Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Lib Dems have no excuse on City budget mess

In yesterday's Cambridge Evening News, the Lib Dem leader of the City Council is bemoaning the effects of the Government's concessionary bus fares scheme on City Council budgets - our local (Lib Dem) MP is apparantly going to raise the matter.

If this really is news to our MP, then what on earth have the Lib Dems been doing for the months that this problem has been known about? - we discussed it here last August.

The fact is the Lib Dems are now desperately trying to plug a hole in the City Council's budget of well over £1m pounds. Concessionary bus fares is doubtless in the news this week to try deflecting blame away from them ahead of Thursday's budget meeting. But the problems are not just due to this issue, the one they are (correctly) blaming on the government, but more crucially on issues that they have absolutely no excuses for - the £618k of Folk Festival cash at risk, and over £1m of interest that was due on the Iceland investments which is the very minimum amount they are likely to lose.

The fact is that the Lib Dems have know for months about all these issues, and I warned them to start finding significant savings at a meeting of full Council in December. Only now at this late stage are they trying to find massive savings in Council budgets, and don't appear to have even considered yet what could happen to various income streams as a result of the recession. After years of generous settlements and easy budgeting, they failed to find serious efficiency savings. Now when times are tough they are proving themselves completely unfit to be running the finances of the City Council.

Friday, January 23, 2009

187 CHR plans allowed on appeal

The planning inspector has announced that an appeal has been allowed for a planning application concerning 187 Cherry Hinton Road (Ref. 08/0125/FUL), that was originally refused by East Area Committee in April 2008.

The application involved the demolition of 187 Cherry Hinton Road, to be replaced with a three storey block of flats, with four new semi-detached houses at the other end of the site.

I am disappointed that the decision of local Councillors has been overturned here - although the original decision was before I was elected, we spoke to concerned residents in the area around that time who saw this as an overdevelopment of the site, with too much overlooking of neighbouring properties. It also doesn't bode well for another application to redevelop the site of the vets surgery on Cherry Hinton Road, with similar overlooking concerns from the neighbours.

It would be good if more weight could be given to local opinion in these cases.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Crunch Budget Decisions for City Council

It is crunch time for the City Council' s budget setting process, as the Lib Dem's Leader and Executive Councillors meet next week to agree the budget measures that will be put to the Full Council meeting in February.

There have been unprecedented pressures this year, including:
- the £620k at risk in the Folk Festival tickets fiasco that for budgeting purposes at least must be assumed lost
- £9m invested in Iceland, with no guarantee of repayment of the capital or interest
- a shortfall in funding from Government for the concessionary bus fares of approx £1.3m a year
- The credit crunch more generally, and its effect on all Council budgets.
- Loss of interest on the Council's reserves due to falling interest rates.

The top two are due to the poor financial management from the Lib Dems, but even without these there are clearly severe financial pressures. The interesting question now is how should this year's budget be handled.

Remarkably, the Lib Dems approach to date has been to stick their head in the sand and pretend there isn't a problem. For the first time in over a decade, the reports presented to the scrutiny committees in January did not identify sufficient savings to present a balanced budget - over £1m of savings still need to be found in the period to April 2010. Looking at the list of proposed savings to date (which curiously don't seem to be on the Council's website when you look at the meeting agendas), the only real savings are from service reviews completed some months ago, with the first draft budget leaving hundreds of thousands of cuts still to be found. But later amendments reflecting the Folk Festival fiasco and the City Council being told it must assume it won't be getting any interest on the Iceland money, and we are left with collosal amounts of savings to be found in a very short period of time.

We already know that the Lib Dems are planning to increase Council Tax by 4.5% every year, about the most they can get away with to avoid capping, despite the budget now assuming wage inflation much below this, and despite the hardship many people are feeling from the credit crunch. They were also expected to hit their minimum general reserves level of £1.5m in a couple of years anyway, although there is a case that in the current tough times (and one-off financial catastrophes) it is reasonable to go below their target minimum in the short term.

But the bottom line is that there are deep cuts that will need to be made (and not just one-year only fixes), and the ruling group seemed to have assumed that the Folk Festival fiasco and the Iceland deposits, which have been known about for ages weren't an issue. Lack of planning for this means cuts will now be made in a hurry, so will likely either be insufficient or highly damaging or both.

But even if they make then numbers work, there are some highly questionable assumptions involving ignoring the effects of the credit crunch on income - for example, they assume folk festival ticket prices can rise again, but still sell out (assuming they prove capable of collecting the money this year of course...), they pencil in much higher car parks revenue on the back of significant increases in charges, and don't seem to have considered the collapse in the value of recyclable materials, such as paper for recycling which is now apparantly worthless. All these issues could see lower income for the Council than they are currently expecting.

The Council doesn't seem to have even begun to consider the effects of the recession on its capital spending - a lot of which is delivered through s106 taxes on developers - this income stream looks to have all but disappeared as developers down tools, and when the property market returns to more reasonable levels, it is unclear if the Council will ever be able to levy these charges again at the same level.

In summary, in the good times, the Lib Dems failed to find the efficiency savings that have already been identified for this year (without admitting any cuts in service), causing Council Tax to be racked up unnecessarily, but in troubled times, their weak leadership and failure to tackle the problems early enough could prove disastrous.

Its at times like this when it is very frustrating to be the lone Conservative, rather than a group big enough to run the Council. Budgets should have been rebuilt from the bottom up, cutting out the waste, looking for more innovation in delivery of services and use of the Council's assets, and focusing on key basic services, sound financial management and keeping Council tax low - there are plenty of Conservative run Councils out there who manage to do just that.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Andy Bower selected as Prospective Coleridge Candidate

I am pleased to announce that Andy Bower has been selected by Cambridge Conservatives as our prospective County Council candidate for Coleridge division for the elections due this June.

Many local residents will know Andy, as he has been a key part of the Coleridge team for a couple of years, and has already spoken to hundreds of people on the doorstep so knows a lot about the key local issues. He has been particularly active opposing plans for congestion charging in Cambridge, as well as getting action on local problems in the ward such as graffiti and anti-social behaviour.

There is currently no Conservative Councillors from the City on the County Council, so if Andy is elected in June he will have a significant influence on policy at the County that affects residents in Coleridge. Knowing Andy personally, I'm sure he will be a great local representative who will work tirelessly in the interest of Coleridge residents.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Tesco Approved on Leisure Park

At this evening’s East Area Committee, Councillors have voted to approve all three of Tesco’s planning applications that they required to open their store on Cambridge Leisure Park. The applications concerned a new shop front, signage, cash machines, refrigeration equipment and fencing around a delivery yard.

Coleridge Conservatives are pleased with this outcome – we spoke to many local residents about Tesco’s plans, and overall think it will be a valuable addition to local facilities, and will be welcomed by most if not all local residents.

They still need to get through licencing if they want to sell alcohol on the site, but are already working inside the shop and plan to open within a few weeks.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Scores on the doors

The police were out this morning from 8.15 to 9.30 policing the traffic situation around the Hills Road bridge roadworks. Scores on the doors for tickets issued:

6 cyclists on the pavement,
2 cyclists contravening a red light,
8 vehicles turning right Brooklands Ave on to Hills Road.
No vehicles turned from Hills Road to Brooklands Ave although 10 cyclists were seen to commit this offence and given advice where possible.

I wonder what was observed with regard to overtaking on the bridge...

Burnt-out Wheelie Bins, Snapped Wing Mirrors and Graffiti

Coleridge Conservatives are concerned about a recent outbreak of criminal damage in and around Coleridge. You wouldn't have guessed it from the e-Cops reports of falling crime and antisocial behaviour being under control, but there does seem to have been a spate of activity.

It seems as if one or more people have been taking routes through part of the city and either spraying their graffiti tag 'DSC' on practically everything in sight, setting fire to wheelie bins or snapping off wing mirrors.

We are concerned that reports are perhaps not being received, processed or treated appropriately so regarding damage to cars we have asked police what reports have been received and what is being done about them, as well as whether some patrols could be instigated. Apparently there is "a bit of antisocial behaviour" around the relevant area. We are not entirely sure that "antisocial behaviour" is quite the correct classification for this crime but it's good to hear that the police are on the case.

Streets affected by the graffiti include Rustat Road, Corrie Road, Hobart Road/Suez Road and Cromwell Road. Coleridge Conservatives have reported many of these to the city council although there are still many more instances around, including lampposts as far as Coldhams Common.

I am pleased to note that the Rustat Road gates have already been repainted by the council - in fact just before I reported them, unaware that they had already been attended to.

More worrying is arson on wheelie bins, found on Brackyn Road and Charles Street:

Policing priorities for the area are again up for debate at this Thursday's East Area Committee.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Guided Bus Delays Detailed

There was a Guided Bus southern section local liaison forum this evening where the current status of the project was presented and heads up given on some potential problems on the horizon.

Overall, it has become necessary to delay the project opening by six months. The idea had been to get the busway open while some of the other parts of the infrastructure (eg the Longstanton Park and Ride, CCTV) were still not fully operational, but with a few late construction difficulties in the northern section, the delivery date has been put back until the whole northern section of busway should be ready, expected now to be this Autumn.

There is a more significant engineering problem in the Southern section. A high-pressure gas main runs under the guided bus route through the cutting between Shelford Rd and Hauxton Rd. Despite being in contact with the County since 2002, the National (gas) Grid only informed the County last week that they might need to carry out further maintenance work before the busway can be laid. Potentially this could introduce a six month delay to completing the southern section, although the County Council are trying to find ways to limit the impact of any work on the schedule.

The Hills Road bridge works have also proved problematic in engineering terms - tunnelling through the bridge whilst keeping the road open involves installing concrete pillars through the road, building a concrete platform and tunnelling under it, whilst avoiding the utilities pipes and gas pipe under the pavement, which has proved trickier than first thought.

However after several delays, the last phase of single-lane work on the Hills Road bridge has now been rescheduled for 6-15 April (including Easter weekend). It is hoped that the works on the bridge should be complete by mid-August.

Finally, after continued complaints (from Cambridge Cycle Campaign, ourselves and others) about road safety during the works, the police will be out on Hills Road bridge tomorrow (Wed 14 Jan). In theory they are supposed to be there to ticket cars who overtake cyclists aggressively, but in the past they have been just as keen to ticket cyclists cycling on the pavement so be warned. As ever our advice is that if you can't face cycling over the bridge on the roadway, then you should always walk with your bike on the pavement.

Overall it is disappointing news, but services should still be running long before the housing developments the system was designed to support are built.

Tiverton House still for sale

There has been some bad news on the empty property front - all the potential buyers of Tiverton House have fallen through, and the Council has now put the building, former sheltered accommodation for the elderly, back on the market.

Rather than make expensive refurbishments to bring up to current standards, the Council decided to try selling the building with a view to using the money to fund other refurbishments elsewhere in the City. A number of bidders proposing different uses were in the frame, but they are now back to square one.

I have raised concerns for a while that the Council wouldn't be able to sell the building, and was also worried about some of the proposed uses from potential purchasers. They better have a plan 'B' in place in case they can't sell at the right price, to bring the property back into use.

The Council leaving residential property empty makes it all the harder to put pressure on private developers, like the owners of the shops and boarded up flats on the Perne Rd/Radegund Rd junction. Clearly there are huge problems in both the residential and commercial property markets at the moment, but I am trying to (re)arrange a meeting with the owners via their agents to see what the prospects are for bringing forward a redevelopment scheme.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

Last week this blog recorded its highest ever number of unique users for a single day, surpassing even the peak on polling day last year.

Most of the articles we research and write ourselves. For example on Friday, we took some raw figures from a spreadsheet, and wrote the following words:

The combined results from the recent consultation exercise in the Blinco Grove/Rock Road/Hartington Grove area in response to the question: Do you support the introduction of on street parking controls in your area?

Strong support - 91 (27%)
Support - 27 (8%)
Don't know - 13 (4%)
Disagree - 30 (9%)
Strongly disagree - 171 (52%)

A clear majority of 61% disagreeing with the plans, that would have seen local residents forced to by resident's parking permits if they wanted to park on the road.

So it was a bit of a shock to read the following published by our Labour opponents in Coleridge on Saturday (with the rest of the article amended to claim all credit by Labour for action in this area...):

Residents in the Blinco Grove/Rock Road/Hartington Grove area were asked the question: Do you support the introduction of on street parking controls in your area? The results were:

Strongly support: 27% (91)
Support: 8% (27 )
Don't know: 4% (13)
Disagree: 9% (30)
Strongly disagree: 52% (171)

So a combined majority of 61% opposed the plans which would have resulted in even worse parking problems in Rustat Road and Davy Road.

Its one thing for Labour to steal Conservative policies (whilst simultaneously claiming we would do nothing!), but blatantly cribbing text from our blog as the basis for their publications is a bit cheeky. But they do say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery - so to all our readers from Coleridge Labour Party, Happy New Year!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Residents' Parking Rejected by Blinco Area

Resident's in the Blinco Grove area of Queen Edith's have rejected plans for resident's parking in the area, in a humiliating blow to local Lib Dems Councillors who have been pushing for the scheme, after forcing through the bizarre consultation arrangements at the relevant committee.

The combined results from the recent consultation exercise in the Blinco Grove/Rock Road/Hartington Grove area in response to the question: Do you support the introduction of on street parking controls in your area?

Strong support - 91 (27%)
Support - 27 (8%)
Don't know - 13 (4%)
Disagree - 30 (9%)
Strongly disagree - 171 (52%)

A clear majority of 61% disagreeing with the plans, that would have seen local residents forced to by resident's parking permits if they wanted to park on the road.

As part of the dogs breakfast of a consultation, Coleridge residents in the Rustat Road area were asked what they thought of the plans to introduce resident's parking in the adjacent Blinco Grove area, and its pretty clear from the results that the question was misinterpreted as should resident's parking be introduced in their area (the question as posed being ridiculous - there is clearly only downsides to resident's parking in an adjacent area). As such, the support in this area was evenly split. Hopefully the Lib Dems on the joint traffic committee will now take note of this fiasco and the objections to the consultation that we raised at the time.

On the Blinco Grove area, I think all Coleridge Councillors agree that most of the problem relates to a relatively small number of vehicles from Hills Road Sixth Form College, that could be fixed instantly if the school had more robust policies on student car usage. But the situation could change rapidly for Coleridge once new developments are built. We would like to ensure Rustat Road area residents are given the opportunity to introduce resident's parking if clearly supported, once the effects developments such as the CB1 station redevelopment and former Cambridge Water site start to be felt.

But in the long term, when are the planners (leaned on by central government policy) going to realise that you can't solve transport problems by pretending that people can be forced out of their cars just by providing insufficient parking spaces. In existing areas, verge parking and other related 'lack of parking' issues are just about the biggest complaint in Councillors' in trays, but at least they have the excuse of being built in an era before near universal car ownership. To build a new generation of developments like Ashwell's CB1 and the Tim Brinton flats that make a virtue of providing wholly insufficient onsite parking is amongst the most shortsighted decisions being made in planning today. In 30 years time we we look back with our carbon-neutral personal vehicles and wonder what on earth people were thinking.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Grafton Centre M+S store to close

Marks and Spencer have announced this morning that they plan to close their 'Simply Food' store in the Grafton Centre. This is a real blow for the Grafton Centre and the Kite area generally, where the store's relatively recent opening provided a much needed local foodstore.

Shops in the area benefitted from the temporary relocation of Robert Sayle to Burleigh Street, and have suffered since the new John Lewis and Grand Arcade opened - the suggested new Primark clearly couldn't arrive soon enough. At the point where a large community is left with a serious lack of local food shops, Council policy and action (or inaction) needs to be called in to question in terms of the way planning policies and other powers to help ensure sustainable communities have worked here.

Marks and Spencer clearly are aware of the community interest in these decisions - their public affairs department has written to the Chief Executive of the City Council:

"I am writing to inform you that we have announced today a proposal to close the M&S Simply Food store at Grafton Centre, Cambridge, subject to consultation with employees.

We have looked at every available option to keep the store open, but in this very tough trading environment we have come to the conclusion that it is no longer commercially viable to continue trading.

We have very much valued the commitment and contribution of the store team and it is therefore with sadness that we are proposing this closure. We will be doing everything we can to support them through the consultation period and in the event of closure, employees will be offered appropriate help to find alternative employment in the local area.

The proposal to close this store is part of a wider proposal by M&S to close up to 27 stores across the UK."

Any bets on how long it will be before a Tesco Metro planning application turns up for one of the vacant stores in the area...

The state of the Rec

Just been to Coleridge Rec, and was shocked to see the state of the paddling pool. I'm normally the last to cry health and safety, but I can't help feeling this would have some very nasty consequences if a child fell in. An email is on its way to the Council...

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Exclusive: Folk Festival Fiasco – Second financial calamity hits Council

Cambridge City Council has not been paid for online ticket sales for last year’s Folk Festival. The funds were due to be received last August from the company responsible for the website that sold the tickets, but after months of trying to obtain payment, the Council has or will shortly be publishing a notice in the London Gazette to take the supplier to court – a hearing will be held later in the month to determine the fate of the company, that is likely to see it put into administration. It is believed that the company has serious financial problems, and around £620,000 of Council tax payers money is now at grave risk of being lost. This amount is around 10% of total City Council Tax collected last year.

An independent investigation into how the Council got itself into this mess is currently being conducted by accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers.

This latest blow follows on from £9m invested in now-failed Icelandic banks, for which there is also no certainty that it will all be recovered. Although the issue doesn’t affect the Folk Festival going forwards, it could have a serious impact on budgets across the Council.

Commenting on the news, Conservative Councillor Chris Howell said:

“This is terrible news for Cambridge Council tax payers – this year’s budget was already looking very stretched, and I have already contacted the Director of Finance to ask why this issue, that has been known about for some time, does not appear to have even been considered in the pre-budget reports recently put on public record.

In the short term, I am urging the Council to take all steps it can to try and recover these funds, but I fear the financial impact could be bigger and more immediate than the Icelandic investments, as there is a strong possibility of the companies concerned having no assets at all available to unsecured creditors.

Whilst there is an independent investigation going on into how the Council managed to get itself into a contract that allowed a supplier to keep approx £620,000 of Council tax payers money, one thing is very clear, in both this case and those of the Icelandic investments there have been catastrophic failures of financial risk management. I am today repeating the calls I made in the Council Chamber in December for a comprehensive review of the Council’s risk management procedures, to help safeguard Council Tax payers assets going forwards.

But the ultimate responsibility clearly lies with the weak political leadership and inadequate scrutiny of key decisions shown by the Liberal Democrats running Cambridge. I understand both the flawed Treasury management strategy and this contract were decisions made personally by Executive Councillors – if not, they should have been. There is wholly inadequate scrutiny of key decisions by Executive Councillors and backbench members of the ruling group who see their role as nodding through decisions of the Executive whilst speaking only to criticise opposition Councillors. It's no wonder the Council finds itself in such a mess – the Liberal Democrats are proving to be a disastrous custodian of Council Tax payers funds.”

One final less than amusing irony is that the 2007 Annual report of parent company notes that “the second area of research that the company has been active in is the Electronic Biometrics Identification Cards system” – leading to the sickening possibility that Cambridge Council tax payers money has ultimately been used to finance research into ID cards.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Say No to new Bin Taxes

At the end of November, laws which allow the Government to impose new charges for household rubbish collections received Royal Assent. Ministers have confirmed that the Office of National Statistics will classify these new charges as a tax. Although bin taxes will be trialled in a series of so-called pilots, the small print of the legislation allows the Secretary of State to roll out and impose the taxes on all local authorities by Order, without any vote in Parliament.

The Government’s own impact assessment has predicted that, in due course, two out of three homes will face the new taxes.

Official technical documents reveal that the bin taxes will take one of four forms:
• Bin bag tax: Households must pay for special bin bags. Rubbish not placed in a paid-for bag will not be collected.
• Bin size tax: Households will be charged for the size of their bin; with families requiring a bigger bin paying the most.
• Weekly collection tax: Households needing a weekly rubbish collection will pay an extra charge.
• Bin chip tax: Households will receive a bill based on the weight of the contents of their bin, with microchips in the bin feeding through to a central billing database.

Yes we need to do more to encourage less landfilling, but when it comes to consumers this needs to be through carrots rather than sticks - for example by making it easier to recycle. And the biggest part of the solution needs to come from manufacturers and suppliers reducing waste and packaging levels, which is out of the direct control of consumers.

Labour's planned new bin taxes will increase taxes on families (who already tend to pay higher council taxes); will raise the overall tax burden due to the costs of levying and enforcing a new tax; and will harm the environment by fuelling fly-tipping and backyard burning.

Indeed, the Government has stated that civic amenity sites will remain free for household waste. This will lead to the bizarre situation of families being encouraged to drive to their local dump, adding to congestion and carbon emissions, to avoid higher taxes.

If Labour were to win the general election, in their usual style they will probably just force these changes on families across the country regardless of decisions by local Councillors, but if there is anything I can be doing locally to oppose these charges in Cambridge, then I will be opposing them.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Happy New Year!

I would like to wish our blog readers a very happy new year – hope you have all had a relaxing Christmas break and are ready for the challenges of the year ahead – I fear that for many people 2009 will be the most challenging for a long while.

After a Conservative win at an election in Coleridge last year for the first time since 1987, 2008 was a busy year, chasing up many local issues and trying to bring a much needed Conservative viewpoint to the City Council. Looking forward to 2009, here are my political objectives:

My first priority is to continue to work hard for local residents, to ensure we get the best from our local Councils and to justify the trust placed in me at the elections last May. We aim to speak to as many residents as possible to find out your views, and will continue to keep in touch regularly.

For Cambridge, I would like to see better cycle facilities, better sports facilities, and congestion charging ruled out permanently. We can’t take the future success of Cambridge for granted, it is vital it remains a great place to live and work.

On the City Council, there are a number of key challenges that I would like to focus on.

Firstly, the budget setting process, and how exactly the City Council is going to make ends meet this year and in future years (on a preliminary reading of the budget papers – we aren’t…). I want to see some genuine efforts to reduce costs permanently, more innovation to deliver services more efficiently, and for the Council to spend less time worrying about government targets, strategies and gimmicks, and more time efficiently delivering the key services all residents rely on like refuse and recycling and keeping the streets clean.

Related to this, I want to see improvements to scrutiny at the City Council, where policies and decisions are approved without any serious thought by most back bench members of the ruling group, that allows fiascos like £9m at risk in Iceland to happen.

The other major issue the Council is dealing with is still planning and the growth agenda – Labour’s desire to force thousands of houses on us locally (along with unpopular congestion charging for the City) continues unabated despite the credit crunch. Top down targets and ignoring local opinion has failed time and time again to deliver the types and quantity of housing people want or need, yet the Government response has just been to increase the targets. A new Conservative government would abolish much of the top down planning targets, but meanwhile we will continue to campaign for a planning system that works with the consent of existing residents, as the best way to deliver the right mix of housing types and tenures, of high quality, with the right transport infrastructure, and with the types of facilities that really build communities.

At the local elections in June, Cambridge City would be well served by some Conservative County Councillors – I will be working to ensure our excellent candidate in Coleridge is elected.

Finally, if there is anything one individual can do, I will be campaigning against the increasingly authoritarian and bullying way the government continues to act. The state should serve the people, not the other way round. Just say no to ID cards, the national identity register, DNA databases of innocent people, lengthy detention without trial, restrictions on right to protest, arresting MPs for holding the government to account, CCTV monitoring of our every move, tracking all our phone calls and emails, institutionalised spin and deceit, constant nannying on so many issues like diet, alcohol consumption, how to look after tiddles and expansion of the role of the state way beyond its competence. I hope 2009 is the year when we begin to trust people again to behave responsibly, and make sure they are personally responsible if they don’t. It is the power of people not government that will be key to solving most of our current problems.

And just to mention a personal resolution – if I'm foolish enough to run another marathon this year, I want to make sure the clock at the finish starts with a 2...