Could a town council be fit for purpose AND affordable?

Some very pertinent comments and observations on the subject of a town council for Spalding, but there is a need to always keep in mind the cost of this. Are the people of Spalding prepared to see the charge of £23, currently identified as the Spalding Special Expenses, double, just for the pleasure of saying, ‘we have a town council’?

I say double, because even though the SSE stands at £209,000 and doubling it would take it to £418,000, which seems excessive, one has to use a worse case scenario, in order not to get a very nasty shock once any town council is established. I would anticipate the need to employ at least three full time staff for a town the size of Spalding. Given that one of our towns has just employed a new parish clerk at a cost of some £27k, to which they will need to add 20% at least, to cover employment costs, it doesn’t take much to see that the numbers roll up very quickly.

I also have a suspicion that, once any town council was in place, SHDC non-Spalding members would soon start to identified items of Spalding based expenditure, that they felt should be on the town council’s books and not on South Holland District Council’s.

Don’t get me wrong, when I first joined the district council, I was amazed to find that Spalding was unparished and that the district council controlled everything via the SSE. As I was in the privileged position of being the chairman of the newly resurrected STF, I did ask for the possibility of a town council to be explored. Even back then, a figure of £40k had been spoken of previously. This on a SSE, at the time, of approximately £85k. This figure was however questioned by some members, who believed that SHDC had manufactured that number as a scare tactic, in order to kill off the process. This at a time when the council was controlled by independents – I’ll leave it at that.

Recently, I did look at this issue again and even wrote to several town councils in the area, asking if they could give me some idea of their running costs. Unsurprisingly, none of them wrote back – parish and town councils have a reputation for being less than transparent in such matters. One council I did look at more closely, in order to draw some parallels, was Sleaford. According to their master plan, Sleaford has a population of around 17000, approximately half that of Spalding – Sleaford Town Council has a staff of SIX and 17 elected members. I don’t know how much SHDC would wish to charge a town council for office space, but I do know that it would not be free.

Wimbledon is showing on the TV as I type this, so I could be tempted to claim game, set and match on this question, simply based on affordability. However, things are never that simple. One has to accept that the will of the people could well outweigh purely financial considerations, especially if the right question is asked of them.

Instead of looking for conventional solutions to this perceived democratic deficit and given the financial depression most taxpayers find themselves faced with, is there another way to achieve the desired outcome? The Localism Bill introduced a right to challenge, perhaps a group of local people should start looking at ways of using this as a cost effective way of addressing this issue, in part at least.

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Cut until only the tip of the iceberg remains – surprise! it sinks

Not sure if the first paragraph of this article is ambiguous by accident or design – I can’t figure out who, or what the ‘they’ is. I hope it means the ministers who need the reality check, because I can assure you that councils don’t need any help realising how desperate things are set to become.

Acknowledgement to Ruth Keeling of Local Government Chronicle

Ministers have been warned that popular council services could be lost forever unless they take a “realistic review” of what local government does and how it is funded.

Publishing the results of the first serious attempt to model the funding outlook for councils over the next spending review period, the LGA issued a bleak forecast of a growing multi-billion pound shortfall between the demand for services over the next decade and the resources available to fund them.

The report accepts that cuts in the next spending review could be equal to the 28% reduction in funding seen in this spending period as the government continues to tackle the budget deficit.

Using “optimistic” assumptions of councils’ other income streams as well as demand for services, the association says the funding shortfall is set to reach £16.5bn a year by 2019-20.

That annual funding gap represents a 29% shortfall across all services, but is calculated to rise to 66% if social care and waste collection are fully funded.

Similar protection for capital financing and concessionary travel fares would result in a 90% funding shortfall for other services.

Polling conducted by YouGov this month suggested two such services – libraries and leisure facilities – were the most popular with the public, with 39% and 27% of adults respectively claiming to have recently used them, compared with 11% who said elderly care services.

LGA chairman Sir Merrick Cockell (Con) said: “By the end of the decade, councils may be forced to wind down some of the most popular services unless urgent action is taken to address the crisis in adult social care funding.”

At the heart of the funding crisis is the rising cost of such care, which the LGA predicts will equal almost half of all spending by the end of the decade. It warned that its estimates were “extremely conservative”, with some councils “modelling social care demand growing at twice the rate of our assumptions”.

The document, released at the LGA conference on Tuesday, represents the organisation’s opening gambit as the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government begin to plan for the next spending review period.

It will also raise images of the BBC documentary, The Street That Cut Everything, where residents attempted to do without council services entirely.

As well as calling for reform for social care funding and the repealing of some of the 1,300 statutory duties to which councils are subject, the LGA has called for the joint working being tested in the Community budget pilots and the troubled families programme to be implemented more widely.

Solace’s policy and communications director Graeme McDonald said the report painted a “bleak picture” and warned the squeeze on highways, planning and economic development would make economic growth even more difficult.

He warned that the funding gap would open up more quickly in different areas of the country. “There is a diversity of crisis, but crisis it is,” he said.

Stephen Hughes, chief executive of Birmingham City Council, said ministers had to “express a view on what is more or less important”. He added: “We have got to have a proper conversation about priorities.”

The LGA report made it clear that, with central services accounting for just £3bn a year, the challenge could not be met simply through efficiency savings.

However, local government minister Bob Neill continued to call for savings. “Councils must make savings by sharing back offices, getting more for less from the £60bn a year procurement budget, using their £10bn of reserves, tackling the £2bn of local fraud, or reducing in-house management costs,” he said.

LGA assumptions
Council tax frozen until 2014-15 and then growing by 2% per year, although the LGA notes this “may be optimistic” and council tax could rise by less

Business rate income to grow at 3.5%, in line with Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts

Central share of Business Rates to be returned to local government in 2013-14 and 2014-15 and grants to be allocated in line with total funding set in 2010 spending review

Total funding beyond 2014-15 to be reduced by £17.6bn by 2020, “broadly similar” to reductions in 2010 spending review

Reserves to be drawn down through to 2013-14 but then rebuilt in case of volatility in business rate income

Efficiency savings of 2% per year tapering to 1% per year by end of period

A town council for Spalding?

As request here are some intial thoughts on the question of a council for Spalding.  To start the ball rolling, I have reproduced an entry I made in January 2008.

Spalding Special Expenses – Here we go again!

We had a special meeting of the cabinet today, mainly to approve various financial papers.  One of these was a consultation document on the Draft General Fund Revenue (GF) account.  Just like all things financial in local government, including the names they call things (GF!) the information (sorry data, information suggests useful data that makes sense!) is pretty impenetrable, unless you happen to be an accountant.  In my case, having the numeracy skills of a flip flop doesn’t help, so I’m normally the one asking the stupid questions.  Anyway, one of the items in the document was the Spalding Special Expenses and this is the prompt for my latest ramblings.

Spalding doesn’t have a parish or town council, but it does have the equivalent of a parish precept called Spalding Special Expenses (SSE).  This amount makes up a very small part of a Spalding resident’s council tax bill, but actually generates a great deal of debate at this time of year.  The proposed increase this year is about 4.17% or 1.6p a week, making the average total SSE this year £21.49.  Chicken feed most people would say, but even a small amount collected from a lot of people adds up to quite a bit of money (approx £183,000).   However, the underlying issue is how this figure is arrived at, who decides it and what it should be spent on.

The final decision rests with the district council, because Spalding doesn’t have a parish or town council and this is where the debate really gets going.  We have a Spalding Town Forum made up of elected members and some local organisation representatives.  However, it has no executive powers and can only make recommendations to the district council, which can of course choose to ignore them.

Should Spalding have a parish/town council?  I joined the district council in May 99 believing that Spalding should indeed have its own council, after all, how could so many people, 22,000+ then, be so under-represented compared to all of out smaller towns and villages?  However, now that I’ve doing this for a while, I’m less sure of the merits of this, especially when it comes to unravelling the finances, setting it up and paying the admin costs.  A major cost would be employing a clerk in the same way parishes do.  How much? £10k, £15k, £20k, who knows until it actually happens?  Finding a place to call home (an office) could cost anything from £2k to £10k.

What will the people of Spalding get for their money if they had a town council?  Apart from direct control over some very limited areas of council business, maintenance of Spalding Cemetery, Monks house Lane, Hailey Stewart and the provision of Christmas decorations to name a few, not a great deal as it stands!  However, once you have a parish or town council, theoretically the sky’s the limit (that’s a scary thought in itself).  

So, as far as I’m concerned the jury is still very much out on this issue and given the lack of feedback from the public of Spalding, I think it’s going to remain out for some time to come! 

If you want to know more about the issue of creating a parish/town council see: http://www.nalc.gov.uk/About_NALC/What_is_a_parish_or_town_council/What_is_a_council.aspx

Spalding Special Expenses Account –  Published for consultation purposes

  

 

Original 2007/08

  

Draft 2008/09

  

  

  

 

Budget

  

Budget

  

Variance

 

 

£

 

£

 

£

SpaldingCemetery  (see note 1)

 

45,280

 

47,170

 

1,890

Spalding Allotments

 

9,720

 

11,600

 

1,880

   Ayscoughfee (excluding gardens)

 

6,470

 

7,240

 

770

   Halley Stewart (see note 1)

 

31,150

 

41,330

 

10,180

  Thames Road(see note 2)

 

11,990

 

8,430

 

(3,560)

  Fulney Road

 

9,120

 

9,550

 

430

  Monkshouse Lane(see note 3)

 

21,260

 

26,010

 

4,760

Contribution to Voluntary Car Scheme

 

7,700

 

8,000

 

300

Christmas Decorations

 

16,260

 

17,400

 

1,140

Contrib. StMary & StNicolasParishChurch

 

650

 

680

 

30

Contribution to footway lighting (note 4)

 

2,030

 

0

 

(2,030)

Administrative Support

 

3,630

 

3,740

 

110

Bus Shelter maintenance

 

410

 

410

 

0

Spalding Town Centre Promotion (see note 5)

 

4,000

 

2,000

 

(2,000)

Crime prevention (see note 6)

 

2,000

 

0

 

(2,000)

Total Expenditure

  

171,660

  

183,560

  

11,900

Funding

To be funded from Council Tax

 

171,660

 

183,560

 

  

Tax Base

 

8,320

 

8,540

 

  

Band D equivalent

 

20.63

 

21.49

 

  

Council Tax Increase                                                 

 

3.06%

 

4.17%

 

 

  

Balance Brought Forward

 

 

 

2007/08

 

2008/09

 

 

 

 

(36,000)

 

(36,000)

Earmarked for crime prevention

 

 

 

 

 

12,880

Agreed minimum balance 5% expenditure for contingency

 

 

 

8,580

 

9,180

Available Balance

 

 

 

(27,420)

 

 (13,940)

Notes

1. Tree works for Halley Stewart and the Cemetery have been estimated at £3,000 and £8,000 respectively.

2.  A spiking machine for the grounds (£6,000) has been added to Halley Stewart Playing Field.

3.  Maintenance of the Pavilion at Monks House and Legionella testing (£3,900) has been added  to the playing field budget.

4. The budget provision for footway lighting has been removed, since no new lights are currently being planned.

5. The Town Centre promotion budget has been reduced to £2,000, so that the spiking machine can be funded this year and council tax increases maintained.

6. The Crime Prevention budget has been reduced to nil for 2008/09 and balances will be used, should the Herring Lane Car park income not be sufficient to pay for the maintenance of CCTV.  In prior years this budget has not been called upon.

Fuel duty U turn – right reason, wrong outcome

I couldn’t resist resurrecting a previous blog entry, given the recent ‘proposed policy adjustment’, otherwise known as a U turn, by George Osborne.  Much as I hate to admit it and I have no doubt this would incur the wroth of most driving readers (if there were any, readers that is, not drivers), but I think fuel should be more expensive for most non-HGV vehicles- why?  Please read on.  

Eco driving tests – Recently resurrected as an issue by some government spokesperson or other – what a joke this one is!  Talk about wishful thinking.  Witness the driving style of just about anyone, anywhere and you will soon realise that, for some reason best known to the human being when behind the wheel of a car, it doesn’t cost any money to put your foot down.  This is even more so the case when you see young drivers in their beloved hot hatch.  I work(ed) (as of Nov 11)  in an office that overlooks the roundabout outside the Morrison’s supermarket atWardentree Lane.  And before you say it, no I don’t spend all my time looking out of the window to see this, I don’t need to, I can hear it even with the double glazed windows closed.  

For some reason, and younger drivers seem to be some of the worst, crossing over the roundabout and heading towards Pinchbeck causes drivers to launch their vehicles in to what Captain Kirk would call warp factor 8.  The 40 mph limit goes out of the window and the wide open road bekcons, as drivers floor the accelerator pedal in an effort to see how fast they can get to the t-junction, whilst at the same time over taking anything that gets in their way.  Given the fact that eco-driving has been in the test since about 2006 and was being pushed when I did my instructor training, it hasn’t made any difference yet!

Good idea moment – Let’s replace all the speedometers with poundometers (nobody seems to use the speedo anymore anyway).  Instead of showing the speed we’re doing, it would show how much fuel is being used in pounds and pence.   Likewise, the fuel gauge could be calibrated to show how much a full tank of fuel costs – some boffin can figure out how this would automatically calibrate itself every time the fuel price increases.  So, if we filled our car up, the needle would point to £70 at today’s prices.  Each mark on the gauge would be about a £5, so as all those non-eco drivers hoffed along theWardentree Lane section of Brands Hatch, they could watch the pound notes pouring out of their exhaust pipes.

60 Second Surveys. Let me know what you think

I would like to hear what our taxpayers think about a number of local issues, such as council cuts, anti-social behaviour, litter and speeding .  If you would to contribute please complete this very short survey.  http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/W9BPV3P

I would also like to hear from residents about their views on refuse and recycling in South Holland.  Please complete this very brief survey to make your views known to me. http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/WCVNXQV

Thank you in advance for taking the time to let me know how you feel about local issues.  All information will be treated in confidence.  If I get a meaningful number of responses, I will publish the results.   Please respond by no later than 1st August 2012.

Bristol, we have a problem!

I attended a planning workshop in Melton Mowbray yesterday. It was wrongly named, because there was no work done by those attending, just a lot of listening, with a smattering of heckling. The purpose of this ‘workshop’ was to give elected members, from East Midlands councils, some insight into the planning reforms introduced by the National Planning Policy Framework, or NPPF for short.

Although I already knew that this has always been an issue, I was nevertheless disappointed to hear members confirm their lack of understanding when it comes to the origins of the planning policies used to determine planning applications. Two members, in particular, displayed a lack of understanding about the status of the document we are all being encouraged to work our socks off to produce by April 2013 – the Local Plan.

The first councillor, who admitted she was a new councillor and therefore the planning system, made what I considered an extraordinary and rather damning statement in respect of member training at her council, it went something like this. ‘I don’t think members actually make any decisions when it comes to planning applications, they just ratify what the officers have recommended in the report’. One of the speakers did his best to put her right, but unfortunately was prevented from saying what I was thinking, ‘Madame you are clueless and worse still, clearly incompetent when it comes to serving on a planning committee’.

A second member raised his hand to speak and despite this being a Q&A session, uttered the words that always make my heart sink – ‘It’s just a comment really’. Such opening lines are then normally followed by an irrelevant anecdote, or a claim that his or her council is doing what has said is good good practice, but with bells on. This particular gentleman, didn’t offer either of these, just a criticism that demonstrated his complete lack of ownership, when it comes to the policies being used to determine planning applications in his council. His complaint, was that officers were able to make planning decisions using delegated authority, rather than applications going to committee. He then went on to criticise the lack of any reference to the democratic process in the presentations and that state that councillors are there to represent the people. He clearly felt that having to approve a planning application, when local people had objected, just wasn’t right! The existence of a Local Plan, that made the application acceptable, didn’t seem to matter.

Finally, a very interesting comment came from a speaker who was an elected member from Birmingham. He was lamenting his colleagues practice of making site visits, often to stare at some innocuous residential extension, that was perfectly acceptable and completely in conformity with their Local Plan. Even though he said he enjoyed planning, he doesn’t do it at his council anymore!

These comments, along with several other, ‘Its just a comment really’ contributions, combined with the general tenor of members questions and heckles, confirmed my worst fears. These members have not made the link between the Local Plan they and their fellow councillors have created, the planning decisions made by their officers using delegated authority and the decisions made by members at their planning committee. Put another way, the Local Plan doesn’t belong to them.

Why Bristol? Well that’s where our beloved Planning Inspectorate is based. It is from here that, the DCLG Minister, ‘General’ Eric Pickles, coordinates his army of planning inspectors, charged with confronting the hordes of elected members rejecting planning applications with gay abandon and all under the banner of local democracy and dare I suggest, Localism.

Is regular door knocking a must for councillors?

(An alternative title for this entry could be, ‘If I go looking for problems, I’m bound to find some’.)

I’ve been having an interesting debate with somebody who is kind enough to follow my tweets and even better, offer me some robust and valuable feedback.

This one follows on from the ‘know your councillor’ leaflet discussion, but goes on to look at how proactive elected members should be when it comes to seeking out local issues.

I agree completely with the point being made about the visibility, or rather invisibility, of local councillors. However, that view is based more on being a local taxpayer, rather than a local councillor. As a local councillor, I’ve come to realise just how difficult it is to make, let alone keep, people aware of who you are and what you do.

Local elections are probably the only times sitting councillors actively communicate with every household in their ward. From experience, even having delivered at least three leaflets in a relatively short space of time, plus a post election thank you card, you still meet people who haven’t got a clue who you are, or what you do. I’m not suggesting that this is their fault, just that it demonstrates how challenging it is to make yourself known to people who are busy living their lives.

It’s also my experience that, unless it has a theme that people engage with, holding a public meeting is not particularly effective. Even though we deliver flyers to every household and put up posters, on average, 80 or so people attended our public meetings. On only one occasion, did we achieve a level of response that saw people being turned away, because the school hall we were using wasn’t big enough.

Even if I had the time, would I go door to door, introducing myself to every householder and asking them if they had any problems I could help with? To be completely honest, probably not. Providing I make myself available, give people my contact information in various formats on a regular basis, via leafleting and, as I have done three times in the last year or so, arrange public meetings, then I think I’m doing as much as I personally can.

Armed with my contact details and an invitation to contact me if they need help, whatever the issue, then I think it not unreasonable to expect people to meet me half way and get in touch if they think I can help. You might not agree with me and of course that’s your right, that’s politics.