Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Housing; Your thoughts and concerns....

Artists impression of the entrance to the new Sweyn Close


Throughout the election I have been highlighting some of the key areas of all our lives that Norfolk County Council are responsible for or have an impact upon. I want to get your feedback on these subjects and outline my thoughts and considerations in an online canvassing / debating process. I will share my own thoughts and considerations and I will highlight the relevant sections from the Norfolk wide Labour manifesto. I started with Education, and will move on to discuss housing:

For those that have a home, the issue of housing is likely to be of little concern. But as soon as you may need a home you quickly realise how desperate the situation is.

Up until recently there were over 5,000 people on the housing waiting list in the Breckland area – with approximately 500 properties becoming vacant each year you have some idea of how long it might take until you may be eligible for a property and that is not including the numerous people that will likely be added to the list over that time as a higher priority. The number of people registering as homeless in the District has increased dramatically over the past few years as a result of the economic climate and in addition to this, demand for local Food banks has increased significantly.

The simple truth is we have not been investing in the social / affordable housing stock for years and we are now suffering as a result.

Two key examples;

Right to buy income; Each time a ‘Council house’ is sold in Breckland a portion of that money goes to Breckland Council. In the last 10 years approximately £3.5million has been received in income from right to buy receipts. During that same time just £2million has been spent on new homes by Breckland with the remaining £1.5million disappearing into the general Breckland pot – no wonder our stock of homes has been disappearing and failing to meet our needs as a district. I called on Breckland to ring-fence all right to buy receipts for new housing, but this was rejected.

See letter to Thetford and Brandon Times dates 26.09.12 below:

Council homes sale; Breckland received over £50million in 1993 following the sale of all ‘Council homes’ to Flagship Housing. It is the interest from that money, in part, that has been used to keep Council tax lower than it would otherwise be and money that has been used to purchase assets – Barnham Broom golf club for example. Again, I challenged the Council through the recent budget to have a greater commitment to housing - I was reassured that they agreed that it was a priority and I have a feeling that there will be moves afoot soon at Breckland level for perhaps Breckland to start building housing itself - a welcomed step, but we have a massive backlog that needs addressing.

An important point to make however is that it should not be assumed that all new housing needs to be on greenfield sites - there are many brownfield sites across Thetford in need of regeneration. I have been involved for the last 7 years in the Barnham Cross Regeneration Steering Group that has seen redundant garage blocks converted into social housing, and the appalling properties at Sweyn Close cleared to make way for a much improved development - (although I do have some concerns about the final outcome!), it is certainly a significant improvement. This approach could be replicated elsewhere - regenerating eyesores and providing much needed homes.

Housing is not a Norfolk County Council matter, it is the responsibility of the District Council, however, Norfolk CC can still have a very important part to play in assisting with the creation of new homes. Myself and Brenda Canham lobbied the Norfolk Labour Party to make housing a key manifesto commitment and we were pleased with this addition;

"Norfolk Labour will set up set up a subsidiary company to build small groups of houses throughout Norfolk. This will mitigate the effects of homelessness, rural decline, second homes and rising house prices that have seen local people being priced out of the communities that they were born and brought up in. The company will develop sites which the County Council already own to generate further profits to cross-subsidise the provision of homes in areas where private developers would not be interested".

This follows an effort by George Nobbs (Norfolk Labour Leader) earlier this year on the issue which we very much welcome:


Friday, 19 April 2013

Posters around Thetford

It's really lovely to see so many posters up in windows around Thetford. Thank-you to everybody that has got a poster up. If you would like a poster then please let me know.

Councillor / Canvassing Update - after 1,000 houses canvassed - 19.04.13

I've been pounding the streets for the past week knocking on doors for the Norfolk County Council elections. I've knocked on approx 1,000 doors so far so I think I am getting a good understanding of the issues that people wish to talk about. The two BIG issues by far are the 'King Street Square' and the moving of the Bus Station. Most people are absolutely horrified that so much money was spent on the square and consider it to be a complete waste of money (I agree!). Others have lost faith in voting altogether as a result of the Thetford Parish Poll regarding the future of the Bus station and people are still very angry that it is moving to St. Nicholas Street. Unfortunately these are not issues that whoever wins the election will have much of a say over, and both County Councillors for Thetford will have to make the best of a bad situation! I did not support the moving of the bus station and supported the Parish Poll occurring - even though I know the result would not be binding and Breckland Council / Moving Thetford Forward would be able to ignore the outcome of the poll. However, as I have reminded people this week time and time again, if we were to allow people to do whatever they wanted, or put up no resistance at all, things would be so much worse and there would be a downwards spiral, we must keep working towards the sort of community that we want to live in.

All this canvassing has resulted in a considerable amount of casework that has been collected, that I will attempt to cover below;

For the past 7 days alone....

1. Kimms Belt garage block: These are the garages at Kimms Belt - I have previously reported garages on numerous occasions and I am still holding out hope that Flagship Housing will come up with a more medium / long term solution for them. In the meantime I am hoping that they can at least tidy these ones up and remove this fly-tipping.

2. Pathway problems: The photo below is of a stretch of pathway around Elm Road. I have been nagging Norfolk County Council for years to upgrade the pathways around the Barnham Cross area. This is a Norfolk matter - but I have still been nagging even though I am only a Town & District Councillor. This week I got a fantastic email from the Highways Officer to say that Barnham Cross had been included in forward plans for footpath improvements and the extent of the work would depend on the budgets available - great news, and I am hopeful for a positive outcome.

3. Fir Road Garages: The photo below is of the Fir Road garage block - I have been assured by Flagship that they may finally address this. This particular garage is full of rubbish and is not only a fire risk, but a health and safety one- particularly with the Calor gas cylinder present on top of the garage.

I have also reported fly-tipping in the Elm Road garage block (a mattress) and complained about the build-up of leaves. I've requested that fascia boards on all garage blocks are looked at for repair.

4. Street Furniture issues: I have requested that this metal stump along the top of Almond Grove is removed - I believe it was once a no balls games sign but it has been damaged and now presents a health and safety risk.

I have also been liaising between the Town Council and a group of young people who have constructed their own bench in memory of a young man that tragically passed away. The bench will be installed at the front of Pine Close shops and I am very pleased to say that Town Council staff applied for the necessary licence from Breckland Council for the bench and have constructed the necessary concrete base ready for the bench to be fixed to in the near future. Another Councillor, Corinne Fulford, spoke to the Thetford Garden Centre and managed to get some plants donated that will be planted in the area by the young people themselves. An excellent community initiative that has come from very sad circumstances.

5. Wheelie Bin issues; I made enquiries on behalf of two residents regarding wheelie bins. One resident was £72 and was having to pay extra for Serco to collect his wheelie bin from his property as he was unable to take it to the designated collection area himself. He is in fact eligible for free collection given his age. I also spoke on behalf of a family requiring a larger wheelie bin than the standard size, but unfortunately because of a change in Breckland Council policy (that I opposed!) they will now have to pay £62 to have their bin upgraded to the larger size.

I have also spent a lot of time talking to people about the state of the play areas, education provision generally - including the recent Ofsted report for Thetford Academy. Just two households, out of the 1,000 that I have knocked on - raised immigration and I gladly explained my thoughts on this matter (that will be the subject of a separate blog post altogether!). I have discussed potholes, and the state of the roads generally, and the lack of car parking provision in certain areas, and much much more. Onwards to the next 1,000 doors!!

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Three weeks to go!!! Can you help!!?

with under 3 weeks to go until the Norfolk County Council elections it is not too late for you to offer to help! Can you help deliver any leaflets to your area? knock on doors / telephone voters? do you want a poster to go in your window? Every little bit of support is so very much appreciated and really could make all the difference! Please let me know. Together we can do this!!!

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Living Wage in Breckland

Following discussion with the GMB Union and Breckland Labour Members it was agreed that a motion would be put to Breckland Council calling for the authority to support in principle becoming a Living Wage employer whilst research was undertaken into the financial implications of such a decision. The motion in full was:

"Council notes that a growing number of local authorities are now 
paying more or are committed to pay the Living Wage. The Living 
Wage is a level of pay which is based on the principle of decency 
that work should pay at least enough to provide for the essentials of 
life. Council notes that the Living Wage has been independently set 
nationally at £7.45. 
Council supports the introduction of the Living Wage in principle, for 
all its employees and will undertake a review as to the financial 
implications of such a decision and report to Full Council within 6 
months. Subject to this, Council will work towards accreditation as a 
Living Wage employer and will seek to ensure its contractors and 
suppliers of goods and services do likewise"

The Living Wage was first established in 2001 and it is not a new phenomenon although I am sure that the term will be new to many. The Living Wage is a recommended hourly rate of pay set independently and updated on an annual basis. The Living Wage is calculated according to the basic cost of living in the UK and employers can choose to pay the Living Wage on a voluntary basis. The Living Wage has cross party support, with public backing from both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. 

There are currently 188 employers nationally paying the living wage including a variety of Councils, including many in London, the National Assembly of Wales, as well as Age Concern, City College Norwich, Norwich, Oxford & Preston City Councils and a whole number of relgiious and faith based organisations and political parties. 

We are all aware that we are going through a very difficult economic situation and employees are feeling the strain on their personal and family finances. Wages have not been increasing despite there being a significant increase in people’s outgoings. The quality of life for many hard working individuals and families has been suffering as a result. The Living Wage recognises that a certain level of income is required in order to have a reasonable quality of life, I believe that this is something that Breckland Council should be advocating for its own employees and where possible for its sub-contractors - a decent standard of life is something that we would all want, and is something that our residents deserve. 

An independent study of the business benefits of implementing a Living Wage policy in London found that more than 80% of employers believe that the Living Wage had enhanced the quality of the work of their staff, while absenteeism had fallen by approximately 25%.
Two thirds of employers reported a significant impact on recruitment and retention within their organisation. 70% of employers felt that the Living Wage had increased consumer awareness of their organisation’s commitment to be an ethical employer.
The Living Wage affords people the opportunity to provide for themselves and their families. 75% of employees reported increases in work quality as a result of receiving the Living Wage.
50% of employees felt that the Living Wage had made them more willing to implement changes in their working practices; enabled them to require fewer concessions to effect change; and made them more likely to adopt changes more quickly.

Unfortunately, the Chairman choose not to allow debate on the item, but to refer it to Committees for discussion, which will then refer the matter back to Full Council for approval, or not. It wasn't dismissed out of hand, just kicked into the long grass for the time being!

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Council in talks over Charles Burrell School site

Bedroom tax focus group

Myself and Councillor Brenda Canham recently hosted a visit to Thetford by Richard Howitt MEP. He had contacted us some weeks earlier wanting to hear about local examples of how people were being affected by the 'bedroom tax'. We arranged to meet with several residents at the Abbey Neighbourhood Centre so that they could explain first hand to Richard what their experiences were. I must confess, I knew that the bedroom tax was a bad policy, but I had not fully grasped the implications that it may have and the discussion was a real eye opener and it certainly put a very personal edge on the situation.

To give you an idea, let me explain some of the personal circumstances that were discussed.

For one individual, he was recovering from alcoholism and after waiting for some time in a hostel, he was offered a 3 bedroom property - this is a man on his own. He did not apply for, he did not need, and he did not want a 3 bedroom property - but this is all that was available and therefore he had to accept. He is currently in arrears with his rent as he has been struggling to pay all of his bills due to complications with his benefits - he's been relying on Food Banks and friends to get by. He cannot now move to a smaller property as no exchanges are allowed when people are in arrears with their rent. He will now be hit by the bedroom tax, losing a significant proportion of his income, pushing him further into debt, and where that will end up, who knows?

Individual 2 - a victim of domestic abuse - put into a hostel with her daughter after leaving an abusive husband, and eventually rehoused after enduring some difficult conditions at the hostel. Only a 3 bedroom property available - now going to be hit by the bedroom tax.

Individual 3 - wife disabled and more often than not they have to sleep in separate bedrooms because of the condition. Son away at university, but comes home during holidays etc. Apparently they have 2 spare rooms - and will be 'taxed' accordingly.

Time and time again the debated centred around the fact that there were not the 1 or 2 bedroom properties available. So often recently those in social housing have been accused of "hogging" larger houses than they need when in reality, the distinct lack of a mix of social housing is the real reason that spare rooms exist. The fact that this policy does not even apply to pensioners as well just highlights how completely unfair and ill-conceived it is. 

Some Tories have responded to this all by belittling the argument - "don't you know when a tax is a tax?" - so what? I know it's not a tax, . its commonly referred to as the 'bedroom tax' and there is a very real issue that needs to be discussed rather than being trivialised.