Friday, February 26, 2010

Tesco lose Mill Road Alcohol Appeal

I understand Tesco have lost their appeal yesterday against the Council's refusal to give them a licence to sell alcohol from their new store on Mill Road.

Despite offering to implement a variety of new conditions to restrict the types and times they would sell alcohol, the magistrates listened to objectors and upheld the Council's original decision.

Looks like those promotional posters will have to carry on gathering dust in the store room.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Council retreats on Disabled charges

The City Council appears to be retreating from its plans to charge its tenants with disabled adaptations up to £300 a year for servicing costs.

The issue was raised at East Area committee by one of my constituents, and picked up by the Cambridge Evening News.

I raised a number of issues around this case with the Head of City homes - the lack of consultation with local disability action groups, the issues around affordability - for people who weren't aware of these charges when equipment was installed, but also to try understanding why the costs for what should be simple inspections were so high.

It appears the Council has now had a change of heart, and will be bringing plans back to the Housing Management Board to limit rises for people with existing adaptations to £1pw - but with tenants accepting new adaptations paying the full servicing costs.

At the heart of the problem to my mind is the extraordinary cost of these tests. These reflect the cost paid by the Council - the tests are apparently a legal requirement under Health and Safety legislation, and because housing accounts are ringfenced, if the charges aren't paid by those with the disabled adaptations, they fall across all tenants, so reduce the amounts available for other work on the Council's housing stock. At the last committee, it was revealed the Council spends £200,000 a year testing for Legionnaires Disease, and is about to commit significant funds to fire safety testing, as well as a whole range of new health and safety tests that are included in new government standards (like whether or not a staircase has 'open' steps). You get the impression there is a constant stream of people 'testing' and evaluating health and safety issues. There must be a way of combining some of this work to reduce costs to tenants - yet another reason for my pleas for more openness at the Council around costs of procurement - when such savings would be much easier to identify. It would be interesting to know if the Council's tenants are subject to a degree of monitoring and excessive cost around health and safety far in excess of that applicable to private tenants, and whether a more holistic approach could better reduce overall risks to tenants, whilst saving money.

But in the short run, it looks like a victory for common sense if the new plans are agreed, and tenants with disabled adaptations aren't faced with significant unexpected new charges.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A14 plans move forward - slowly...

The glacial pace of progress on the A14 upgrade continues.

The consultation on the proposals to rebuild the A14 closed on the 6th of January 2010 and a public enquiry will be held (as is usually the way with such large transport schemes).

In March, full details of all the objections received should be made public. The Inspector is likely to hold the first meeting with objectors in mid May.

The full enquiry which is likely to take 10 /12 weeks is be in two parts, the first in June / July and the second in September / October.

During this period the Highways Agency and their contractors will continue to seek to resolve objections. One of which could come from Cambridge's new MP, if we are unfortunate enough to have a Lib Dem elected - their candidate is an opponent of the A14 upgrade, and is also an opponent of the Guided Bus. At least their position is clear when it comes to transport - a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote against every planned significant improvement to transport infrastructure in the sub-region!

Friday, February 19, 2010

The economists' spat

Hearing about the newspaper letter-writing spat between two groups of economists reminded me of the "Fear the Boom and Bust" video, which I imagine most readers have already seen:

For what it's worth, I'm with the Austrian.

I still don't get what was supposedly surprising about this bust. Seriously over-inflated asset prices, easy money and a binging government - these statements were all common currency among my friends and me.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Police Surgery

Our police community support officers would like to welcome Coleridge residents to the Beat Surgery that is happening on the 19/02/2010 at Lichfield Community Hall on Lichfield Road. The surgery will take place between 7pm and 8pm. The surgery is just a chance for residents to come and speak to our PCSOs about any issues that you have or just to meet them.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The City Council is taking itself to court

Truly remarkable story in the CEN today - the City Council is effectively taking itself to court in a judicial review in order to correct a mistake made by the planning department over amended plans for the Tim Brinton site in Coleridge.

I wasn't going to comment on this until the situation was resolved and we know the final cost to taxpayers, but now the CEN has picked this up, I have to say it is yet more evidence that the Lib Dems running Cambridge just aren't capable of managing the basics of planning. They need to get to grips with the problems caused by the flawed s106 planning agreements they made for sites like the station area and indeed the Tim Brinton site, stop trying to force Marshall's off the airport to build thousands of houses on this totally unsuitable location, and concentrate on delivering high quality family homes, with the full informed consent of local people, and with the transport infrastructure we need to support these.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Transparent public contracts

David Cameron's promise last week to open up all government contracts worth £25,000 or more to public inspection is welcome. (See the transparency plan from our draft manifesto.) It's not just an obscure point or even just a matter of principle. This sort of transparency is crucial if the taxpayer is to start getting good value for money. The government just keeps showing itself to be inept at negotiation, as letters to the Cambridge News this weekend on GP contracts remind us.

We can see this problem on a local level with eye-popping costs for the local councils to undertake tasks such as installing fences behind Davy Road or painting some double yellow lines. These sums may not fall within the threshold of Mr Cameron's policy but the policy is going in the right direction. We encourage any suppliers who think they can give our council better value for money on their contracts to inspects its contracts in the statutory audit period this summer...

"Sunlight is the best disinfectant", or so I tried in vane to argue to one of our Labour friends at last year's count in relation to MPs' expenses (just see how the bureaucratic quango-based solutions are costing millions more than is being saved for the taxpayer), but it seems Labour just don't get the post-bureaucratic age.

Friday, February 12, 2010

"Stalingrad flats" are out

Today's Daily Telegraph business section reports a house builder saying that UK homebuyers 'want to return to traditional housing'. The report shows that in 2000 15% of new builds were flats and 45% detached housing, while now 50% of new builds are flats and only 15% detached housing.

Redrow is claiming that "people did not want to live in the apartments and flats that have flooded the market." Quite right. Everybody knows that there have been far too many flats built but not enough of other kinds of housing. That is, everyone except the Labour government with their crazy housing targets that force this kind of development. And the local Lib Dems, who kicked out one of their own councillors for speaking the truth and who are desperate for 12000 rabbit hutches to be built on the airport site.

The good news is the Conservatives will scrap housing targets and push down power to local councils to decide on local development priorities. Then we just need to kick out the local Lib Dems and replace them with councillors who are more in tune with Cambridge residents!

Conference for business

Conservative MEPs Geoffrey Van Orden and Vicky Ford are holding an all-day conference entitled "What can we do for your business in 2010?" on Monday 15 March at Clare College. If this could be helpful to your business then please register by e-mailing Geoffrey - see below.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Cambridge Leisure vacant sites

Wetherspoons were stopped from opening a pub on the Cambridge Leisure site, due to the risk of any pub adding to the existing alcohol related anti-social behaviour concerns at the site.

However, this has meant a large unit under the hotel being vacant for several years now, and Councillors are due to meet with planners this week to discuss what possible uses of the site could be acceptable.

At the time of the decision to ban Wetherspoons, it was deemed a decision to ban any new licensed premises, and not directed specifically at Wetherspoons business model - which often involves lower priced drinks resulting in large pubs like the Regal in Cambridge attracting many young drinkers.

It will be interested to hear the thoughts of the planners and owners of the site as to how to best use the available space, and whether they believe the situation has changed significantly since 2007 when the license was turned down. As a general rule, I think we should regulate assuming most people behave responsibly and shouldn't be penalised by regulations designed to tackle the irresponsible few - but we do need to take any problems that do occur very seriously, with strong measures targetted at those causing trouble. We will be consulting local residents to find out their views - please be in touch if you have any comments.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Ashwells Going Bust: What did the Council know?

The City Council is facing increasing criticism over what it knew about the financial health of Ashwell's, the now-bust developer of the CB1 Station Area redevelopment project, amid concerns that the vital transport infrastructure that the must be delivered as part of planning permission for the project is at serious risk.

The Council worked closely with the developer prior to the application being approved by the planning committee, and also will have had extensive discussions after the initial outline planning permission was granted.

Conservatives have raised concerns from early on in the process about the financial ability of Ashwells to deliver, and asked the Council what it was doing to look into the financial circumstances of Ashwells in view of how key it was to delivering transport improvements.

Now GTARA, the Glisson Road and Tenison Road Area Residents Association has submitted a formal complaint to the Council about its handling of the issue - alleging that the Council didn't properly take into account the financial status of the development when renegotiating the section 106 agreement (that specifies the transport improvements, and when they need to be provided) in Nov 2009. This could be relevant, as the original planning application and s106 agreement was approved taking into account a confidential commercial viability report, that does not appear to have been updated to reflect the new circumstances. GTARA points to a similar Ashwells development in Chelmsford, where planning officials were clearly aware of Ashwell's perilous financial state. The chair of GTARA, Frank Gawthrop ends his complaint:

"In my view the actions of the Planning Dept are of a poor standard as it has failed to give Councillors sufficient information to make informed decisions.  I do not believe that your department has exercised due diligence in this matter and that this is likely to cause substantial loss to the public purse."

I understand that separately a freedom of information request has also been submitted to the Council asking about the Council's relationships with Ashwells, and what financial appraisals of Ashwells were undertaken.

To date the planning department and the chair of the planning committee have insisted it is business as usual, nothing to worry about, and the developer going bust and being taken over makes no difference. In reality, the scheme is a set of related developments, with trigger points for the key transport infrastructure to be built.

I do get the impression of considerable complacency in the planning department about this issue, and a very poor level of scrutiny of what is effectively a large - to the point of unaffordable - level of taxation being levied on a developer, on which the Council is then placing huge reliance in order to provide some pretty vital transport infrastructure - not least the cycle parking in the planned new multi-storey car park.

East Area committee has summoned the Director of Environment and Planning to its next meeting on 18th February, and hopefully Councillors will have more opportunity then to get to the bottom of the problems.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Consultation on Use of Open Spaces

Following concerns raised over the impact of large events on the Council's parks and open spaces, especially the historic central parks and commons, the Council has been putting together a new policy that would classify events, and limit the numbers of each size of event, to avoid undue damage to the commons, and to avoid too much inconvenience to park users. They are now consulting on what exactly those limits should be - I urge anyone interested to complete the consultation linked below by 22nd February. Over to the Council:

"The Council oversees a range of events on parks and open space which provide cultural, recreational, social and community benefit. While such events are an important part of the life of the City, the Council balances decisions to host events with the interests of local communities and to ensure public land is adequately protected.

The framework considers both major and smaller events organised both by the Council and other providers. The purpose of this framework is to propose the type, quantity and scale of events most suitable for certain categories of open space.

The framework asks people to suggest an upper limit for certain sizes of events on larger parks and open spaces which will help the Council regulate demand where it is heaviest. This approach will also assist in suggesting alternative sites for different types of events, and promoting use of a wider range of neighbourhood facilities where these are appropriate.

The findings from this survey will be used to inform proposals for the events framework which will be presented for consideration by Area Committees and Community Services Scrutiny Committee before a decision is made by the Executive Councillor for Arts and Recreation.

The Council is seeking the views of stakeholder groups and members of the public on the following aspects:
1. The classification and definition of events
2. The suggested number of events for each park listed.
The consultation is available at this link"

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Folk Festival Enquiry Published

The final report of the Councillor-led enquiry into the Folk Festival ticketing fiasco enquiry has just been published, and will be reported to next weeks Civic Affairs committee at the City Council.

A previous internal enquiry found serious failings in the Arts and Entertainment department - and it is fair to say that this department in general, and folk festival ticket sales in particular is now one of the most scrutinised in the Council.

But Councillors were keen to know what wider lessons should be learnt. We were promised an independent external enquiry, but instead a Councillor-lead enquiry was setup. Labour refused to sit on this enquiry (as it wasn't the promised external enquiry), which meant that I was able to step in and be part of the committee.

As part of this, we read a lot of evidence from the initial enquiry, and spent three afternoons interviewing staff, from the Chief Executive down - having been through this, I don't feel that there is anything more I could learn about the situation - the picture of what went wrong and how £650k of taxpayers money came to be lost is now pretty clear.

With hindsight, it is immensely frustrating to see what happened, because as well as the main problems within Arts and Entertainments, several departments in the Council were aware and could have stopped the problem, all of these came very close to stopping the problem, but they never quite managed to push the emergency stop button.

Concerns weren't escalated appropriately - so some senior people weren't involved as soon as they should have been - nobody blew the whistle.

Nobody stepped back from the situation that was unfolding around the time the most disastrous decisions were made, and looked at the bigger picture - or considered all the options available.

Finally, the nature of the relationship between service departments and those given professional advice was very unclear - nobody seemed to know if advice was guidance or mandatory, who was responsible if advice turned out to be wrong, or if it wasn't followed as intended.

In summary, the Councillor lead enquiry revealed that problems were not confined to just one department at the Council - all managers at the Council need to rethink risk management - how they identify and respond to risks to taxpayers interests, and those providing advice and support need to make it clear who is responsible for the outcome of their advice, and to make sure that even if it is not acted on, the possible consequences are made clear.

My final thought on the process is a wider and more political one - the Council generally does not put first and foremost the Council taxpayer - it appears services are delivered without always thinking where the money has come from, and when this goes wrong, it is the taxpayer who picks up the bill. And to this extent, the Council is taking its lead from the politicians who are responsible for setting the tone in the policies they make. It remains remarkable that after such a series of failings resulting in a £650,000 loss to the taxpayer, none of the Liberal Democrats running the Council have felt the need to resign over this.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Local control lost on vet site redevelopment

Local residents have lost control of the decision on redevelopment of the vets site at 89a Cherry Hinton Road, after the applicants went straight to appeal over the Council's failure to determine the application in time.

The application, 08/1501/FUL, was for the erection of fourteen apartments following the demolition of the existing veterinary clinic. The application was made in November 2008, but there was local opposition from residents concerned about overdevelopment of the site, and overlooking of neighbouring properties, and a development control forum was held in January 2009.

The Council held some meetings with the developers, and thought they had agreement that the application would be withdrawn to be resubmitted with amendments to address the concerns.

I have followed up the whole sorry saga with the planning department which did shed some light on why the applicants are now appealing, but the result is that the decision on the first application has been taken out of local control and will now be decided by the planning inspector - I hope it is rejected and the decision on any future application taken locally.

Whilst I appreciate the Council may have grounds to feel it has been let down by reassurances from the developer here, I am concerned that in these situations the Council is too ready to take assurances from developers that they will withdraw an application, and don't just go ahead and determine the application, with the effect in this case that a contentious and unpopular application has now been taken out of control of local decision making completely.

Coleridge residents have been down this road before, with the one (minor) application that was actually submitted for Tiverton House, where the application was down on the Sept East Area agenda, the decision was postponed to give the developer time to correct problems with the application. The developer indicated they would withdraw, but again this seemed to go on for ages with the promised withdrawal not happening. No-one could understand why the application didn't go to the next area committee in Oct, it did find its way on to the Dec agenda, at which point minds were focussed and the application was finally withdrawn. In this case there was a real risk that the developer could have taken a similar course of action and gone to appeal.

Notwithstanding the effects on the Council's performance indicators in terms of determining applications in time, appeal due to non-determination just takes the decision out of local hands, which is clearly regrettable.

I have written to the Council to suggest that in situations like this where the applicant has indicated they will withdraw an application to fix it, the Council takes control and sets a deadline for withdrawal or it will take the decision at the very next available committee.

The current situation is unfair on all parties, and I suspect local residents are going to be none too impressed.

If residents would like to add to the objections at the appeal, the deadline is the 4th March - be in touch for more details of how to do this.