still working for more of course! One concern has been raised by adjacent residents who are probably rightly concerned about conflicting parking. I have requested a meeting between the park’s management, NCC highways and myself to see what can be done for residents along the road outside the park entrance. We had a full council planning training session given by two QC’s specialising in planning law. Seems the politicos wanted to pay games at question time but the QC’s weren’t playing those games. I did ask a question, this one about the weight given to applications in consideration of any emerging strategies or polices. I said this by it’s very nature was a subjective call by planners and maybe they didn’t fully appreciate the local ‘flavour’ as much as local members did so could this weight be challenged by members? The answer was maybe, but given that the same information should be used the same conclusion should be arrived at. Well that’s as clear as mud then! Seems they didn’t appreciate my subjective comment? Well it has to be doesn’t it? The monthly Town Council meeting was on tonight but I had to meet constituents so I couldn’t give my usual monthly update. It turned out to be a pretty productive meeting and I think we all know the direction, albeit a new one, we are taking now. Well I have now been accused of voting for personal gain, again off the mother of our MP’s communications manager. My legal advice, because this was something I wasn’t going to put up with, was that she either presented the case and listed where and what this personal gain is or apologised and took down her social media posting. The posting was deleted but no apology has been forthcoming! Might be worth looking at the recent BBC Newsnight update on NUM funds if we are to consider personal gain! Last couple of days of my Holidays and I had a site visit with our chair of planning for our LAC. This gave us a much better understanding of the application which is before us on Wednesday. Today I have another site visit asked for by a resident. After all the planning visits I’ve done over the last few weeks it was now time for another planning committee meeting at our LAC. One of the applications was in my ward and after seeing first-hand the site, with the chair of planning, I thought it best to request a full site visit by the whole committee. This was felt necessary by other members too as we progressed the application because it turned out the advice by the officer as he freely admitted was only his judgment. The second application was pretty straightforward so went through unanimously. As the chair couldn’t attend this meeting I chaired it and after starting then passing over to the chair of planning for that bit, after which I took over again. Public questions and only two were forthcoming. Those answered, it was on with the agenda. The police had come to introduce our new police neighbourhood officer and they gave a brief presentation about how they policed and the stats for Bedlington. A few questions ensued and I opened this up to questions from residents. First meeting of this week and it was corporate and economic scrutiny. I had read through all the associated papers and had quite a few questions on several of the agenda items. The chair changed the agenda items at the request of the Leader so we could hear the new Borderlands deal. This was given in private because it hadn’t even gone to central government yet and had repercussions to their budget but I can say that if we had been given some of the details we heard today I wouldn’t have needed to abstain from the vote at full council. I did ask to formally recognise and include the micro businesses in the resulting consultation where there were direct business links. We then resumed the normal running of the agenda and had the initial budgetary report. I had a few questions about this and almost seemed to monopolise the debate. Again I have to say all my questions were answered in what seemed to be clarity and honesty by the cabinet member and financial officer. One of my questions was about the £65M “black hole” which had been presented at public meetings last year. This is now been reduced to £36M and I asked how that had been achieved, if only to make sure the previous figure was justified. The answer came back both off the cabinet member and the financial officer and I was satisfied with their responses. I then asked about the large potential reduction in children services for year 21-22. Again the answer was about the culmative effects and their bedding in time more than putting off the biggest hit for future years! I then asked about how the debt management figures for Arch were suddenly put into savings? The reply was more about how the debt figures have now been effectively managed but more on that later! My further questions were about “operational efficiencies” and “fee optimisation” as listed in the report and again I was satisfied with the answers. I apologised for the time spent answering my questions but in reality I think many were happy to finally get questions based on the actual papers instead of political rhetoric. I also asked about the proposed savings were had previously examined in our shared service project. These have not been included and I then asked if or when would we see any given the bulk of the project has been put off until Universal Credit has bedded in. That wasn’t really answered but the intent is to complete the shared service project at some point. One last thing to mention is that I asked that commercial income generation opportunities which were listed are explored in detail and with even small incomes capable of enhancing some service provision this is something I have been working on and could really help with some of the more very frontline services. One thing I did like is that this process (budget setting) is starting off earlier than it had been done, which means we can all have greater opportunity to see and examine it. We then looked at the loan governance for Arch and again the loans, almost £300M, and their specifics were something of a direct risk worry given the way they have been written. Some members complained about the way this was presented but the answer came back off the cabinet member that the way it had been handled, where the CEO and Leader of NCC sat on the board of Arch and proposed borrowing and then took their place next door in Council and accepted the proposal to loan Arch the money they had requested. As the cabinet member remarked, that cannot be right, the conflict of interest has to be immense! I had several more questions about this subject but they were getting more and more technical in a business sense. My last question was about our social housing programme and would we be using Arch to deliver it. My concern was that if we are now going to ‘tighten’ up any loans insofar as the interest and liquidity is concerned then my request that rents were genuinely affordable might be a casualty in that power play. The reply was that social housing was seen as very low risk and it was hoped that would not be the case. I said I will be watching! I did get some support off other members on this question. I have to say if this committee is supposed to be strictly scrutiny, making overly political claims and introducing political plays is something I hoped would not happen or even be allowed. There are perfectly legitimate ways to examine the administration and its policies without resorting to the much easier politicking which is becoming the norm. In fact the distinct lack of opposition members on several committees seriously compromises NCC to represent a balanced view in my opinion! In fact the very next meeting was one I have been co-opted onto, the LDF committee. This was because essentially the opposition have withdrawn from this committee and as it has to be quorate other members were needed. I did voice the opinion that as all parties and members should be represented on something as important as this committee there should have been a place for an independent representation anyway! This committee looks at the LDF or Local Development Framework which became the Core Strategy we hear so much about. Strikes me that a group which pulls away from the working group looking into and suggesting the details of this subject while at the same time bemoaning the fact that the one they worked on had been withdrawn for a revised version is not being as upstanding as they should? We heard the results of the consultation completed by many thousands of our residents from all over the county then looked at how their opinions could be used to influence the current proposed draft. As I was the only member from the south east of the county, where about half the population lives, it fell to me to speak for that area. I could only reiterate the concerns I have with the basic infrastructure we have now never mind thinking about the huge influx of new residents given the house building and pre-applications we have recently seen. I also had a discussion with our new head of planning about some of the terms used in planning, such as affordable, and especially listing all of our towns into a hierarchical structure. I asked if that is the case will we see business rates in say a B or C town be less than those charged in an A town? And given we are seeking inward investment will that be naturally directed at the A towns first? I was assured that wouldn’t be the case. Well why not itemise our towns listing their natural assets and development potential rather than classify some which seem to be better than others. The meeting continued and it is obvious there is a huge amount of work being done by staff to meet the government deadlines. One of the other things I mentioned was based on a housing application I heard on the strategic planning committee. This had suggested the affordable housing, which has become the norm for planning applications these days, is passed to the local parish council. I was and still am very much in favour of this sort of arrangement because who knows local need better than these very local councils. I was told there are problems with that application regarding this matter but I said regardless this is a good idea and one we should adopt across the board whenever possible. This could have put up to £200K into that parish council pot annually if it was allowed and clearly would have major impacts onto either the parish precept or enhanced service provision or a mixture of the two. Would have cost implications for the parish council in terms of management and oversight but the benefits would far outweigh any associated costs in my opinion.
  19. I cant answer that before tomorrow! The project is up for detailed planning tonight and putting up an answer might look to be predetermining the application because I sit on the planning committee.
  20. August 2018. First official meeting in August and it’s at Corbridge. It’s actually a strategic planning site visit with the planning meeting tomorrow night. Another load of houses with associated planning matters but for once nice to see a designated drop off and pick up point for the adjacent school on the plans. Seems we do allow these sometimes, a point taken and espoused by one of the Labour members on the committee!!!!!! Anyway after walking the fields for a couple of hours and with some of my questions answered, others for tomorrow night, it was a quick drive back to Bedlington to see some people here. Several people been in touch today and some very interesting projects outlined. I will certainly try to help in any way I can. Off up to County Hall in good time for the strategic planning meeting. I wanted to see another councillor up there but he had tendered his apologies for the meeting so I presume is on holiday. The meeting started and again a packed public gallery. First up was an application for what is in essence an extension to the Haggerton Caravan Park. Most of the issues had been dealt with and we supported the application unanimously. I couldn’t help but think about the recent Alnwick Gardens application we supported and the potential these two venues create to back up our need for modernising the main road, the A1. Both will result in increased traffic I have no doubt. The second application was the Corbridge one and after the officer gave us more information as well as a written update, which we all had to hastily read through, I had several questions. I saved my response until we debated the application at the end of this application just before the vote and after it had been proposed and seconded. After members had said they thought the application had been thoroughly worked through my turn came. I said I was of a different opinion and gave my reasons. There were several outstanding issues, which I had asked about during questions and the answers all came back that they were being worked on. I also pointed out the fact that there was a current public consultation being held which didn’t close until after a few days’ time. This had been referred to in the papers we had received to examine for this application. One paragraph in particular stated that depending on the result of this consultation and if a hitherto unidentified ‘material consideration’ was identified our decision now might not be upheld. I said that taking all of these into consideration I didn’t think we had enough “Factual” information to make a decision and even though I thought the scheme was probably the best use of the land, apart from the absolutely crazy access road which we had not got to consider as it had already been passed at the outline stage, for these reasons I would be abstaining from the vote. The head of planning didn’t like that but said I was perfectly entitled to that decision. The vote came and all other members voted for it with only my abstention due to insufficient information. Next came the Bedlington application. This concerned a business on the Barrington Road Industrial Estate and one which we had previously turned down. Previously most of us had objected to the increased hours wagons would be using the roads and estates but this had now been dropped out of the application and there was now no increased traffic asked for. There was quite a loud dissent heard from the public gallery when the members started saying they would be supporting the application now. Interestingly it was mainly the Labour members who did this. For me this shows planning isn’t being used as the usual political football and members are applying themselves without fear or favour. For me there was quite a surreal moment when one of the objectors in his address actually quoted from this Blog. Nice to know someone is reading it and the member sitting next to him and advising was none other than one of our local political party officials. Maybe this is now required reading for the local Labour group? Back to the business in hand and I was again the last member to speak, this time I fully supported the application for three main reasons. Firstly the increased traffic hours had been quashed, secondly the other improvements and changes were all within the applicants business premises and seeing as that was on an established industrial estate what’s wrong with the owner trying to maximise his potential return on investment, that’s something we should support if we can, notwithstanding the jobs there, and lastly I had read through the conditions attached to this application and with 25 conditions, most with subsections across 4 pages, I was happy that most of the issues raised had been addressed or could be through these conditions if needed. I did say monitoring might be a problem but that wasn’t something in our remit to question. The vote came and it was unanimously agreed. Course that wasn’t what the members of the public wanted to hear and again more vociferous dissent could be heard. As one member said later, if you want to be popular don’t go on a planning committee! If only people would realise that they have to come up with these ‘material considerations’ because we are not allowed to consider anything else by law! After the meeting I had several things I wanted to ask the head planner about but she immediately thought I would be having a go about the lack of information which I had complained about. Not so and after a brief exchange about that, where I think we both agreed in the end, I raised the local points I wanted her to look into which she agreed to do. Looking at my latest emails it looks like the planners are taking things tougher now. Monday and after a tough weekend I have several calls to make and letters to write. I managed to get them all done by lunchtime. Some of these did the trick straightway others went off in all sorts of directions. One of them was something I have been working on with others for the last few months and I wasn’t best pleased that it might not happen. Hopefully that has now been sorted and we will see our youngest kids playing their football on a new pitch soon! I did make a request about community funding to planning and the answer that came back left me speechless. I was under the assumption that all planning for houses carried its own obligations for community payback but it seems that’s not the case? Seems only 5 applications can be used for community payback and we have had ours? That’s just plain daft and that’s the exact words I used in my reply! The tenders have come back for the new play equipment for Plessey Woods and I have meetings to go through them. Hope we can get some real exciting stuff in there! I have been advising lots of community groups how they can better access funding. I hope we will see much better take up of funding routes by them all now and for once Bedlington will start to get its fair share! Seems August is a quiet month for the routine NCC business but in our case that just means we get to lobby and attend meetings for our Town’s benefit. One of the things that I and the other Independent councillors for Bedlington have been pushing is the Town Centre redevelopment and at last that is back on track. We have seen one announcement but there is much more to come very soon. The whole redevelopment is listed for detailed planning at our next Strategic planning meeting early next month and until that’s heard we are bound by confidentially and not predetermining an application. Just had the last meeting to determine who gets the Plessey Woods play area contract and it’s been a hard decision. We had around a dozen tenders to go through and each one was weighed against a set scoring card. Eventually it came down to about 3 and then they were revisited and assessed again. Thankfully one came through and I think we were all pretty much convinced it was the better tender. So over the next couple of months there should be some pretty exciting play equipment and upgrades to Plessey. Having gone through a similar process for the Town Council and its 2 play park complete upgrades the behind the scenes work it surprisingly difficult and exacting. Just so considering the money which is being spent. I have to make mention of my almost incessant contact with our planning enforcement team. I am very concerned with the way some developers and behaving and this has culminated in me listing a question about ‘conditions’ at the next full council. Well it seems having voiced an opinion about the current election for WBTC I am being rebuked for not seeing it as an example of democracy in action. Seems a bit ironic getting reprimanded for my take on local democracy off people who have never been elected but isn’t that the way of these things? At some point I hope we start to realise gang culture is wrong in all sorts of fields! That’s all I can write about August really because it has been categorised by a large swell of constituents getting in touch rather than the normal NCC business which I do try and report.
  21. July 2018. 2nd of July and straight into the thick of it again. Full council had been changed and was now on today. Plenty of things to go through on the agenda plus two questions I had submitted. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4tIDjcTsPrM The first one was pretty straightforward with the portfolio holder promising to get me and the other members the contact details for the right people within the various social landlord businesses, especially the largest ones. My second question wasn’t so accommodating. This was the one about the safe drive in’s and drop offs at new schools and having been told there was one included in the new school we at the strategic planning had passed for Loansdean then on further inspection been told we were not allowed to have them, I was somewhat mystified. Well after asking my question the portfolio holder told me on one hand there was such a facility in this new school and in the next breath told me why they couldn’t be included? So when asked if I had a supplementary question my only response was that my original question stood. Clear as mud! I also question the Leader about the £20M a year we have been promised as part of the Devolution Deal. It was £30M a year as far as I understood? He assured me no it was £20M. I have since looked back and both the BBC and ITV reported it originally as a £30M a year deal. I can only assume it changed when the 7 members became 3! Next day it was back up to county hall, first for the community chest panel, which I chair, and then later for a strategic planning meeting. I had been around most of the community groups in my area telling them to apply for the NCC community chest funding and out of 8 applications 6 were from my area! We had just started when the fire alarm went off and everyone had to leave the building. After 40 minutes waiting outside we decided to hold the meeting somewhat apart from everyone else but under the shade of the trees. Couple of problems with two applications but nothing that couldn’t be straightened out. Still feel troubled by the lack of applications and we still have quite a wedge to award out at our last session in September! Next came the planning meeting and yet more houses on the lists. The Alnwick Gardens came up and while I fully supported the project I did ask if better and two way signage could be introduced to show visitors where the Town centre was so those traders might get a lift. I also questioned the business plan which sees the need to turn the attractions into 2 days stays yet only allows for 3 hr parking? I had also made the case for using this to boost our demand for road improvements on the main A1. Another application came through for houses in Amble and in rounding up the application just before the vote I said out of the 1300 houses I have had to give outline planning to in Amble this scheme looked the most needed and sustainable. It has a mixture of 1 and 2 bedroom houses, is adjacent to a modern estate, is getting new bus stops etc and the ‘developer’ is a social enterprise, so a not for profit group! Next up came a site visit for the planning side of our LAC. This was at a stables in Seaton Valley. Really pleased I checked Google maps before I set off. Only 4 of us turned up, myself, Russ, Bill and Christine the chair of the LAC. Once again the 3 Bedlington councillors turned up to discharge their duty yet none from the immediate vicinity! We were taken around and shown the application then it was a very quick dash up to County Hall for the Economic Strategy presentation. Again I was shocked to see only one opposition member had turned up for what is really one of the most fundamental and important policies we as a county council have to put together. The meeting was led by our Economic Strategy officer and there was a good smattering of cabinet members present as well as the Leader and Business Chair. I listened to the proposed changes to our strategy which are being introduced and got the chance to ask questions. I asked what was the definition of these much heralded “better jobs” which we seem to be chasing. I questioned whether it was just down to salary because job satisfaction must have to play a part and some people will feel they have great jobs but not necessarily the highest paid ones. That point was conceded. My second question related to two points in the presentation, one about our area not being a high wage earning area and another about affordable housing. Again I stated this affordable term we are using for housing is in no way accurate, in reality it only means less expensive! I said until we relate local salaries into the affordable nature of our housing then we are doing our people a disservice. I also related the question directly at the Leader saying that if and when we start our social house building programme we have to make it really affordable, and that would be the dictionary definition, in terms of sales and rent for our indigenous young people. My third point was about job creation and it was nice to hear an officer repeat almost word for word what I had said to her previously about the potential our smallest business have in terms of job creation if we can get them to develop to their potential. I said I thought we should start to look at this aging population which we as a county have going on and is forecast to grow even more so in the future. Maybe there are lots of retired people who still want to do something and could well be interested in starting or restarting businesses if we went out and asked? That raised some eyebrows. I had already pressed the point that real sustainable regeneration doesn’t happen because someone wants it to happen in a certain area. It’s about time we realised that and looked at the natural assets each area has which can be exploited to everyone’s benefit instead of seeing the same places get one regeneration package after another, most of which are destined to fail because the simple lessons haven’t been learnt! At the end of the presentation I spoke to the officer at length about these community partnerships which are a central plank in the new policy. I pressed him about how open the authority would be if places came together and presented viable business plans. He said he knew exactly what I was saying and any area would get a full and fair hearing. In my view this is the best chance Bedlington has to see a successor to the Market Place regeneration currently in place. It is certainly something I will be pushing for. This week is the LAC and I have several unanswered questions relating to the last LAC! The LAC once again took place At Netherton Social Club and even getting their early there were no parking places left! I had a feeling all these cars were there for one thing! The planning meeting commenced at 4.30pm as advertised and there were two items which needed to be addressed. The first one was the retrospective permission for the stables and there was plenty of opposition. For my part I listened to all the arguments but most were not planning matters so I had to discount those. The legitimate ones were answered by the officers and we then had it to decide. I proposed acceptance, seeing as no one else was going to risk the wrath of the audience, and this was duly seconded by another member. That meant I had to sum up and doing so countered most if not all of the weak planning arguments which had been presented. The vote came next and it was passed by a majority, with some members voting with their hearts not their heads! The second and even more contentious application came next. This concerned a small parcel of land which the owner wanted to turn into caravan storage. This had actually come to us last year and we had turned it down for two reasons, one overdevelopment of the land and two the impact it might have on the road infrastructure where it was. In my opinion the owner had addressed both issues in this current application. I still thought it a bad idea but couldn’t see any planning reasons to turn it down and I said so. I was certainly not the most popular person in the room then! The vote came and again it was turned down by all the other members, in my case I abstained saying I didn’t like it but couldn’t find legitimate reasons to actually vote it down. I think the owner has been given a gold plated appeal and I would expect to see caravans on there before a year is out. Of course everyone else thought it was a great decision but the wry smile I got off our planners told me differently! One thing was did strike me was the bare faced playing to the audience done by a couple of members. Now I know it’s hard not to address the audience but we are just supposed to address the committee. Watching members quite openly fawn over and almost flatter the audience was a bit queasy and I know how the planners must have felt. After the planning was over and about 80 people trouped out we had our normal LAC. I was very happy to give out presentation plaques again on behalf of the LAC Community Chest. Groups were there to receive them and there are more to come! The main meeting started and several questions from the audience. Some were answered, one or two deemed to have already been answered. The main part of the meeting was to receive an update about the Local Plan. We were taken through various aspects and all my questions were answered, as were others. I was particularly happy to hear my view that ‘Bedlington was now full of new house builds’ was generally agreed with by officers. I also asked about house design. One being some sort of Northumbrian vernacular and the other forcing new houses to be of better standards as far as future proofing and basic stuff like insulation went. Again they were generally accepted. The meeting closed about 7.45pm and I had to run to catch another community one. This week all members were invited to a presentation about Devolution. I went up to County Hall to take part and again mainly cabinet members and admin councillors. Again one opposition member and another independent from the West of the county. One Conservative councillor came in and sat down next to me jokingly saying he didn’t mind sitting next to the troublemaker. I said I consider that a badge of honour given that it was mainly cabinet members! So we were taken through the presentation and I have to say while I still do support the intent some of the detail is far from worked out. Well according to some of the answers I got back anyway. At least I was able to get a better understanding about how this will work and the functions it will contain. I even suggested making Bedlington the central plank in the economic policy for commercial development and job creation. I also spoke about the potential Cambois and North Blyth offer in terms of river usage and developing the potential of the Enterprise Zone. My only reservation was that if the Tripartite authority are looking to expand port facilities will Newcastle and North Tyneside somehow out vote us arguing for investments for the River Blyth. I was assured no because our offer is vastly different from theirs. I honestly hope that is the case. I do think this is something which we might exploit and I will be thinking up ways to put in some suggestions regarding future develop and investment into Bedlington. I went up to the Local Plan presentation held in Bedlington and was slightly bemused when the officer told me the two main topics which people had been asking about. One was the possible Golf Club development and the other the Town Centre regeneration project. I said one I didn’t know anything about because I have kept my distance as I sit on a planning committee and the other I hadn’t heard anything untoward or anything which had been changed. I was surprised when I was told the detailed planning would go in by September with a start date of January next year. That’s wasn’t something I understood to be happening but before I could get the answers off the people who would have them, I needed I had to get over the weekend at work. Unsurprisingly social media here is alight with claims and counter claims for each of those subjects and whilst I can’t get involved with one I can certainly get involved with the other! After the weekend I made some calls and had some meetings lined up to check out what exactly was going on with our Town Centre regeneration. I was assured it was proceeding as planned and that whilst an act of God couldn’t be foreseen everything being equal we will see work start very soon. I explained why I was concerned, and a lot of people in the Town too and there doesn’t seem any rhyme or reason for the planners to have told people there was a long delay? That’s being checked out. I am of the opinion that it’s still a sound goer and whilst there are several reserved matters to be attended to which may incur a slight delay, it will certainly not be months and months. I do have to say I find it a bit strange when people are questioning the exact day, hour and second this development will commence when for the last 50 years we have had nothing like it for the Town. It’s almost like Schadenfreude to some and even though they might have a political reason not to want this to happen surly supporting it for the greater good is the right thing to do? I completely understand why people are hesitant and some even doubting Thomas’s because we have been ‘misled’ for so many years in the past but I hope when this does start and people can see real action they get behind it en masses and prove Bedlington can have a successful development of this type.
  22. Canny lass, John works in archives and publishes just about everything that comes up in connection with Bedlington. This one is taken from "Some men, Murders and Mysteries of Old Bedlington" by Evan Martin.
  23. June2018. First meeting this month was strategic planning. Just before the meeting we had an update off a previous applicant and this was to be held in confidence. When the meeting took place the chair lifted the confidential nature off the presentation and we listened to the director of the company explain the revised thinking which will go into his future planning application. This was about the waste recycling plant along Barrington Road and in the original application extended operating time permission was one of the specifics asked for. My only reservation at that time had been the fact that in my view skip wagons and large container vans were not a good mix with the likes of children on the small ancillary roads leading to the industrial estate. I was concerned that in the darker winter months a 10pm operating time meant that these wagons would be using the same roads as children and whilst this sort of traffic could be expected during the day it wasn’t something which young children would necessarily expect at night. Also the fact that pick-ups at that time could very well be in residential areas and again there was a safety aspect to consider. The director went on to say they were dropping the extended operating time for the wagons and he had invited all the residents who had complained about the application and shown them the revised plan and all were now quite happy. When we were allowed to speak I thanked the director for taking on board the sentiments we expressed at the planning meeting because even though the application was turned down we did ask for the planning department to try and reach a compromise and bring it back. I also thanked him for safeguarding the jobs there and adding several more new ones! I said I would welcome his further revised application. One sad bit to note was that he has talked about an almost £5M investment which had gone into their Chester-Le-Street and when we asked if that had gone down there because of our initial refusal he said it had. So a very salient point to note, these committee meetings quite often do have repercussions and sometimes not in the way we might hope for! The planning meeting started almost immediately and there were several applications to consider. One or two were head scratchers especially the one with revised house numbers in the middle of an industrial estate after we turned it down last year saying no housing on industrial land! One application had us all in agreement, that being the new school build on the old fire station site opposite county hall. I did have concerns, not with the actual school but the vehicular access or rather lack of. I asked the officer why there wasn’t a drive in and drop off point for the children, one which could see traffic disruption minimised on the adjacent main road, a main road beset with traffic jams already. I started to get on my high horse a bit saying here we are building a new school from scratch and we don’t seem to have learnt any lessons about traffic issues. My sails were deflated when the officer said there was a designed drive in and drop off point included in the plans. I said I could only apologise for going on about it and not seeing it was in fact included in the plans, but I would check again. Everyone had a good laugh at my expense but that’s just normal banter! One other member spoke up and said he didn’t see it either! After the meeting I had another look through the application and still I couldn’t see this feature so I stopped the officer in his tracks before he left the chamber and asked him to show me where it was. After some shuffling of papers he said there wasn’t one as such but there was a car park! He went on to tell me NCC actually has a policy banning such drive ins in case it might look like we condone parents taking their children to school in private cars. Well that’s not the answer I got in the middle of the meeting so I sent a mail around all the members who were in attendance telling them the real position. I said I wasn’t complaining but they might understand my future conduct if an officer tries to mislead me! I also said I would be raising what looks like a daft policy decision NCC currently have regarding school traffic. I have since listed it for discussion at the next full council meeting. Why not build in a practical and safe route and drop off and pick up point into all of our new schools? We can still asked parents to think about the ramifications but it looks to me like we are pushing water uphill. We can surly do better when planning new schools. One of the cancelled meetings I had was relisted for this week. This one was the corporate scrutiny committee with one thing really on the agenda, Arch. In fact it was the recommendation to move all the holdings of Arch into a new company, Advance Northumberland, and rejig its remit so it was solely concerned with Northumberland matters. There were at least two cabinet members there to present to us and the Leader of the opposition was there in a none contributory role taking notes as was the ex-business chair. The deputy leader and ex chair of Arch had been replaced with another member from his political party. As soon as the presentation was over the vice chair started reading out her questions and making some serious allegations. She was reminded that we were not in parliament and had no parliamentary privilege and was asked to withdraw her allegations. After some huffing and puffing she did. When I was able to ask my questions I contained myself to the presentation and the agenda we had been sent out. We had heard about serious threats and exposure currently held by Arch so I asked if adequate risk assessments had been carried out and if these risks had in any way been mitigated seeing as we were taking about bringing the company closer into the council’s realm. My answers came not just off the cabinet members but also the chief executive. The reality was that yes risks had been mitigated as best they could and some had to be quarantined but many were inherent in the business model adopted by Arch. In other wards extremely poor governance. This was starting to sound like the Active Northumberland debacle on steroids! My second question was about business development both commercial and in some cases social. I asked if any area came forward with a viable business plan would they get a fair hearing for once or like as has always been are there only designated areas going to see investment. I was assured that all areas would be treated the same. I said that’s good then we might see the natural assets all of our areas have exploited for maximum benefit instead of the usual artificial regeneration imposed on favoured areas. My last question was about the scrutiny which had been so lacking during the course of Arch. It was stated real and additional scrutiny would be introduced for the new company and I wanted to know a bit more about that. I said mixing policy and scrutiny with business decisions had got us into this mess and clear lines and understanding was needed. The vote in favour of allowing transferring the Arch business into the new company was taken and agreed with only three of the labour members against and one other abstaining. At the moment I have several constituents with specific housing problems. These have taken quite a bit of my time recently but that’s what I said I would do when I stood. Just heard that one has been resolved and I’m really pleased with the result. I’m waiting to hear if another had had the result she needed. After some consideration I have submitted two questions for the next full council meeting next month, one about planning and the other social landlords. Here are the questions verbatim: Question 1 from Councillor M. Robinson to Councillor Riddle. “I have been getting a lot of contact from my constituents about their housing needs and concerns. I know it’s not really something we as a council have control over because the vast majority of the properties in question in my ward belong to a separate social landlord. Irrespective of how many times I say it, the perception out there is that they are still council houses. I believe these social landlords still carry a social responsibility but sometimes it’s not the easiest thing getting them to accept that fact. After many attempts to try and get to the right person to deal with my issues and in a lot of cases not really getting past the front desk, my question is can we not have someone within our housing department who can be a liaison point for all members in their initial interactions with social landlords? They should hold direct contact details with the people who are tasked to oversee these problems within their respective organisation. “ Question 2 from Councillor M. Robinson to Councillor Riddle. “During a recent Strategic Planning meeting we heard the application for the new school which is to be built over there. Every member was supportive and just about as passionate as the head teacher obviously was. My only concern was the traffic issue, specifically the lack of a drive in, drop off in safety and drive out again facility. One which in my view should keep traffic flowing and take out any need for parents to stop on the main road to decant their children. I have exactly those sorts of problems in and around my ward and I bet most members do, but here we are building a new school from scratch and in that context I think a bit more thought should be applied to alleviate these problems. I was initially informed this was the case and this had been factored in. On later investigation, I found this wasn’t the case and the Council actually has a policy forbidding them. The reason we have this policy is so we don’t seem to be condoning parents taking their children to school in private vehicles. The reality is that many parents do take their children to school in their own cars, and that’s causing havoc in and around schools at start and finish times. My position is that instead of waging some sort of subliminal war where we don’t do something in case it looks like we condone it, shouldn’t we be practically managing the issue in real time, certainly as far as new builds are concerned? My question therefore is can we revisit the policy currently in place which forbids us, at a planning stage, from looking at practical and reasonable solutions to this problem?” Well next up was a Local Government Pension Scheme Panel meeting. Again a great voluminous pile of paperwork came out with the agenda, most of it on pink papers which are strictly confidential. It took several days to wade through these reports and in reality there were only a few resulting questions. The meeting started at 9.30am and I met the chair beforehand when he informed me only he and I had turned up out of all the committee members. That meant we were not quorate but one other member had said he would be a bit late so we contended ourselves doing some necessary committee housework until our other member turned up. So the Conservative chair had to rely on two independent councillors to hold quite an important meeting. Might make anyone consider commitment right there! Anyway we had a morning presentation and an afternoon one. After the presenters had left we held our decision making bit of the meeting and one item in particular interested me. I told them they knew my position as I have said for the last 6 months I would prefer to bank some of the incredible gains we had seen recently so taking a more guarded approach and trying to insulate some of the portfolio from a potential market readjustment would get my vote. This time it was agreed as a sub strategy! Given everything I have seen and heard about, that is a very sensible option……at last! I also asked about mortality rates given there is something of a spread throughout our county. Heck of a busy end to this week and into next week with 6 meetings, full council and my surgery in the next 5 days! Last meeting of this month and it was a strategic site visit, first to Alnwick Gardens then onto Amble. The planning meeting is next week so this will be fresh in our minds.
  24. May will be published but in a different format.
  25. Dont know if you have read this Canny lass but try these......... Thanks to John Krzyzanowski and his Bygone Bedlington page.
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