Friday, 11 May 2012

My speech to Thetford Town Council on the 24th April 2012 regarding the Thetford Area Action Plan - the Council voted 8-4 to agree that the TAAP is 'unsound' and wrote to the Government Inspector outlining our concerns. The 4 members voting to support the TAAP were Conservatives....

Some months ago as a Council, we debated our increasing concerns regarding the Thetford Area Action Plan and in particular the excessive growth to the North of the town. Recently, I spoke on behalf of the council at the examination in public and outlined my concerns regarding the lack of planned regeneration to existing areas of Thetford, concerns I know that are shared by many councillors.

As a Council, we have formally objected to the outline planning application regarding the concentration of housing being built to the North. We have also discussed concerns about the loss of a very important community facility when the Charles Burrell site closes. We’ve also debated the free bus service for the new development, and compared it to the lack of services for other areas. This list of inequalities could go on....

Recently, we have heard how the Leader of Breckland Council intends to advocate the removal of the 40% target for affordable housing as part of the development to the north of Thetford and instead allow developers to make a financial contribution. Increasing regeneration sounds laudable enough – but these proposals are very dangerous as they would accelerate the creation of a two tier Thetford with a much greater concentration of private homes to the North and an increased concentration of social housing to the South. We have already seen the start of this intensification of social housing with the garage court developments around Barnham Cross and the Sweyne Close improvements – all entirely social housing.

At the examination in public Breckland officers explained that the intention to allow growth was to facilitate regeneration – if this indeed was the motivation then one would have hoped for a much greater emphasis on this and some more concrete proposals. The lack of a Town Centre masterplan is a major concern as is the lack of sufficient energy resources for the new development which have still not been resolved.

As a Council, I believe we need to make clear our frustration at these proposals and I would therefore propose that come to a collective view that we consider this document to be unsound.

I would further suggest that as a council, we join with the Thetford Society and the Shadwell Estate who have come to a similar position and that we write to the inspector to formally outline this decision before the official judgement is published in the near future.

Examination in public; Thetford Area Action Plan

As an elected representative of many of the existing areas of Thetford that Policy TH36 would seek to address, and as a resident of these areas since birth, I find the policy greatly offensive for its hypocrisy and I dismay at the continuing reluctance of Breckland Council to commit in any firm way to meaningful regeneration of the areas of Thetford that require such urgent attention. Areas after all, ranked within the top 10% most deprived in the UK.

My fear is that Thetford will grow to the North, the housing will of course be shiny and new, homes will be well insulated, many with renewable technologies. The inadequacy of our existing estates will be highlighted to a greater extent than they already are. I have no confidence that this policy has any realistic chance of helping to address this situation and preventing further decline of these areas.

Concerns about a two tier Thetford have already been expressed, the sustainable urban extension will only be sustainable within its own parameters, but what to me is crucial is how this development links with Thetford itself. That cohesion will ultimately determine the success or failure of this growth.

I’d like to outline a few recent examples that demonstrate why this policy needs to be far more robust than it is and demonstrate why it is that I am concerned about the policy’s lack of detail and commitment, to resolving the potential imbalance across the town.

The opening sentence in the policy speaks of infill / redevelopment – unfortunately, we have seen too much infill, and not enough redevelopment thus far, and I fear that this trend will continue. Car parking areas, garage forecourts and green spaces have been built over – increasing the housing density for areas that are recognised as having too many dwellings already.

I have seen more focus on the pursuit of new dwellings than sincere regeneration. What has taken place thus far has felt like a window dressing exercise, primarily for PR purposes.

The policy contradicts itself when talking about how improvements need to be sympathetic to the existing area, whilst also exhibiting high standards, facets that do not exist currently, and continue to be ignored and flouted by Breckland Council and others. What improvements that have taken place have come after constant effort by the local community who have grown weary and apathetic about the constant talk of action over the last 20 years, only for their hopes to be dashed.

I find particularly frustrating Section B of the policy regarding mixed tenure.
There was a new housing development that took place on the Barnham Cross estate, it in-filled land that was used as green open space and used by local youngsters, the new development created 66 new units – all for social rent, in an area with the highest percentage of social housing units in Thetford. This was despite the best efforts of the local community who campaigned for a mixed tenure development, with units available for sale, and shared ownership. Further, the units were only built to Code Level 3, and the six passive house units – those that were to be high quality, environmentally friendly homes, were even re-planned at the late stage back to a basic code 3.

Hardly the aforementioned mixed tenure, high quality development that meets local needs.

The policy also calls for a “preferably increased amount of play areas”, and recognises that already Thetford is deficient of play area space. Coupled with this deficit, we also endure the most appalling quality of play areas imaginable – with most sites failing the requirements laid down by ROSPA in terms of safety standards, and offering little play value to local families with a simply laughable availability of equipment. Breckland Council has long wanted to foist the play areas onto the Town Council, for a totally inadequate sum of money, which is why I find it particularly frustrating that the report mentions in section 25.13 about Breckland Council wanting to work to increase provision, whilst simultaneously threatening what scarce resource we already have.

The contradictions in the policy are further exacerbated by section 25.10 – indeed, the Thetford Academy will be relocated to the North of Thetford; a further kick in the teeth for those of us in the South. Parents that I represent will now have to send their children from one side of Thetford to the other for school, with no transport plans currently in place. A 6 mile walk each day for most children from areas in the South of Thetford. What is of further concern is that the community looks set to lose the building that is the current school site. This of course has a dual role, being of use to the school and of benefit to the wider community. Further, the swimming pool that is a part of the site looks set to be lost, disadvantaging junior school age children from this area who will now be unlikely to undertake swimming as part of the school curriculum given the distance that will need to be travelled.

If our existing estates are to be improved, and not forgotten, then the policy needs to be far more detailed and far more robust to ensure that those with the responsibility to support our communities actually do so, and that the broken promises and disappointment felt by so many in Thetford does not continue for another generation.

My comments to Town Council re: Sort It on 24.04.12

Councillors, as the Chairman of the Sort It Development Trust I need to declare a prejudicial interest and leave whilst you are debating and voting upon this application for a donation. I am however allowed to make some comments regarding this beforehand.

I would very much urge the council to consider making the donation towards Sort It and to not delay the decision unnecessarily as is currently being proposed. The application asks for £250 to support the creation of a website that would promote local businesses and market traders – this is quite clearly something that the council should be supporting and would be of major benefit to our town and its people. For Sort It to be able to show that they have the backing of their Town Council will greatly assist in obtaining funding from other sources. That simple £250 from this council could be the springboard to much greater pots money.

I believe when this was discussed at the committee there were concerns that a financial projection and a constitution had not been provided but I believe these have now been submitted, so I can see no reason why we could not make a decision to award the money at our meeting this evening, and embrace the momentum that there clearly is with this initiative. Thank-you.

Councillors, this is another debate that I cannot take part in but I just want to outline what this discussion is about as it has become somewhat confusing. Sort It wants to focus on a number projects over the next few months and initially, one of those projects is a night market or food fayre as it is more likely to be. A team from Sort It has been working on this project and they have the support of the current market superintendent who brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the team which is to be commended. The plan would be to run the fayre on a Tuesday evening, primarily focusing on food stall retailers rather than traditional market stalls. At this stage, the idea is little more than that – an idea. The team first need to secure the support of the council before developing the proposal any further I am hopeful that the council can give its backing this evening and task officers to work with the team so that the concept can be taken forward to the next stage.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Recent newspaper clippings; 8th May 2012

Published letter re: Councillor expenses

Letter regarding Senior Councillor expenses

Further to the article last week regarding the new Breckland Council Cabinet appointments, I would also like to add my congratulations to Councillor Ian Sherwood and Elizabeth Gould upon joining the Cabinet and to thank those departing Councillors whose services are deemed no longer required. I would however like to pick up on one point in the article. Leader of the Conservative run Council Mr Nunn states; “As we face unprecedented challenges in local Government...” Indeed, Breckland like many other authorities are looking to cut services in response to diminishing funds being handed to them by Central Government. Whilst looking at his Cabinet, Mr Nunn should also be looking at how much those Councillors that hold these positions actually get paid. A Breckland Cabinet member gets £11,050 annually – on top of the £5,200 they get paid for being a Councillor. This compares very favourably to the £6,600 that the same position gets in Kings Lynn & West Norfolk Borough Council, the £5,700 in St Edmunsbury and the £4,600 in South Norfolk. In addition to this, Breckland Cabinet members get an additional level of support through the ‘Executive Support Member’ role, the Councillor that holds this post gets an extra £1,850 a year on top of their Councillor salary – this is a role that does not exist in many councils and one has to wonder why it is required particularly when Cabinet members themselves are paid so well. Indeed, as Leader of Breckland, Mr Nunn gets an additional £20,700 a year (plus his £5,200) whilst the Leaders of Kings Lynn & West Norfolk (£14,760), St Edmunsbury (£10,638) and South Norfolk (£9,250) are all paid considerably less. Mr Nunn of course also gets an additional £8,929 annually for also being a Norfolk County Councillor. Should Breckland not be following the Government’s line of “we’re all in this together” and looking to reduce their own allowances, especially if they are looking to make drastic cuts to the services provided to local people. Councillor salaries are often regarded as a ‘cheap shot’ when looking for cuts, however, I am a strong defender of councillors receiving a remuneration for the many hours work that they put in – indeed, I would not be able to undertake my role as a Councillor if it were not for the £5,200 that I receive and the extra £2,600 that I receive for being Leader of the Opposition (strangely somewhat less that neighbouring authorities) but that remuneration should be fair and balanced and when compared to neighbouring areas, clearly that is not the case currently.