Saturday, 17 March 2018

Howey Lane - Little Britain in Frodsham - council says 'no'

Anyone who uses Howey Lane in Frodsham will have noticed the spiralling decline of the road surface. Back in 2015 it was the odd pothole here and there with the usual wear and tear around the speed bumps: this is an occupational hazard caused by breaking and accelerating to navigate the speed management measures 

But over the past 2 years things have been deteriorating and fast. Lynn and I report potholes as they arise as do many local people, but the odd repair just did not keep pace and whole lengths of the road surface have now broken down. In an attempt to get the attention this key road needs, the issue has been raised at main council meetings which really isn’t the place for operational service requests but is the last resort for councillors.

With extra pothole money (£0.5m) announced by Government  for CWAC only last month, I had yet another attempt to raise Howey Lane as a case for some urgent attention last Thursday. The answer is unbelievable 

Question 9
From Councillor Andrew Dawson to Karen Shore, Cabinet Member for Environment
I raised the state of Howey Lane, Frodsham at the December 2017 Council meeting.  Since then, and in spite of what can best be called an inadequate attempt at repair and maintenance Howey Lane is further deteriorating.  There are multiple pot holes, large stretches where the base course of the road is exposed and profound problems with drainage generally and in particular surface water run off.  The traffic calming speed bumps and cushions are themselves deteriorating and causing significant additional damage to the road.

When will Cllr Shore sort this out and ensure that this strategic road is fit for use?

Answer 9
Unfortunately winter weather has a massive impact on the condition of our roads, with a sharp rise in the number of potholes forming on the Borough’s road network at this time of year.  Repairs are normally carried out with hot materials in average temperatures, but during cold winter weather, temporary repairs are made to keep the network serviceable and safe for road users, which may not always be aesthetically pleasing.  The location of each temporary repair is accurately logged, so a permanent repair can be included in an appropriate programme of works later in the year.

Based on the survey data we currently hold, Howey Lane has not been identified by our asset management software as requiring full resurfacing. However, its condition will be reviewed in the coming weeks and the appropriate permanent repairs will be made in financial year 2018/19.

Now this failure to recognise the issue would be bad enough if it was just a further example of Labour councillors not being on top of the job or their departments.  However this is a serious health and safety issue.  CWaC has already had to withdraw a 'tweet' showing a highways inspector measuring a pothole and saying it wasn't deep enough at 50mm to justify a repair.

Lynn and I are continuing to press the council to face reality and get on top of highways maintenance.  You may remember, just a few years ago our Borough's roads were in excellent shape and considered to be amongst the best maintained roads in the country.  Three years of Labour failures has led to the present appalling situation.

And before anyone shouts 'cuts' - just remember CWaC has an unallocated £6m surplus at the moment and that it is intending to increase the size of its reserves in the next financial year as well.  What we are seeing is the consequence of a political choice not to fund or prioritise highways maintenance and at a time when there is money available.

The questions Labour refused to answer

Last Thursday, 1 March we had Cheshire West and Chester's Budget setting council meeting.   All councillors have the right to table questions before a council meeting and expect them to be answered during the meeting. 

Last Thursday Conservative Councillors had tabled 14 questions, Labour Councillors had tabled none.   Through the concerted actions of the Labour Group, who refused to extend the length of the council meeting to allow the questions to be answered not a single question that had been put was answered.

Cllr Lynn Riley and I, between us tabled 8 questions.  If you want to see the full list of questions put please follow this link.

These are the questions I put - and still want answering.

The first set of questions was all about bed blocking at the Countess of Chester Hospital seemingly caused by CWaC's inability to place of find suitable care for those patients medically fit to leave the hospital - but who needed some sort of care package to support them.  The hospital trust is seeking over £300,000 in penalties from the council.

Question from Cllr Andrew Dawson to Councillor Paul Dolan, Cabinet Member for Adult Social Care

At February's Health and Wellbeing Board it was confirmed that the Countess of Chester Hospital Trust is seeking over £300,000 in penalties from this council for what the Trust sees as this council's unacceptable performance in the providing social care for patients who are medically fit for discharge.
Could Cllr Dolan please provide specific details regarding the demands for payment from the Hospital Trust including:
1 The dates of each demand for payment?
2 When these demands for payment were received by the Council?
3 How much was each demand for?
4 According to the demands for payment how many patients were delayed in hospital and how many days were beds blocked in hospital (ie the delayed bed days) as a consequence?

Question from Councillor Andrew Dawson to Councillor Sam Dixon, Leader of the Council

Given the Leader's roles as Leader of this Council, Chair of the Health and Wellbeing Board and holding a senior position on the Countess of Chester Trust is she embarrassed by the Countess of Chester Trust's decision to seek to levy penalties of over £300,000 on this council for delayed transfers of care that the hospital trust attribute to failings at this council and the inefficiency and misery for vulnerable people that this represents? 

The following related question deals with the publicity of the Health and Wellbeing Board.  There is much good news at the Health and Wellbeing Board that, in my view could do with receiving much greater publicity and public scrutiny.  The efforts of bringing health and social care together is something that we all care about.   Not all the news is good - such as the over £300,000 in penalties being levied against CWaC.  Again I think this something we should all know about.

I suspect the public would also like to know that 30% of delayed transfers of care at the Countess of Chester Hospital come from Flintshire County Council patients who represent only 20% of the users and that the Health and Wellbeing Board has asked our Leader of the Council specifically to challenge our neighbouring Welsh authority about their poor performance that could affect so many patients in our Borough simply because beds are blocked unnecessarily.

Then there is the contrast with how well Leighton Hospital is doing with its partners such as CWaC in making sure that there a very few delayed transfers of care.  That success could be celebrated.  Given this I tabled the following question.

Question from Councillor Andrew Dawson to Councillor Paul Dolan, Cabinet Member for Adult Social Care

Does Councillor Dolan support webcasting of the Health and Wellbeing Board - and if not, why not?

Now, as it happened whilst this question was not answered in the meeting Cllr Lynn Riley and I moved an amendment to the budget seeking to provide £3,000 to cover the cost of webcasting the Health and Wellbeing Board.   The £3,000 could readily be provided from the £23+million in general reserves.

That reasonable and affordable budget amendment was voted down by the ruling Labour Group.

I also asked a question (for the second council meeting in a row) about Howey Lane.  

From Councillor Andrew Dawson to Karen Shore, Cabinet Member for Environment

I raised the state of Howey Lane, Frodsham at the December 2017 Council meeting. Since then, and in spite of what can best be called an inadequate attempt at repair and maintenance Howey Lane is further deteriorating. There are multiple pot holes, large stretches where the base course of the road is exposed and profound problems with drainage generally and in particular surface water run off. The traffic calming speed bumps and cushions are themselves deteriorating and causing significant additional damage to the road.
When will Cllr Shore sort this out and ensure that this strategic road is fit for use? 

This question wasn't answered - however in the council meeting Cllr Shore struck me as being in denial regarding the state of the Borough's roads.  She gave no acknowledgement or recognition of the deteriorating state of the roads something all of us can see on a daily basis.  This is in spite of CWaC having substantial cash reserves, that the 2018-19 budge adds further to those reserves.  And then there is the little issue of the Council having a surplus of £6 million pounds - surely some of this could repair our roads?

Now if you are interested in why these questions weren't answered you may find the following explanation helpful.

All our council meetings are scheduled to last 3 hours - however we can agree (by vote) to extend the length of a council meeting so that we finish our business.

Most council meetings start at 6pm - meaning that, typically we finish around 9pm or later if we agree to extend the time of the meeting.

Because we know the budget council is likely to run longer that meeting starts at 5pm.

Every councillor has the right to table questions to be answered at a council meeting.  The question and answer session is one of the last things on the agenda.   In recent months and years, when CWaC has been under Labour control it has been increasingly rare for these questions to be reached, or if reached for them all to be answered.

In theory at the council meeting a councillor tables a written question, the question is answered and then a supplementary question can be put.   Whilst cabinet members can have officer help in answering the written question, answering the supplementary question can be more difficult - as the cabinet member has to think of their feet.  This appears to be what the current crop of Labour cabinet members are scared by. 

However we have suspected before that they really want to disappear as quickly as possible to go and have their tea.  With the meeting starting at 5pm and finishing at 8pm they got away early this meeting.  

Is this a question of putting their mealtime needs ahead of democracy and debate?

Monday, 5 March 2018

The rises to Council Tax in more detail.

So, as I mentioned in my earlier blog post 3 years of CWaC Labour budgets have given Frodsham residents a council tax that is nearly 15% higher than it was when they took office.

There have been inflation busting rises pushed on us over those years by the Police and Crime Commissioner, The Fire Authority and Frodsham Town Council but by far the largest contributor to these increases is CWaC Labour.

From my perspective what's worse is the lack of innovation, and the lack of planning.  Labour reaches all too easily for the 'tax and spend' routine - and in this case has done so when having a £6m surplus that has been earmarked for anything specific.  In 2018-19 there is another near £6m sum being added to the General Reserves too.

Frodsham was only mentioned in the budget and council tax papers as a source of income.  There were no budgets or allocations for new leisure facilities.  There were no budgets or allocations for improving and expanding the station car park.

For Frodsham residents the council tax raised from us is made of 4 components.  The largest 'chunk' is the Council Tax raised by CWaC.  In addition to that we pay council tax to the Police and Crime Commissioner, The Fire Authority and Frodsham Town Council.  In other places there is a 5th share called 'special expenses.'  Special expenses try to iron out the double taxation inequality caused by a town or parish council providing a service, which elsewhere is provided by CWaC. The special expenses figure for Frodsham is £0 so we can largely ignore it.

The following pie chart shows who gets what.  All figures quoted are for a Band D home.  I explain how you work out your council tax if you are not a Band D payer later.  The proportion of council tax taken by each authority is the same no matter which council tax band your home is in.

Cheshire West and Chester Council over the years

Now seeing who is going to take what from us in 2018-19 year is only part of the story.  How have things changed over the years?  Let's look at CWaC first.  The stark difference between financial prudence and innovation of a Conservative controlled council and the inefficiencies of a tax and spend Labour council couldn't be clearer.

This chart shows how the CWaC council tax has changed since the council was created on 1 April 2009.

Under the Conservatives over 7 budgets the CWaC element of the council tax barely changed.  And if you take account of inflation the effect of this approach was a real terms reduction of 14%.

Under  Labour the council tax paid by a Band D tax payer to CWaC has gone from £1,267.92 to £1,444.95 - an increase of £177.03 or a 14% increase in actual terms.

This next chart shows the percentage change in the council tax charged by CWaC since 2010.  Under the Conservatives the tax rises (when they occurred were modest) and in several years the council tax did not rise, and in one year it was reduced.

The 3 recent years of Labour control are in stark contrast to the 7 years where the level of council tax charged changed little.  In the 3 years of Labour control the council tax has risen by more than 4% twice and this year by more than 5%.

The council tax for Cheshire Police over the years

Its also worth looking at how the Police and Crime Commissioner, the Fire Authority and FTC have performed over the years too.  This chart shows the council tax paid for the police since 2013.  Prior to the 2014-15 budget the police budget was set by the Police Authority.  The Police Authority was made up of councillors from all four Cheshire Councils (CWaC, Cheshire East, Halton and Warrington) and independent appointed members.  The Police Authority was not under political control.  Those arrangements were replaced with the directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners ('PCC').  The first PCC set budget was that for 2014-15. 

The following chart shows the percentage change in the council tax levied for Cheshire Police since 2014.  The PCC's latest increase in council tax is an astonishing 7.3%.

Cheshire Fire Authority over the years

Cheshire Fire authority's performance over the years is shown in this chart.  The effect of Labour taking control in May 2011 (after the budget for the 11-12 year was set) couldn't be clearer.  The Labour controlled authority simply maximises the increases in council tax it can make without triggering a referendum - hence the somewhat 'steady' inexorable progression upwards.

This graph shows the percentage rises to the Fire Authority's council tax from 2010.  The chart shows the council tax remaining static between 2010-11 and 2011-12 under Conservative control and then rising at just under 2% for the remaining years, other than this year when the rise is just under 3%.

Frodsham Town Council over the years

Over the year's FTC's council tax take has become more significant - it is catching up with the money paid in council tax to the Fire Authority.

The percentage changes chart is quite astonishing and needs some further explanation.

This graph shows two very significant spikes.  The first for the 2012 budget with a rise of 27.56% and the second in 2016 with a rise of 51.54%.

Now the rise in 2012 was a technical rise which no-one in Frodsham felt.  This was the year that CWaC introduced special expenses (which weren't being levied in Frodsham).  This meant that CWaC's council tax in Frodsham fell by around £8.  FTC raised its council tax by effectively the same amount - so that, in total there was no more council tax to pay.  This change effectively transferred resources from CWaC to FTC without hitting the Frodsham Council tax payer.  You can see how this change did not impact Frodsham council tax payers by looking at the next two charts where the total council tax taken in 2012-13 was almost identical to the tax taken in 2011-12 and the percentage rise overall that year was less than 0.2%.

FTC's council tax did not rise again until 2016 when the astonishing near 52% council tax rise was imposed.  The percentage rise was so great that it made national news and led to national discussions as to whether Town and Parish Council tax setting should be subject to same referendum limits that apply to everyone else entitled to raise council tax.

Part of that rise was caused by CWaC Labour removing new homes bonus payments from Frodsham Town Council.  The effect of CWaC Labour's decisions led to Frodsham residents having the highest council tax rise anywhere in the Borough that year.

What we've had to pay in total over the years

So putting all these charts together and looking at the total council tax we pay to CWaC, the PCC, the Fire Authority and FTC over the years we get this:

The chart shows how stable to total council tax taken was from 2010-2015 and how rapidly it has risen since then.

Thiis next chart confirms this as shows the percentatge change in council tax over the years for Frodsham residents taking account of all the council tax we pay to each of the four organisations.

What this chart shows is that in two of the last three years Frodsham council tax payers have faced rises of over 5% and when taking the three years as a whole the rises we have had to pay have amount to nearly 15% - and this at a time when inflation remains low.

If you are not a Band D council tax payer.

All these charts are based on being a Band D tax payer.  The amounts of money people pay change depending on the band their home is in.  That said the proportions remain the same so all the charts and graphs would look the same - just with different cash amounts. 

The council tax system is all based on ninths and uses what a Band D tax payer pays as its base.  At the risk of stating the obvious a Band D payer pays 9/9ths of the Band D tax set by the council.

So taking the Band D figure as the base a Band A council tax payer, pays 6/9ths - or 2/3rds of the amount a Band D payer pays. The corresponding figures are Band B pays 7/9ths, Band C 8/9ths, Band E 11/9ths, Band F 13/9ths, Band G 15/9ths and Band H 18/9ths or double what a Band D tax payer pays.

In addition to the banding there are a number of discounts and exemptions that may apply.  When you get your council tax bill through the post in the next few days you will find details of how to apply for any of the relevant discounts or exemptions. 

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Arriva Trains North Wales - no services to and from Frodsham

For those of us who use the North Wales - Chester - Manchester railway line on a regular basis the travel disruption over the last week has been something more than an inconvenience.  Whilst all of us can accept travel disruption caused by weather, to learn that the problems on our line have been caused by Arriva Trains's need to check the integrity of the wheels on their long distance train sets takes us more into the realms of incompetence and an uncaring operator.

Don't get me wrong, I fully support, and indeed would insist that if Arriva Trains discover a safety critical defect on a particular type of train they must, as a matter of priority check the integrity of all the affected rolling stock.  The safety critical nature of the checks may require all the trains to be taken out of service as they are being assessed.  That appears to be what they are doing.

My criticism is their failure to have effective contingency plans in place to be able to manage such an eventuality that look after the needs of the passengers.  Every train operator, in my view, should plan for detecting a potentially safety critical defect that would lead to a withdrawal of a significant number of trains.   That should lead, in my view, to sharing all available trains across their network and borrowing or hiring trains from elsewhere so as to minimise the effect of the loss of rolling stock on the travelling passenger.  Where that can't be done rail replacement buses should be hired.  Arriva should be trying to maintain a reasonable service on all their services.  I struggle to believe that is what is happening at the moment.

Arriva's franchise for the services through Frodsham is handled by the Labour controlled Welsh Government.  I will be writing to the Welsh Government enquiring whether their franchise agreement with Arriva is being honoured, whether their franchise agreement caters for the protection of the travelling public in the circumstances that we have, and what the franchise agreement says about the need to provide effective communication to passengers.  I will also be writing to the Secretary of State for Transport seeking his help and intervention with the Welsh Government and Arriva.  I will also be writing to Arriva themselves complaining about the way in which the Frodsham travelling public have been treated and asking why their contingency planning  and communication appears to have been so poor.

If you are interested here is a link to the BBC account of the rail problems.

This is a link to Arriva's journey check pages

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Council Tax rises

Labour controlled CWaC council has just voted through its budget for 2018-19.  The effect of the decision they took is and that of the other council tax rising authorities is that a Band D council tax payer will have to pay £1,756.00.

Over the 3 years Labour has set budgets at CWaC Frodsham council taxpayers have seen their bills rise by close on 15%.  This is stark contrast to the 7 previous years of Conservative budgets where the council tax remained broadly the same, and when you take account of inflation this amounted to a real terms reduction of 14%.

I’ll set out the details in a later blog - however at this stage it is worth stating that even though the council has underspent many of its budgets in recent years, even though there is a £6 million surplus in the accounts at the moment Labour chose to max out the rises it is imposing on our residents.

‘Frodsham’ is mentioned 10 times in the agenda pack.  Six of those mentions relates to raising money from residents, three mentions come in questions raised by Cllr Riley and me.  The final mention is a comment I made on the budget consultation (I was the only Cllr that appears to have responded) pointing out that Frodsham has not received the strategic investments that other areas had.

There are no budgets, no allocations for any new Leisure facilities.  There are no budgets or allocations to improve our car parking and our station car parking in particular.

When I raised these deficiencies Labour’s Cllr Armstrong’s only response was that the elections were next year.  I’ve been raising these deficiencies for years now.  Labour clearly don’t think Frodsham is worth investing in - perhaps other than in an election year?

However  lets not forget the Halton Curve opens in December 2018.  We need extra car parking to cope with the additional demand it will generate by then.  There isn’t even a planning application submitted.  So it looks like we’ll get car parking charges, more trains - but no more car parking spaces.  A combination that will cause irritation at the least and chaos at the worst.