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.

Recent planning applications

The following planning applications in the Sutton division have been published by East Cambridgeshire District Council.

17/02187/FUL
Little Downham
Riverside Cottage, Hundred Foot Bank, Pymoor
Single storey front/side extension.

18/00017/FUL
Mepal
22 Laurel Close, Mepal CB6 2BN
First floor extension over existing single storey side extension.

17/02217/OUM
Witchford
Land south of Main Street, Witchford
Proposed residential development of 31 dwellings, proposed access arrangements and associated works.

Further information can be found on the district council’s planning pages. If you would like to respond formally to the council about any planning application, comments should be addressed to the district council and not to me.  Comments may be made

  • online using the council’s public access webpage (the link above);
  • by email to plservices@eastcambs.gov.uk;
  • or by post to the Planning Department, The Grange, Nutholt Lane, Ely, CB7 4EE.

A10 report launched

Today I joined a number of other councillors for a briefing on a new report which suggests dualling the A10 between Ely and Cambridge, as part of a scheme costing half a billion pounds.

The study, commissioned by the Greater Cambridge Partnership and published today, proposes building a new park and ride, moving Waterbeach railway station, and creating a segregated public transport route between Waterbeach and Cambridge.

The move comes in response to proposals for up to 10,000 new homes at Waterbeach, and development at Milton sewage works and Cambridge Science Park.

No specifics have yet been put forward, as only preliminary desktop modelling has been done. The report will be considered by the Greater Cambridge Partnership Joint Assembly on 18 January, by the Partnership’s Executive Board and the County Council’s Economy & Environment Committee on 8 February, and by the Combined Authority on 28 February. Public consultation will take place during the summer.

It’s likely to be the end of 2019 before this project moves on to planning application stage. That’s nearly 18 months after traffic starts pouring on to the A10 from the Ely bypass.

In July last year I seconded a motion to the County Council calling for a small study on the impact of improving the junctions between Littleport and the A14, to improve traffic flow at the junctions in the short to medium term. Conservative councillors butchered the motion to remove the call for short-term action – a short-sighted move on their part. If they’d agreed, we would now be much further forward to seeing these junctions being improved and better able to withstand the flow of traffic.

 

251 homes in East Cambridgeshire empty over six months

Over 250 homes in East Cambridgeshire have been empty for longer than six months despite pressure to build more homes and rising homelessness nationwide, according to new research by the Liberal Democrats.

The data was collected through freedom of information requests sent to councils across the country, which showed 60,000 properties had been empty for two years or more, 23,000 for five years or more, and nearly 11,000 have stood empty for at least 10 years.

East Cambridgeshire District Council reported that 251 homes in the district were vacant for more than six months.  85 of these were empty for two years or more, 36 for five years or more, and 16 for more than ten years.

At a time when we are seeing increasing homelessness and major pressure on greenfield sites across the country, it is scandalous that homes are allowed to sit empty for such significant lengths of time. They could be turned into affordable places to live and the government needs to give councils the resources they need to get them back into use.

The Lib Dem research also showed that just one in 13 councils are making use of empty dwelling management orders (EDMO) – the powers that can be used by local authorities to take over properties that have been empty for at least six months.  East Cambridgeshire was not able to say if it had issued any such orders in the last five years.

Recent planning applications

The following planning applications in the Sutton division have been published by East Cambridgeshire District Council.

17/02229/AGN
Little Downham
Allotments Farm, Ely Road, Little Downham
Two agricultural barns.

Further information can be found on the district council’s planning pages. If you would like to respond formally to the council about any planning application, comments should be addressed to the district council and not to me.  Comments may be made

  • online using the council’s public access webpage (the link above);
  • by email to plservices@eastcambs.gov.uk;
  • or by post to the Planning Department, The Grange, Nutholt Lane, Ely, CB7 4EE.

‘Innovate and Cultivate’ project funding for local organisations

Applications are still open to Cambridgeshire County Council’s Innovate and Cultivate Fund – and now local organisations can book one-to-one advice appointments before submitting funding applications.

An Innovate and Cultivate Fund Advice Session will take place on Thursday 8 February, from 9:45am to 12:00noon at Ely Community Centre.  Interested organisations will need to book here for an appointment.

The aim of the Innovate and Cultivate Fund is to support initiatives that strengthen  communities and reduce pressure on County Council services, thereby giving a return on investment. Council services that are inviting applications include adult social care, children and family services, and the county council’s waste service.

The fund is open to voluntary, community and social enterprise sector organisations based in or beyond Cambridgeshire, and public sector organisations in Cambridgeshire. It has two funding streams:

  • a ‘Cultivate’ stream for small grants of £2,000-£10,000
  • an ‘Innovate’ stream for larger grants of up to £50,000.

Deadlines for the next round of applications are:

  • Friday 9 March  – large ‘Innovate’ grants
  • Tuesday 1 May – small ‘Cultivate’ grants.

Applications and further information about the fund can be found on the Cambridgeshire Community Foundation website. If you have any queries about the application advice sessions please email lianne.parrett@cambridgeshire.gov.uk.  Cambridgeshire Community Foundation info@cambscf.org.uk can answer questions about applying for the Fund.

Time for charge on disposable coffee cups

An estimated 2.5 billion disposable paper coffee cups are thrown away in the UK every year, but it was revealed last year that less than one in 400 is recycled. The plastic lining in these cups means they cannot be recycled in normal depots and have to be put in special bins and sent to one of three dedicated recycling mills – meaning that millions end up in landfill instead.

The Liberal Democrats have been campaigning for a charge on coffee cups since September 2016, and were the only party to include the policy in their 2017 Manifesto.

Now MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee have published a report backing Liberal Democrat calls for a charge on disposable coffee cups.

The Committee has called on the Government to introduce a 25p levy on disposable coffee cups and a target to ensure they are all recycled by 2023. The policy would build on the success of the 5p charge on plastic bags introduced by the Liberal Democrats in government, which has slashed usage in England by over 80 per cent.

Full Council meeting at East Cambridgeshire

Tonight saw a brief full council meeting of East Cambridgeshire District Council.

There were no public questions, petitions, or motions. My colleague Sue was unwell, leaving just myself and Christine Whelan on the yellow benches.

Questions
I asked two questions: whether the council believed it had committed enough resources to maintenance of its ditches and watercourses; and what effect the council expected there to be on waste collection arrangements, both at present and in the future under the new trading company, of the decision by China to stop importing a lot of our recyclable waste. I was very surprised indeed that both of these questions were answered by council officers; I always thought councillors should hold themselves accountable, rather than passing responsibility on to staff, however senior.

But the council believes it has committed enough officer time and money to looking after our ditches and watercourses – something to bear in mind in the event of flooding. And the Chinese decision to knock the bottom out of much of the UK’s recycling market has caught everybody on the hop – the risk of falling values for recyclable materials is shared between the district council and recycling facility operator Amey, and is likely to lead to increased costs, though no-one yet knows how much.

Council tax discounts, council borrowing, and a second trading company
All of these matters were referred to the full council by its various committees. The council recently carried out a consultation on its local scheme for council tax reductions for people on low incomes. I asked for the responses to be published on the council website, and when they were, I was very disappointed to see that they came from four individuals, Sanctuary housing (thank you, Sanctuary!), and one organisation that chose not to identify itself. There are many local organisations with experience of supporting people in poverty or on low income, and it is clear that the council didn’t succeed in engaging them in this consultation. I asked the Leader of the Council to commit to bringing some thoughts back to a future meeting on how the council can better involve local organisations in its consultations, and he agreed to do so.

The council then proposed to double the ceiling on its external borrowing, from £5 million to £10 million. Some of this will be needed to fund the council’s existing trading company, and some to buy waste collection vehicles for the new contract in April. (Will the Chinese decision mean we might have to change the way we collect the co-mingled blue bin recyclables? If so, might we end up with the wrong sort of waste vehicles? Who knows?). But clearly those items won’t add up to an extra £5 million – so what’s going on? I asked the council to reconfirm that the council’s existing trading company won’t receive from the council more than the £5 million it was originally set as a limit, and the council has confirmed that it won’t. I also asked whether the remainder of the borrowing limit was to allow the council to carry out its new scheme of investing in commercial property.  The suitably vague response was that it would allow the council ‘flexibility’ to take up new opportunities. Christine and I voted against this huge increase in the borrowing limit.

The council also decided to set up a second trading company, to receive the waste contract. I’ve written before about how the council admitted last month, in response to a question from me, that it was going to have to set up a new company in a hurry to take on the waste contract, because it had got itself into a mess over the amount of non-council work the existing company was allowed by law to do, and it would now be illegal to give the contract to the existing company. The council was proposing to pay the independent Chairman of the new company an allowance (£4,000 a year) to chair the board. I proposed that he should be paid nothing, because when the waste contract was awarded to the existing company last February no mention was made of increasing the Chairman’s allowance, and after all there’s no more work to be done so why should the allowance be increased just because the work is now split across two companies? Conservative councillors opposed my amendment, but obviously some of the messages must have hit home because they passed a revised motion referring back the question of the Chairman’s allowance to the council’s Shareholder Committee to reconsider. Christine and I abstained on the establishment of the second trading company: I’m pleased that the council has taken on board some of the comments I made about its analysis of the risks, but it’s all a bit of a mess and is likely to come back to haunt the council.

Bus review
Finally, I asked a question of the Leader of the Council, who is the council’s representative on the Combined Authority: will the Combined Authority’s forthcoming review of bus services include non-scheduled services (like the new East Cambs Connect) and community transport? It appears it will. They say of buses that you don’t get one for a while and then several come along all at once. It’s a bit like that with bus reviews too, with the county council also carrying out partially overlapping reviews of various parts of the service.

NHS figures show winter crisis is worsening

The Liberal Democrats have warned the NHS crisis is worsening, as figures showed hospitals are facing the highest pressures so far this winter.

  • 16,900 patients faced waits of half an hour or more in ambulances outside A&E in the week to New Year’s Eve. 4,700 of these were delays of over 60 minutes. These are the worst figures for ambulance delays for a single week so far this winter.
  • There were 480,400 calls to the NHS 111 service in the week to 31 December –  the highest number of calls in a single week to NHS 111 since the service was created.
  • Liberal Democrat analysis showed that in the week from Christmas Day to New Year’s Eve, 12 of 137 NHS trusts were 100 per cent full on at least one day, while 57 were at least 99 per cent full on at least one day.
  • In total 71,000 patients have faced delays of half-an hour or more this winter, over 12,000 of them for an hour or more.

Liberal Democrat Leader Vince Cable commented: “These figures show the NHS crisis is worsening, with thousands of patients being stuck in ambulances outside A&Es and many hospitals suffering from a severe lack of beds. Every day seems to bring yet more bad news about the state of the health service. The blame lies firmly at the government’s door. Ministers refused to provide the funding top NHS officials said was necessary and now patients are paying the price.

“It’s time to give the NHS and care the extra cash they desperately need, by putting a penny on income tax to raise an extra £6bn a year.”

Storm Eleanor: advice from UK Power Networks

UK Power Networks, responsible for maintaining the electricity network across the UK, have issued the following advice to residents in advance of the arrival of Storm Eleanor tonight.  They say:

“You will be able to find regular updates on our website www.ukpowernetworks.co.uk and social media @UKPowerNetworks throughout this period.

Anyone experiencing a power cut should:

  • Call 105 to report power cuts and damage to the electricity network, or 0800 3163 105 (from a corded phone or mobile phone if you have no power)
  • Visit ukpowernetworks.co.uk for the latest updates
  • Visit ukpowernetworks.co.uk/powercut and type in their postcode to view our live power cut map
  • Tweet @ukpowernetworks to report a power cut or to receive updates.

We advise people to stay clear of power lines and report damaged power lines immediately by calling 105 free from both a landline or a mobile phone. If they see electricity lines that are down or causing significant risk to the public they should call 999.

We provide extra help to customers on our Priority Service Register during a power cut.  Households with older or disabled people, those with children under five, or where someone uses medical or mobility equipment that requires electricity as well as other reasons can join the register.  You can find out more information about our Priority Service on our website: ukpowernetworks.co.uk/priority.

If you would like to share information about preparing for the storm or the priority service register on social media you might like to use the following:

@UKPowerNetworks has extra staff on hand 24/7 to deal with the impact of #stormEleanor

Call 105 to report a power cut and visit www.ukpowernetworks.co.uk/powercut for the latest updates

Do you, or someone you know, need extra support during a power cut? @UKPowerNetworks provides free services to vulnerable customers. Visit ukpowernetworks.co.uk/priority for more information #stormEleanor

Preparing for a power cut

Below is some additional advice:

  • Add 105 to the contacts on your mobile phone
  • Keep our Freephone 0800 3163 105 number handy
  • See www.ukpowernetworks.co.uk/powercuts for useful videos and advice during a power cut.
  • Locate a torch, check it’s working and make sure you have spare batteries. Take care if using candles.
  • Charge up your mobile phone, and a rechargeable mobile ‘powerbank’ if you have one.
  • Use a phone with a cord if you have one, cordless phones don’t work in a power cut.
  • Keep fridges and freezers closed, with a blanket over as they will stay cold for many hours.
  • Switch off all your electrical equipment, except one light which will let you know when the power comes back on.

Remember the street lights may also be off so take care if you go out

  • Dress in warm clothes
  • Look out for vulnerable neighbours.”