An Affordable Home

Image_house_buildingLate in that day last Tuesday week I popped along to the Lakenheath Parish Council who were holding a public meeting or as it turned out, more a Parish Council meeting where the public were allowed to observe and make comment on the matters being discussion at the end of the meeting but with no response from the Parish Council, local democracy in action, quite bizarre to watch and listen to. The subject was the number of planning applications submitted in Lakenheath to take up the FHDC Adopted Core Strategy allocations for the village. Surprisingly only 21 residents out of population of about 4,000 turned up to what was a widely publicised meeting.

Beyond frustration at the lack of actual debate on the evening what came across was real concern about the facilities that need to follow from new homes being proposed for the village. For me over the course of the past 2 or 3 years this has been discussed at FHDC and over my time as a Councillor in Lakenheath itself I have heard from a number of people who want to have a home of their own in their village and thus would welcome the new affordable housing element development will bring so young people from the village will be able to get a roof over their head.

Lakenheath is not a particularly high priced property location but it’s a local market condition due to the USAF bases here that the lowest market rental price for homes is well above what it should be and many younger people have to move out of the area to be able to afford to rent their first home, so more affordable homes for local people will of course be very welcome. Whatever is decided about where new homes will be built as a Councillor I will be working with the many different organisations to make sure the village benefits and facilities grow to accommodate the new housing.

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.

Public money, Public information

Budgets, cash flows and performance to budget can be a dry subject but a very telling one, at the county and district level it is also a very public one.

At Suffolk County Council its annual £1Billion is debated in public over the course of about three month from first draft to final vote. Four times a year, the cabinet, in public, debate the Councils’ performance to budget. In my previous role as a Cabinet member for Health and Adult Care I had to report performance against budget of the departments spend of about £225Million; from now on I will lead on the performance to budget debates across the piece.

At both Councils any item of spending over £500.00 is also a matter of public record for public scrutiny.

At Forest Health I chair the Performance and Audit Scrutiny committee and we provide an opinion on the performance of the actual spend to the approved budget and the risks to the council where budget performance is not as it should be, again in full open session with published papers.

So in short at both Councils, all budget figures, performance reports to budget and scrutiny papers are published and meetings held in public.

What a contrast to my local parish Council in Lakenheath. Of course its budget of £123,000 (this year’s) is much lower that the District £11Million or the County’s £1Billion but it is still public money and thus it should be open and transparent.

The budget and actual spend is not posted on the villages web site but to be fair when I asked the clerk for it I did receive it. I think it should be published on their web site as should its quarterly performance. A simply task, take the excel spreadsheet create a .pdf file and post it, could not be simpler.

It’s public money and so the budget and spend should be public information.

Lakenheath Annual Village Meeting

Last Monday saw the Annual Village Parish Council meeting in Lakenheath and as I looked around the small crowd who attended I noticed that many of the people I have grown up with are getting older! Or is that just me! We discussed many things from housing development to street lights.

It was slightly surreal in that the Chairman of the Parish Council could not be at its annual meeting. His absence was a shame as I had a number of questions I felt, as a Village resident, that needed answering.

In my speech I talked about both Suffolk County Council matters and Forest Heath District Council matters not least my determination to drive forward the shared services project that Forest Heath District Council and St. Edmundsbury Borough Council have undertaken that has allowed FHDC to save in excess of £1million in management costs about the same as the necessary reduction in central government funding thus allowing the council to continue to delivery services and not put up the Council tax which would have had to rise by 46% to cover off the reduction in grant.

In the case of Suffolk County Council we have demanded that the Council ‘live within its means’ and made it understand we were elected to deliver services and protect the hard earned money of the people who elect us and not to constantly put up the Council tax. On Forest Heath District Council since being elected I have played my part in pushing for it to revolutionise the way it works and this has seen the introduction of a cabinet system, a new Leader, the shared back office and leadership team all of which has delivered savings, protected services and frozen the District Council tax.

It is a fact that Lib Dems, Labour and Conservative Councillors unanimously voted in favour of the joint services restructuring, with only one councillor voted against it and that councillor was none other than David Gathercole, the absent Councillor, so the question has to be just how much he wants to see people pay in Council Tax increases?

At Suffolk County Council we have delivered 3 years of 0% Council Tax increases and one of our manifesto pledges is to freeze the Council tax for the next 4 years so over a 7 year period if you take inflation at 3% per annum that a real 20% cut in County Council tax and alongside Conservative controlled FHDC and the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner Tim Passmore this year excluding Parish Councils, that’s 0% across the board.

There are those who dismiss the importance of this and that councils must ever increase taxes I say what an utter load of rubbish. Councils must and should play their part in these difficult times, finding new ways to save money and deliver services

In Row Health’s villages there are many people struggling to make the family budget cope with no pay rises, or on a fixed income and the ever rising bills.

In Row Heath’s villages there is almost no gas supplies so heating is either electric or oil, and both are rising at an alarming rate, there are residents who are making food or fuel choices.

Councils are not businesses but with a Conservative business-like approach they can freeze Council tax, find new ways of working to reduce costs and deliver services and it is right and proper that they are held to account by elected Councillors to do just that.

Lakenheath Library discussion at the Parish Council

On Monday I attended the monthly Lakenheath Parish Council meeting, having rushed back from a meeting in London with Suffolk’s MPs, to give my monthly report as Lakenheath’s Suffolk County Councillor.

In addition to my usual report I was extra keen to be there as they had kindly agreed to have a debate about the Lakenheath Library Consultation; and whilst it was tight getting back in time I particularly wanted to be in attendance as I had asked them to table the discussion.

At the start of the meeting the Chairman calls for representation from the public and a number of people spoke about the Library and were none too kind about Suffolk County Council. When we got to the discussion on the agenda I took on board what was said by the people who had come along to hear our discussion, in my comments.  

In opening I talked about the Government’s Comprehensive Spending revue and the 28% cuts to the county council’s overall funding the government has told us we must save over the next four years as our contribution to deal with the national budget deficit. I have also talked about the incredibly difficult decisions and indeed sleepless night many of the officers and councillors have had as we’ve wrestled with the implications and where we are going to have to make cuts.

I said it’s fair to say that cuts are never ever going to be popular but as we worked through the options before us, our priority has been to protect the vulnerable in our communities and seek to make savings that do not hurt the vital services. We are also driving through fundamentally changes to the Council and have proposed over 1400 job cuts this coming year; for that is what 28% less means, a fundamental change and in many respects what we have come to expect, what we have come to enjoy, is no longer financially available to us.

I went on to say the cuts have finally arrived on our door steps here in Lakenheath and on the 19th January it was announced that our great little library is under threat of closure. I informed the Council that on the afternoon of the 19th I visited Chris, our librarian to discuss what was very worrying news to him and we chatted through what I was going to try to do in response.

As they knew that evening I emailed the Parish Council and asked for the future of our library to be discussed at the next meeting and sent details of where Parish Councillors could find all the information they needed ahead of that debate.

I also informed them that I have hired the Peace Memorial Hall for a public meeting at 7:30pm on Thursday 10th March, I then handed out copied of the posters I am going to put up around the village and I said I hoped that as many of them and the residents of Lakenheath as possible would be able to come along.

I told them that I have arranged for staff from the Library service to be there to present the issues and explain the costs of running our Library.

Whilst they knew where to find the information because I had advised the Clerk, for the benefit of the public present, I said that they could read about the scale of the challenge before us and find all the details at: http://www.suffolk.gov.uk/

I said the questions before us as a community are: Are we prepared to volunteer to run it? Are we prepared as a community to take on the building? Can we find ways to lower the running cost and possibly even make it pay for itself? How about a community coffee shop and cyber café? Can the local charities offer financial support?

I then informed the Council that for my part I am happy to facility the meeting on the 10th and to be involved in an action group and if we are able to come up with a robust business plan; I would be willing to help set up a community interest company and be pleased to be a Trustee. I had already confirmed with fellow Trustees of the Jabez and Selah Bennett Charity that we could offer £1,000 per year towards the running costs, which is a start.

I finished my contribution and members of the Parish Council then discussed some of their thoughts and a good and lively discussion was had, with some thoughts proposed that I am currently exploring as to what we might be able to achieve.

I finished my final thoughts by thanking them for their contribution and said I would be delighted to see them on Thursday 10th of March at 7:30pm at the Peace Memorial Hall and I would be delighted to see you there too!

Lakenheath Library – Dates for your Diary

Following on from the initial work to get the community behind a bid to keep our local Library open, there are two dates for your diary firstly the Lakenheath Parish Council will discuss the matter at the Parish Council meeting on Monday 7th February at the Lakenheath Methodist Church Hall from 7:00pm and then I have booked the Lakenheath Peace Memorial Hall for Thursday March 10th from 7:30pm for a village meeting, Poster will be going up shortly.

I have been able to get the area libraries Officer Lisa Elmer to attend the Parish Council meeting and she and the Head of Suffolk Library Services Roger McMaster will be there on the 10th March to help explain the challenge before us.

If you want to read about the scale of the challenge before us have a look at the various consultation papers at

http://colin.suffolkcc.gov.uk/Communicating/News/LibrariesConsultation2011.htm

This meeting is not about protesting at the proposed closure but about how much we as a village value our Library and if we do, what, are we going to collectively do to keep it open.

Are we prepared to volunteer to run it? Are we prepared as a community to take on the building? Can we find ways lower the running cost and possibly even make it pay for itself? How about a community coffee shop and cyber café? Can the local charities offer financial support?

For my part I am happy to facility the meeting on the 10th March and to be involved in an action group and if we are able to come up with a solution; I would be delighted to be on a future management board, I am also talking with the Charities I am involved in to see what tangible support we could offer.

So please come along to both meetings and lets discuss how we work together to keep our library open.

Lakenheath Library under threat

Matthew Hancock MP joins me to discuss the future for our local Library and who should be there returning a book but my predecessor as Council Councillor Mary Crane, with her husband Roger a former District Councillor

In this Blog and in articles I write for the local Parish Magazines I have talked about the Comprehensive Spending revue and the 28% cuts to the county council’s overall funding. I have also talked about the incredibly difficult decisions and indeed the sleepless nights many of the officers and Councillors have had as we have wrestled with the implications and where we are going to have to make cuts.

It’s fair to say that cuts are never ever going to be popular but as we worked through the options before us, our priority has been to protect the vulnerable in our communities and seek to make savings that do not hurt vital services.

The county council will fundamentally change; for that is what 28% less money means, a fundamental change and in many respects what we have come to expect, what we have come to enjoy, is no longer financially available to us.

On Tuesday the cuts have finally arrive on Lakenheath’s doorstep as it was announced that our great little library was under threat of closure unless the local community steps up and takes it over.

Of course I knew about this as I am in the cabinet of Suffolk and voted to for the strategy and consultation asking local communities to step forward to save our libraries, and I certainly did have a sleepless night thinking about the impact of this cut, but as I have said in print and on the radio the £43M saving we are going to have to make in the next year are all difficult choices.

Tuesday afternoon I visited Chris, our librarian to discuss this devastating news with him and we chatted through what I was going to do.

Tuesday night I emailed the Parish Council and asked for it to be discussed at the next meeting and details of where Parish Councillors could find all the information they needed ahead of that debate.

Wednesday morning I put a call into Matthew Hancock’s office and it was great that he agreed to visit the library with me today and to hear for himself the scale of the challenge before us. Just retruning a book was my predeccor Mary Crane and her husband Roger,a former District Councillor; both may have retired from the wider scene but are very active in our local Communitya nd it was good to have their intial thoughts as we discussed the future.

I told them that in addition to the Parish Council meeting I was arranging a Public meeting in mid-February to discuss our, as a community, response to the consultation and what we collectively might be able to come up with do to save the library and I will post those details here on my blog just as soon as I have them.

%d bloggers like this: