Lakenheath – The most expensive Parish in Forest Heath

At this time of year Councils up and down the land, large and small are setting their budgets and announcing the Council tax rises, freezes or cuts. At Suffolk County Council we have delivered on the 1st year of our 4 year pledge to freeze Council tax, this makes 4 years on the trot and during the 4 hour budget debate the week before last, I spoke of the savings and real money that is being saved as the Council finds new ways of working to absorb inflation and the significant cuts in government grant being.

The same good news can be had at Forest Heath District Council which for the 3rd year running will hopefully on Wednesday vote through a 0% Council Tax rise. No Council has done more in the last 3 years to reshape and find different ways of working than FHDC as it has merged its back office function with St. Edmundsbury Borough Council. I am frankly proud of both Conservative controlled councils and their Conservative Councillors in the way in which they have grasped the nettle of falling government grant, inflationary pressures and yet have still looked to themselves rather than the residents to pay more Council tax.

Contrast this with the village in which I live, on Friday ahead of Forest Heath’s full Council meeting on Wednesday, setting its annual Budget and thus Council tax; I received the final list of the Parish and Town Council precepts. And there top of the precept hikes just behind Brandon Town Council and Gazeley Parish Council, is Lakenheath with a massive increase of 19.78%. Now whilst on say a band D property this is £18.17 per annum so not a great deal in actual money terms but why the massive percentage hike, just what does Lakenheath Parish Council spend it’s ever growing annual budget, this year a whopping £135,061.96, on?

This massive precept increase now gives Lakenheath the honour of being the most expensive precept in the whole of Forest heath at £110.01 on a Band D property contrast this with say another village in my Row Heath Division, Beck Row where this year’s Band D precept is £37.32 per property up just 1.32% from last years. So just what is Beck Row Parish Council doing so right, that Lakenheath can’t?

Now of course we can’t yet examine the thinking behind this just yet as the minutes of the January Parish Council meeting are yet to be put up on their web site, nor indeed is there a link to their last audited set of accounts to 31st March 2013 but hopefully the January minutes will include the budget report on which they based their decision and equally hopefully we’ll also be able to see just what the reserves position is.

I look forward to blogging about both when we can see the information.

I, for one, have long argued that the referendum caps which applies to County and District/Borough Councils should apply to Parish Councils, no council more than my home village one makes my point.

A heated meeting

On Friday I, along with the Trustees of the Christian Enterprise Foundation, hosted a public meeting in Lakenheath Village Hall. The meeting was essentially around the closure of the Lakenheath Village Care Home in December and I hoped to discuss how those who attended how we as a community wanted to plan for the needs of an ageing population here in our village.

I counted 90 people in all, which is a good number for a Friday night in February. At times the meeting was quite heated with a number of former staff wanting to vent their feelings, some family members who wanted to talk about their loved ones and others disappointed that the home has closed.

I spoke in support of the decision to close, which as you can imagine did not go down that well, but of course having made a very similar decision with regards Suffolk County Councils last 16 Care Homes before we brought Care UK on board to open 10 new state-of-the-art homes and invest £60 million in the process, I could do nothing else. In many ways given the level of regulation and complexity I was surprise that the Trustees continued to provide the home for so long and as we look forward to the brand new Home being built by Care UK people will hopefully see what is meant by the changing standards expected and now required by the Care Quality Commission in the provision in Care Homes. I encouraged all who attended to take advantage of the opening days when they come up and go to see for themselves.

There were quite a few specific questions and comments directed at the Trustees who did their best to answer openly and honestly. They also made a call for new Trustees and invited those attending to stay behind at the end and they would make contact how to get involved. I counted one but hopefully more will come forward over the coming weeks to help carry the important work of the Foundation forward, as they have a significant part to play in the future services we need to provide in Lakenheath, even if that no longer involves running a care home.

Towards the end of the meeting we did eventually turn to the issue of planning housing for our ageing population and I certainly took away a number of points that were made and have a determination to see Suffolk County Council continue to bring outside investment into our care homes and to strive to create a thriving Extra Care sector as well.

A step forward

Last year I think a lot of Lakenheath residents were shocked and saddened to see the British Legion Club close its doors. As it has played a significant part in village life for as long as I can remember.

At the time I was asked to meet with members of the local British Legion to see what could be done. It became clear that the premises in its current form could not pay the lease costs to the national Royal British Legion and so had to close. I spoke with the national team about would it be possible to reopen under a community banner but they were very hard-nosed about it being a Legion asset and their duty was to maximise that asset, so eventually the ‘For Sale’ board was put up.

So imagine my delight to be contacted by the Lakenheath Peace Memorial Hall Trustee’s Chairman Brendan Fulham to see if I could register it under the community right to buy scheme essentially a scheme which gives local communities breathing space to put together fund raising and a business plan. And if I know of any sources of finance.

Since then the committee has been working hard raising money and a number of people in the village have given generously towards the target.

For my part I have been in discussions with officers at both the District Council and the County Council to see what funding might be available and in parallel, I have been lobbying FHDC and my fellow Conservative Councillors in the Council’s cabinet with a simple premise of forward spending some of the future Section 106 monies that will be flowing from future housing i.e. a loan to be repaid to take up this golden opportunity to create a village centre and not to miss this golden opportunity.

All the behind the scenes work has culminated in the following letter:

 

‘Dear Cllr Millar,

RE:        Community Right to Bid – The People’s Project, Lakenheath

I understand that you will be considering an options paper in relation to assistance Forest Heath District Council could give to The People’s Project, in terms of purchasing the Royal British Legion site with Lakenheath.  In my dual role as both County Councillor and District Councillor for the village of Lakenheath I have been aware of the community wishes from the outset.

The closure of the Royal British Legion club facility was a significant blow to the village and since then a number of community groups and residents have approached me to see if it were possible to keep the facility.

I have been fully supportive and championed The People’s Project and equally supportive of the Village Hall committee proposals and the way in which they have engaged with the wider community as they seek funding to make this happen.  Since the community meeting in October 2013 which attracted over a 100 villagers, the group have been working hard to gain support and have attracted a proportion of the funding (in the region of £40,000).

Lakenheath is going to grow and an important part of that growth must be community facilities alongside to allow the village to continue to be a successful and pleasant place to live.  The community spirit and activities in the village are something I talk about across Suffolk and they simply need more facilities in which to function.

The pressure on the Sports Pavilion and the Village Hall has recently been brought home to me as I have need to host a public meeting and had to wait for 6 weeks for the first available booking.

The People’s Project have approached the project in a very business-like manner and I firmly believe that the whole village is supportive of this bid.  Of course in an ideal world such funding is provided by developers seeking to build housing but as we know housing growth is coming and this once in a lifetime opportunity should not be lost.

As you will be aware the current bid is in the region of £120,000 which is over the estimate of £60,000 – £120,000, however if we could provide the loan funding to facilitate a bid and hopefully make the purchase happen, the village with see that Forest Heath District Council understands and backs the need for facilities to support housing growth.

Yours sincerely,

Cllr Colin Noble

Lakenheath District Councillor’

The great news is that at Tuesday’s FHDC Cabinet forward planning meeting my letter and the representations from the People Project has resulting in the Cabinet agreeing to ask officers to prepare an options paper and they will formally discuss this at their next Cabinet Meeting.

We’ve not there yet but with the generosity of Lakenheath people, the hard work of the Trustee’s and the foresightedness of the FHDC cabinet we are a step closer. So roll on that Cabinet meeting and hopefully the bid will be successful and the Trustees can, in advance of the new housing, make this purchase to significantly enhance the facilities in the middle of the village.

What more Tax?

Yesterday I blogged about Labour controlled Ipswich Borough Council’s ever rising bills, and the contrast with Conservative controlled organisations.

A fine example of this is Tim Passmore the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner who is for the second year running proposing a 0% rise in the Police precept again fulfilled his promise to freeze the police element of the council tax bill, so across Suffolk freezing the policing element of the council tax this year means that the average amount paid by every household in Suffolk remains at £166.77 a year which is just £3.20 a week (based on a Band D property).

Heard yesterday that IBC Labour master’s have finally admitted, surprise, surprise, that they intend to impose another increase and are planning to put up the Council Tax by 1.99% which is of course just below the threshold requiring them to ask the residents what they think of their further tax grab. Contrast that with the budget consultation across Suffolk from the County Council where way back in October we were discussing our thoughts about the budget and council tax, the contrast in all respects is quite startling.

Of course this is even worse when you realise that they will have to hand back the Government 1% incentive to do the right thing and not put up Council Tax. Can you imagine what Labour would be demanding if there were no referendum trigger! Seems to me they just don’t get how hard it is for hard working families struggling to pay the bills, they say they do, but demonstrably they do not.

All the residents of Ipswich can now hope is that today or tomorrow the Secretary of State Eric Pickles MP lowers the threshold to trigger a referendum to 1.49% or better still 0%.

Come on Eric the good people Ipswich need you to save them money!

 

What more rent?

A couple of weeks ago the Ipswich Borough Council’s Labour-run borough’s executive of portfolio holders took just under three minutes to rush through the recommendation and agreed to raise council housing rent by 5.5%, which will cost the average council tenant £4.44 per week – £230 per year and I understand by over £600 since they into office 3 years ago. This totally unjustified rent rise was debated at a full council meeting and whilst Labour Councillors took a bit longer they still pushed it through.

I’ve read various responses to the universal criticism of this Council grab from hard working families struggling to pay their bills and it somewhat reminds me of the comments made by Labour when they were in power at County Hall and increased the Council tax by 11.9% in one year and 18.5% in the next. The core theme of which is along the lines of ‘well we have to, if we are to build more Council houses’, in the county case it was ‘well we have to, if we are to maintain services’. Nonsense then and nonsense now, let’s be clear the funding of new Council housing does not come from council house rents.

I’m not sure if it’s just that they can’t be bothered to take a deep hard look at the way they run the council or they just take a view that they are so efficient how could they possibly re-organise, focus on outcomes, find new ways of working, ditch the dogma and make the council live within its means.

Of course we all watch with interest to see what the Labour controlled Borough Council comes up with in terms of council tax rises. Yet another year of ever rising bills or will they take their lead from the Conservative County Council and the Conservative District and Borough Councils about them and freeze council tax or will they pursue their socialist dogma and yet again sting the people of Ipswich for voting Labour? – we wait to see.

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