Thursday, 25 February 2016
Busy week for Council meetings! Today was Breckland Council budget setting and Council Tax meeting. Here's the key points raised by myself and fellow Labour Councillor Harry Clarke.
Breckland Council Budget – 25.02.16
Firstly, I feel Breckland has been quite risky but also quite fortunate in relation to Council Tax. Not increasing it previously and taking advantage of the Freeze Grant has resulted in the Government effectively paying a greater extent for services locally than they might otherwise have done so – this is something we would of course welcome. But the Council has been lucky this year that when additional money is needed that they’ve been able to increase by greater than 2% to offset the fact that the baseline figure hasn’t risen over previous years and with the freeze grant not available it makes sense to increase. Even with this increase there are savings that need to be made and the Labour Group has been actively supporting the transformation programme.
Whilst politically it would be easy to criticise a Breckland increase in Council Tax of such a percentage, I won’t do so. Frankly its necessary to do so. My only disappointment however is that residents are going to be hit simultaneously by increases from the County, District, Police Commissioner and in my case the Town Council, all in one go. (Note" Band D households in Thetford will be asked to find an extra approx £60 a year in Council Tax at a time of wage stagnation and decreasing living standards). It is clear that these are very deliberate tactics by the Government to shift the burden of funding services to Councils and to local people.
Now as members may be aware, the Government changed the way the Council Tax benefits system works in 2013 and gave Local Authorities the ability to implement localised council tax support schemes – I have details of the Breckland scheme here. In short, we provide 100% support to qualifying pensioners, quite rightly so, and do not give discounts for second homes and we do support military personnel, again rightly so. Where we do not support fully however is working age people. Qualifying people are only supported up to 70% of the cost. Given the increases we’re looking at today and what other authorities are increasing by, I feel that should also adopt that 100%. In short, we must do more to support working people who are struggling to get by. As the Foodbank in my ward revealed recently, 50% of their claimants in the last 12 months have been working people. So often dubbed the working poor. So, the Breckland Labour Group would like to propose;
Proposal: Breckland Council to review its localised Council tax support grant scheme and review the financial impact of providing 100% support for ‘working age persons’. Report to be brought forward to a future Full Council meeting.
Without such a proviso, we would be unable to support these proposals as presented.
Specific budget amendments:
1. Budget amendment from Councillor Harry Clarke - Locality budgets: Several other Councils provide members with a locality budget whereby they can support community initiatives in their ward. The amount available varies per area, but in an authority close to me, namely West Suffolk, they make £2,500 for each member to spend in their ward on projects. Breckland is proudly a member led Council. This amendment would give all Councillors the opportunity to support community projects in their areas, assisting their roles as community champions. It would also help ensure every corner of the District receives support from the Council and would no doubt help lever in additional funds from elsewhere. Therefore Mr Chairman, I’d propose earmarking £98,000 from the underspend in this financial year for a one year pilot to establish locality budgets for all 49 Councillors.
Amendment: Propose earmarking £98,000 from the underspend from this current financial year to fund a one year pilot to establish locality budgets for all 49 Councillors.
2. Budget amendment from Councillor Terry Jermy - Fairfields, Thetford: You will note in your report on page 88, there is to be £35,000 received by Breckland Council for the sale of land at Fairfields in Thetford. This has caused considerable concern locally as much used play space will be lost in an area with already limited play opportunities. I’d like to propose that rather than this money going into the general capital fund that it is ring-fenced for this area to be spent on a capital play project in the future to off-set this loss in play space and to help alleviate some of the considerable traffic concerns that exist.
Amendment: Ring-fence £35,000 from sale of land at Fairfields for future play equipment project within the Fairfields vicinity and to help alleviate traffic issues generated by the development being allowed to proceed.
Tuesday, 23 February 2016
Letter regarding fly-tipping sent to Thetford and Brandon Times
Further to the letter last week from Jane Bishop, I wanted to write and respond on behalf of the West Thetford Community Fly-tipping project which was referred to. This is a pilot project undertaken diligently by Barbara Bysouth, which has been making important strides forward in recent months. The project was born out of partnership working between the Safer Thetford Action Group, local resident associations, Breckland Council and Flagship Housing Association. Part of the project is indeed about reporting incidents of fly-tips, but more importantly it’s about encouraging others to report them too so that items can be removed promptly and they become less of a common sight and therefore the very presence of fly-tips does not become an acceptable norm. If we as a community are to tackle fly-tipping the solution I feel is about changing hearts and minds and indeed culture. Partly through enforcement and partly through education. For example, work is ongoing to highlight what can and cannot be taken to the waste recycling centre and what can and cannot go in which wheelie bin for example. Rarely in my role as a Councillor do I come across a fly-tip which could not have actually been dealt with through one of those routes which is why I do not agree with the view that fly-tipping is predominantly because of restrictions for legitimate disposal. More often it’s the result of sheer laziness, a lack of pride in ones community and the knowledge that enforcement and therefore repercussions are unlikely. Part of the project has been to engage in regular community walkabouts and identify evidence within fly-tipped material so that follow up action can be taken, and as a result, several residents have been contacted and investigations are ongoing. Further to this, at our most recent Fly-tipping Project Management Group meeting, we heard about some very encouraging work due to take place in local schools whereby children will be investigating the impact on communities because of fly-tipping, what the law says including fines that exist and how to dispose of items responsibility. This mix, together with generally working to improve pride in our communities will hopefully help reduce such incidents occurring, but sadly it will never of course remove the scourge that is fly-tipping but that should not dissuade our efforts. The ‘report it’ function on the Breckland Council website is an easy to use method for reporting a number of common community matters and I’d urge people to give it a try – (www.breckland.gov.uk/content/report-it).
Councillor Terry Jermy (Labour)
Chairman, West Thetford Community Fly-tipping Project Management Group
Norfolk County Council Budget Speech - 22.02.16
I did not stand for election to cut services, or to reduce them. I didn't stand for election to support redundancies or make the lives of the people of Thetford or indeed Norfolk more difficult than they already are. I stood for election and indeed I am involved in politics to help ensure all people in our communities are supported whenever that support is needed. In short, like so many of here, for me being a Councillor is about improving people's quality of life.
It's somewhat a juxtaposition then that In many ways I’m relieved with the budget before us today.
Quite frankly it could have been so much worse, but that said there’s still numerous things that I would have preferred to not be in this budget.
But our preferences as Councillors count for little, they can merely shape, not define the final outcome. The ultimate determining factor is the financial envelope in which we have to work and given the commitment to austerity that the national government has adopted, that envelope is reducing.
I look round to other Councils and what services they’re being forced to cut, it soon dawns upon me how much worse still things could have been for us here in Norfolk. In many other Council areas there’s been some very significant cuts. Whether it be fire stations likely to close in Suffolk, significant bus service cuts in Hertfordshire or ending the mobile library service entirely in Cambridgeshire.
It's the nature of politics isn't it that you have to blame whoever is in control and attach bad decisions to their leadership - the Conservative Group today obviously attempt to paint all of the cuts here in Norfolk on the Alliance, but lets face it, if things were different, and if the Conservative Group were running the Council, there would still be cuts needing to be made – just like in those Conservative Councils I’ve mentioned.
As far as I'm aware those councils didn't have to spend millions on botched incinerator contracts. With that in mind, I'm not surprised our Conservatives don't want to kick the can down the road - they want to incinerate it!
And it’s not just authorities in East Anglia:
As this person outlines - and I quote: “I was disappointed at the long list of suggestions floated in the briefing note to make significant cuts to frontline services” – that was the Prime Minister, commenting on Oxfordshire County Councils cuts. And as the Conservative Leader of Oxfordshire highlighted, Government grants there have fallen from £194million to £122million, a drop of 37% or £72 million in 5 years.
As Ian Hudspeth, the Conservative Leader of Oxfordshire highlights –😃
"these cuts are being driven centrally by the Government, who have reduced funding to local Councils"
As a report commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation discovered, the cuts in some areas are so extreme that local authority provision is now being reduced to little more than social care, child protection and other core services, while the budgets for libraries, museums, galleries, sports facilities, small parks and playgrounds, children’s centres, youth clubs, after-school and holiday clubs, planning and environmental quality have already been slashed to the point at which these can barely function.
Simarly, Conservative controlled LGA” “Councils have worked hard to shield residents from the impact of funding cuts. However, efficiencies cannot be remade or buildings resold,” they say.... Report goes on to describe the services which bind our communities together and protect the most vulnerable... Are being eroded.
Now of course as an authority we should be looking to become more entrepreneurial, we should look to increase income opportunities, drive down costs and maximise efficiencies – and much of that is already on being done but the cold hard truth of the matter is that if you cut funding to local services to the point which has happened, then services will inevitably suffer and residents will inevitably suffer too. I can only assume that this transition money is a recognition that the cuts have gone too far too quickly.
This is not the budget speech I'd like to give. I'd like to be able to argue for funding to be restored so that we can once again have a Norfolk Youth Service and a Connexions service that was cut by previous Conservative administrations, I'd like to be about to argue for County street lights out in my division to be switched back on after midnight - something which is of concern to people in my division who undertake shift work, and people who are concerned about the fear of crime. Or perhaps I could use my time to argue to the boost adult education service which has been cut in Thetford with the sale of Tanner House.... But I can't.
Given the context Mr Chairman, given where we are financially, I'm reluctantly prepared to support this budget as presented but not as an endorsement of austerity or the Governments contempt for local government but because I recognise I have a duty to perform as an elected member, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.