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?)
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.
Councillor Malcolm Robinson.
Northumberland County Council.