Protect free computer access at libraries

Liberal Democrats in Cambridgeshire have launched a campaign to protect people’s free internet access at libraries.

On Tuesday 13 February, the Conservatives will be proposing a charge for people using the internet at the library for more than half an hour.

Liberal Democrats believe that access to the internet is a key element of equality in the modern world, and that the County Council has a responsibility to provide internet access to those who for reasons of finance or where they live may not have high quality internet access in their homes.

Those living in poverty or in rural areas are already isolated in many ways. To charge for internet access in libraries will only deepen the inequalities in our county. Jobseekers and those receiving Universal Credit are likely to suffer particularly, as they are obliged to spend many hours looking for work in order to receive their benefits.

The Liberal Democrats are therefore opposing this charge and we hope our campaign will help defeat the proposal on Tuesday.

Please sign the petition here.

County council budget day

Today Cambridgeshire County Council set its budget, and for the first time in some years there was unanimity across all the groups about the level of council tax rise – the maximum 2.99 per cent increase permitted by Government, on top of the 2 per cent increase allowed for adult social care.

The Conservative group having resisted pleas to raise the cash needed over the last few years, the funding crisis is more acute than it need have been. With (finally) a belated consensus that ‘we can’t go on like this’, the real differences between the political groups at Shire Hall this year were not about the level of council tax, but about what to do with the £7.969M extra to be raised.

Whichever group’s budget was agreed, the council would have to use most of this money to plug the £4.3 million gap in the budget.  The Conservative administration’s proposals were that all of the remainder should be put away into reserves.

Two amendments were put forward: one by the Liberal Democrat group and one by the Labour group.  Both amendments proposed that the extra tax income should be spent on services rather than salted away – though there were mild differences on the exact direction of the spending.

I seconded the Liberal Democrat amendment.  This would have completely reversed the cuts to children’s centres, invested more in adult social care, committed not to implement increased charges for people receiving care, introduced a bus pass for 16-18 year olds to help them get around to college or work or leisure, and spent more on highways and footpath maintenance, local highways improvements, street lighting, and air quality monitoring.  We also proposed to save over a quarter of a million pounds by reversing the increase in county councillors’ allowances and by reducing the number of committees.

Our amendment was duly defeated by the ruling Conservative group, with Labour abstaining. Labour’s amendment was then defeated, with my group supporting it on the basis that while we didn’t agree with all the detail it was a jolly sight better than the only remaining alternative. The Conservative budget, unamended, was then put to the vote and was voted through, with all other groups opposing it.

One Conservative councillor accused the Labour amendment of being a ‘tax and spend’ budget. Surely though if there’s one thing worse than a ‘tax and spend’ budget, it’s a ‘tax and don’t spend’ budget, which is what the Conservatives have just imposed?

Massive wealth gap is not getting smaller

The Office of National Statistics has released its latest figures from the Wealth and Assets Survey. Among the findings:

  • In July 2014 to June 2016, the wealth held by the top 10 per cent of households in the country was around five times greater than the wealth of the bottom half of all households combined.
  • The wealthiest 10 per cent own 44 per cent of all wealth, those in the ‘middle wealth’ category (51 per cent – 90 per cent) own 47 per cent of all wealth, and the poorest half own just 9 per cent of all wealth.
  • The bottom 10 per cent of households have total wealth of £14,100 or less, the top 10 per cent of households have total wealth of £1,208,300 or more, and the top 1 per cent of households have total wealth of £3,227,500 or more.
  • There was a striking increase in the value of net property wealth for households in London compared with all other regions; median net property wealth in London was £351,000 in July 2014 to June 2016, a 33 per cent increase from £263,000 in July 2012 to June 2014.
  • Total aggregate debt of all households in Great Britain was £1.23 trillion in July 2014 to June 2016 (a 7 per cent increase from July 2012 to June 2014), of which £1.12 trillion was mortgage debt (6 per cent higher) and £117.0 billion was financial debt (15 per cent higher).
  • Young people (16-34) are clustered in the bottom wealth deciles, whereas the opposite is true of older households (65+).

Vince Cable, Leader of the Liberal Democrats, said:

“The evidence points to a dramatic wealth gap that is not getting any smaller. It is a major driver of the disadvantages faced by younger people, who are currently struggling to get a foot on the housing ladder.

Conservative policies on inheritance tax and capital gains tax have only widened this inequality of wealth between generations.

Wealth should be a key to unlocking opportunities, not a barrier to them.”

Planning refusal: 123 High Street, Sutton

A planning application (reference 17/01800/OUT) for nine two-storey dwellings, garages, and associated works following the demolition of the existing bungalow has today been refused by planners at East Cambridgeshire district council. The reason given for the refusal is as follows.

‘The proposal is unable to guarantee the long-term survival of the existing newt populations. The inclusion of a small undevelopable plot at the southern end of the site as a mitigation area does not appear to provide sufficient mitigation for the overall loss of habitat. The mitigation area is separated from the breeding pond by the undeveloped curtilage of 121 High Street. However, this land is not included within the application site mitigation area and therefore there is no guarantee that connectivity will be retained between the mitigation area and breeding ponds in the future. The fails [sic] to provide for the favourable conservation status of the local population of Great Crested Newts, contrary to 2015 Local Plan Policy ENV7, Proposed Submission Local Plan 2017 Policy LP30 and the NPPF.’

Kennett Garden Village pre-application exhibition

A pre-application exhibition of controversial proposals for a new ‘Kennett Garden Village’ will take place on Friday 9 February, from 4pm to 8pm at Kentford & Kennett Village Hall.

The site for the application is adjacent to Station Road, to the north of Kennett Station.

Developer Palace Green Homes (a brand name of the district council’s Trading Company) has been working with Kennett Community Land Trust (CLT), Kennett Parish Council and others to design a development with around 500 homes, an enterprise park, a new car park for the station, a replacement village school, and neighbourhood scale retail facilities such as a shop, café, surgery and community office.

Palace Green Homes and their consultant team, including master-planners, transport, landscape and planning specialists, will be available to discuss the proposals and collect residents’ feedback.

The village hall, where the exhibition will take place, is at Station Road, Kennett CB8 7QF.

More information about the project is available on the architects’ website jtp.co.uk, where a copy of the exhibition will be available from Monday 12 February.  

Firing range application update

The application to construct a new 100m firing range at the Isle of Ely Sports Club on the Mepal bypass will be decided by East Cambridgeshire district council’s Planning Committee Agenda at its meeting on Wednesday 7 February.  The agenda will be published five working days before the meeting.

The application (reference number 16/01419/FUL) comprises a grass topped berm with a sand filled bank and targets.

The council allows public speaking at meetings of the Planning Committee – but you will need to register in advance. A web page explaining the arrangements for public speaking is here and includes a leaflet to download.  If you wish to speak at the Planning Committee, please read this leaflet carefully and follow the procedure it describes.

Red Lion Lane update

The drainage works to Red Lion Lane in Sutton have now been completed, the surfacing has been done, and the No Entry markings refreshed. Hopefully this means that the underground water is contained, and the surface water is better managed.

Unfortunately the surfacing is only a thin covering, like the ‘slurry seal’ that was carried out on pavements in Sutton last year. It is laid in small areas at a time, so it has a ‘patchwork’ effect.  It was also only laid on the worst area, so the top half of the road has not been surfaced. It’s all down to money – and there just isn’t enough.

Of course it’s not yet certain that these works have cured the original drainage issue – only time will tell.  If the works have been unsuccessful, at least a more expensive surfacing has not been ruined. And if they have been successful, I will be asking the council to resurface the road to a higher standard.

Five-year tenancies available at four county farms

Entrepreneurial and enthusiastic tenants are being invited to apply for the opportunity to take on one of four Cambridgeshire County Council farms.

Successful applicants, including first-time farmers, will be offered five-year farm business tenancies, which range from a starter unit to large, equipped holdings.

Anna Hicks, rural surveyor at Cambridgeshire County Council, said: “This is a good opportunity for entrepreneurial and enthusiastic individuals to get onto the farming ladder or for those looking to progress to larger holdings.

“Last year we received a lot of interest in the eight holdings that were available and the standard of applicants was extremely high.”

One of the success stories from 2017 was Lee Smith, who tendered for and won a five-year FBT at Wolvey Holes Farm in Coveney.

Lee said: “The application process was very thorough and made us think carefully about our business plan. Getting the farm has been a great opportunity to expand my business. The county farms team has been very helpful and supportive since we took on the holding.”

There is a viewing day for the holdings on 14 February and the deadline for all tenders is 9 March 2018. Interviews will take place on 19 and 21 March 2018. The tenancies will start on 11 October 2018.

Full details about the farms, and the application process, can be found at www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/countyfarms.

The four county farms currently available are:

  1. Engine Farm, Whittlesey: an equipped holding comprising 244 acres of predominantly silt clay loam soil. Cropping over the last few years includes potatoes, wheat, sugar beet and rape. The holding has general purpose buildings and comes with a three-bedroom bungalow.
  2. Lynchets Farm, near Royston: a starter holding comprising 144 acres on the Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire border, suited to combinable crops. There is a large general purpose building and a detached three-bedroom house.
  3. Black Drove and Station Road Farm, Isleham: 225 acres of chalk over clay and silty clay loam soil available as bare land.
  4. Bulldog Bridge Farm, Littleport: the largest acreage on offer through Cambridgeshire County Council this year is 335 acres of bare land at Littleport, eight miles north-east of Ely. A range of arable crops have been grown across the peat clay loam soil.  Four general-purpose buildings and a detached four-bedroom house are included in the tenancy.

Universal Credit could ‘devastate’ the self-employed

Commenting on Office of National Statistics figures released today showing an 82,000 fall in the number of self-employed workers, Liberal Democrat Work and Pensions spokesperson Stephen Lloyd MP said:

“Liberal Democrats are deeply concerned by this huge drop in the number of people working for themselves, reversing a shift towards increasing self-employment and entrepreneurial risk-taking.

“I find it hard to believe that the roll-out of Universal Credit – which penalises the self-employed – does not have something to do with this.

“By slashing the support it offers the self-employed after twelve months and not taking account of freelancers’ fluctuating incomes, Universal Credit is making it much harder for people in modest circumstances to start their own businesses.

“I urge the Secretary of State to immediately review how Universal Credit treats the self-employed, before it devastates the 800,000 freelancers who are expected to transition onto it.”

The total number of self-employed workers decreased by 82,000 in the three months to November 2017.

County council budget surprise

In a surprise move earlier today, Cambridgeshire’s Conservative councillors announced that they plan to increase the county council’s portion of the council tax this year by 2.99 per cent, on top of their planned 2 per cent increase for adult social care.

The move comes as they struggle to plug a budget gap of £4.3 million in their spending plans, and prepare for worse to come.

For several years now, Liberal Democrat councillors have pointed out that increasing council tax is the only way to protect the services local residents value. Inflation takes its toll. The Government has massively reduced its funding to councils. The population is ageing. The number of children in care continues to increase. Patients are stuck in hospital because there is nowhere appropriate for them to move to. Roads crumble.

All of this is familiar and expected – no surprises – but Conservative councillors have chosen not to act, until now. Having resisted pleas to raise the cash needed over the last few years, the funding crisis is more acute than it need have been.

Now that Conservative councillors have belatedly joined the consensus that ‘we can’t go on like this’, the real differences between the parties at Shire Hall are about what to do with the 2.99 per cent (£7.969 million) extra to be raised when the budget is set next month.

All parties must use most of the money to plug that £4.3 million gap.  As for the rest:

  • Conservative proposals are that all of the remainder should be put away into a ‘smoothing reserve’, to help sort out more financial problems ahead in three years’ time.
  • Liberal Democrat proposals are that the remainder should be spent – reversing the children’s centre cuts, a bus pass for 16-18 year olds to help them get around to college or work or leisure, highways and footpath maintenance and improvement, street lighting, air quality monitoring. They also want to reverse the massive increase Conservative councillors awarded themselves this summer, and reduce the number of council committees.
  • Labour proposals are that most of the remainder should be spent on street lighting, libraries, children in care, local highways projects, and cycling. The rest should be put into a ‘strategic reserve’ for children’s centres and for beds to enable people to be discharged from hospital.

The final decision (a foregone conclusion, given the Conservative majority on the council) will be made on Tuesday 6 February.