Tuesday, 31 January 2012

For whom the bridge swings

Sutton Weaver swing bridge is, as we all know, the western approach to Frodsham.  It carries the A56 over the Weaver Navigation.  In fact it is the most used approach to Frodsham given its proximity to the M56 and the fact that it can accommodate taller vehicles than those that can get beneath the railway bridges that restrict vehicles on two of the other approaches.  The tight turns at the bottom of Fluin Lane (the only other realistic approach to Frodsham) also impede easy access to the Town.

Not only does the bridge look awful in its present rusty condition, but as those of us who drive over it already know – the carriageway is flexing and needs patching constantly.  The deck plates need replacing – and until they are, and the highway deck stabilised, the on-going cost of patching the roadway is around £30,000 a year.

Cheshire West and Chester Council is the highway authority and has the responsibility for maintaining the A56 along with most of the road network in the Borough.  However the Sutton Weaver swing bridge is a special case. 

The bridge itself belongs to British Waterways.  When this leg of the Navigation was constructed in the early 1800s, it was a condition of being given the right to build the canal that the then trustees had to install a swing bridge at this location. 

A new bridge was constructed in the 1920s – and it is this bridge that is in great need of refurbishment.  Of course since then road traffic has greatly increased – as has the maximum weight of the vehicles that can use the bridge.   Works were carried out on the bridge to allow it to carry heavier vehicles.  Some have suggested that it was the strengthening work that has given rise to the present problems.

British Waterways and Cheshire West and Chester’s predecessor the old County Council agreed in 1982 a formula to share the costs of maintenance and repair for the swing bridge – with one-third of the costs to be met by the Council, and two-thirds by British Waterways.

There is no debate regarding the need for repair and refurbishment – however there is a question about where the money will come from.  British Waterways say they don’t have the money to do the work.  Even Cheshire West and Chester would struggle to find the resources in this cash strapped age.

Well tomorrow Cllr Lynn Riley and I are off to London to do some lobbying.

Of course finding the money is only really the ‘end of the beginning.’  Making sure the job is done swiftly and efficiently – minimising disruption to Frodsham, its businesses and the commununity – will be the bigger challenge.

Could you imagine the chaos if the M56 is closed and the swing bridge is closed... and this is before we get the construction traffic for the second Mersey Crossing...

Fingers crossed ...

Saturday, 28 January 2012

FTC - Update on the budget

The latest budget figures are now in.  All of the Local Councils quoted below have now set their precepts and what they want to be raised in Council Tax.

So assuming CWaC sets the Council Tax at the same rate as last year this time around, and adopts the special expenses regime the position will be:

Local Council Local Council Band D charge Indicative Cheshire West and Chester Band D charge Indicative Cheshire West and Chester Special Expense Charge per Band D Total
Frodsham £38.55 £1,246.26 £0.00 £1,284.81
Winsford £36.46 £1,246.26 £3.62 £1,286.34
Helsby £42.67 £1,246.26 £1.59 £1,290.52
Neston £32.86 £1,246.26 £12.74 £1,291.86
Northwich £73.66 £1,246.26 £12.06 £1,331.98

In other words Council Tax payers in Frodsham will pay the least of any of the Cheshire West Towns that have a Town Council and less than our neighbours in Helsby.

All the figures quoted are for a Band D property before any relevant discounts are applied.

The figures are also very interesting when one looks at what percentage of the total tax taken by the Local Councils directly and those attributable to the locale by CWaC in the special expenses figures:

Local CouncilLocal Council Tax and Special Expenses as a percentage of total tax charged

In other words this shows that only 3% of the Council Tax and special expenses charge collected locally is attributable to the Town Council and special expense services provided for the community by CWaC.
The corresponding figure in Northwich is more than double at 6.4%.  Now the comparison here takes account of the fact that the Council Tax charged is higher in Northwich, say than Frodsham - as in each case the percentage is derived against the total tax paid in that community.

If one standardises the comparison and makes it against just what CWaC charge a Band D property the figures are starker:

Local Council Local Council Tax and Special Expenses as a percentage of Cheshire West and Chester tax charged
Frodsham 3.1
Winsford 3.2
Helsby 3.6
Neston 3.7
Northwich 6.9

Now of course one could compare the size of the communities as well ... but that is for another time!

The final Council Tax bill will, of course, also include amounts for the police and fire authorities.

It is all about Education

I was honoured and delighted to be invited to take part in a panel discussion at Chester University yesterday answering questions from the students about Conservative Party education policy.  Representatives from Labour and the Lib-Dems also took part.    We discussed a range of topics from the English Baccalaureate to the numbers we could afford as a society to have a University degree.  It was challenging and thoroughly enjoyable - and I hope for the students enlightening.

At one stage I was challenged over one set of statistics I quoted by the Professor.  Happily I was able to reveal that my source was the BBC News Education pages and could turn up the sources on my iPad for the students to see.  It pays to be prepared!

My only regret is that I had to dash in and out of the session as I had a case at Chester Crown Court - but as partial pay back we extended the session so I could get some of my party's views over!

The University very kindly gave me a University scarf as a small 'thank-you' gift.  So if you see me wearing it - you'll now know why!

Front row: Andrew Dawson (Conservative), Mike Sullivan (Labour) and Jean Evans (Lib-Dem)
Back row: Paul Skillen and Prof Rob Hulme

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The case for comprehensive environmental monitoring

Frodsham sits on a hill - a Town surrounded on 3 sides by beautiful Cheshire countryside and to the North we have the heavy industrial complexes along most of the Mersey Estuary.  The industrial complex is soon to expand yet further with the Ince Resource Recovery Park - touted that it will be the UK's largest resource recovery park when built.  In addition to this we have the Western Point incinerator complex being constructed to the north.

Now not unnaturally the Peel Covanta joint venture portray their proposed complex of incinerators and other businesses that will 'recover resources' - in the best possible light - it would be wrong to expect them to do otherwise.  However in these cynical days when we are increasingly mistrustful of words - is this in fact counter-productive?

The locals in Frodsham, Helsby and no doubt the other surrounding communities are concerned that the large and expanding  industrial complexes could cause damage to their health or to the environment.  This is a perception - and not necessarily based on scientific evidence.  They want reassurance.  A number of us are pressing for the Peel Covanta joint venture - either by themselves, or by them galvanising support from the surrounding industrial sites to institute regular and sustained environmental monitoring for the entire area over and above that required by the regulators - and for that monitoring to be independently managed and scrutinised and started before operations are commenced at their site.

This is because the communities are also distrustful of the regulators and the regulatory regime ostensibly there to protect them.

Effectively the proposition goes like this - the regulatory regime will require you to monitor on site, at the site boundary and perhaps for some distance beyond.  However it won't require you to monitor necessarily in the heart of our residential communities - which is where people live and have their concerns.  Given the size of the industrial complexes - the height of the chimneys - and the implicit dispersion to the atmosphere of whatever goes up the chimney and the risk of it 'falling-out' onto the local communities we want reassurance - ever before we think of air turbulence caused by the hills (or any wind-farm).

Now Peel said last night they were unaware of this concern.  Ironically had Peel properly engaged with the community from the start this level of concern should not have come as a surprise to them.

Undoubtedly instituting a wide-ranging suite of environmental monitoring for this entire North Cheshire/ Mersey Estuary will come at a cost - however in the global scheme of things - a trivial cost when compared with the turnover and profitability of the present and intended industrial concerns.  And the return for this cost - and assuming independence and full disclosure of the data collected - community peace of mind - which would be priceless.

I won't bore you too much with the ragged interface between the planning regime and the Environment Agency's permitting regime - other than to say - blithe commitments made in a planning document that the applicant 'shall not' cause 'unacceptable' impacts to the environment and health may not be capable of enforcement in terms that the layman or the wider community would find intelligible or acceptable... and if I'm right on this we may find ourselves having to doubt the very words being used and the comfort they are intended to bring.  

I challenged the EA and the planners last night in direct questions at a Community Forum about who will enforce this commitment regarding 'unacceptable impacts' and did not get reassuring answers.  This may be because the constraints of the planning and EA permitting regimes don't allow either or both agencies to require the environmental monitoring regime that the communities instinctively want. 

Now there is a way out of this troubling conundrum.  The Peel Covanta joint venture could commit to provide this wider environmental monitoring voluntarily - and make it a permanent commitment through what is called a unilateral undertaking.  I have implored them to 'get out in front' of this environmental debate - put themselves in the minds of the concerned community.  Get themselves 'on the side of the angels'.  Just imagine, God forbid, that we do get this wider environmental monitoring and it finds something before any of these new enterprises fire up.  Now that would be a real service to the community, and, of course would serve to protect the new businesses. 

Is this too much to ask or expect?

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Dinning at the Round Table

One of the most pleasurable parts of being Mayor of Frodsham is being invited to groups and societies, and on occasion 'eat for' the people of Frodsham.  Frodsham and district Round Table invited me to one of their business meetings last night at Forest Hills.   It was a lively, good natured, affair.

I spoke for what many would think was a mercifully short period of time - I'm told one of my nameless predecessors spoke for over an hour - I kept it to around 10 minutes.  Most importantly I thanked our Round Table for all the excellent community work they do for us - ranging from Sanata's Christmas Sleigh through to the fireworks on 5 November and many other things besides.  The Table is looking out for initiatives to support - so if you have a community project that could do with some cash or young men - contact them!  

If you are a young chap and looking for a fun group to join and want to give something back to the community whilst having fun - give them a shout too!

The Table very kindly offered to donate £200 to a charity of my choice.  I asked them to keep the money under their control and award it either to a young entrepreneur to assist him or her develop a business, or, if they preferred, in supporting sexual health initiatives for our younger citizens.  I know in Winsford they hand out what are euphemistically called 'Ibiza bags' to their youngsters... Lets help the next generation make wise choices and stay healthy!

Thanks for inviting me chaps - carry on the good work!

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Screw it, just do it!- Frodsham Town Council and setting the budget

Richard Branson's biography contains pithy phrases like 'Screw it, just do it!'

Well this epithet could well have been written for Frodsham Town Council last night.

Exceptionally Frodsham Town Council had been given permission by Cheshire West and Chester Council to set its budget and its element of the Council Tax later than normal so it could learn whether CWaC would be likely to adopt the special expenses regime which would see the Council Tax charged to Frodsham residents drop by around £8.33 on a Band D property.  This is around 0.7% of the tax taking by CWaC.

However the Town Council, by a sizeable majority, decided not to wait and see and chose to set its budget last night - effectively taking the risk that CWaC may not adopt this special expenses regime.   Even if the Town Council had waited until the 9 February and learnt what CWaC's Executive was recommending there would still have been an element of risk - as CWaC sets its budget at its Council meeting on 23 February.

The Town Council did choose to raise its element of the Council Tax by £8.33 per Band D resident.  An influencing factor was the prospect of CWaC lowering its charge on Frodsham residents by the same amount - and thus netting to a nil position - however the real debate was over the Council's ambitious plans to recruit a Town Manager.  The recruitment of a 'Mr or Ms Frodsham' whose sole role in life would be the promotion of Frodsham in all its guises - from the Community to the Main Street - was seen by the majority as building in the capacity to start delivering on a number of projects.  This budget also includes money to replace the Christmas lights and a contribution to funding CCTV in Frodsham.

Interestingly - notwithstanding this £8.33 rise - on current figures and expectations the Council Tax paid by Frodsham residents could well end up the lowest of all CWaC's towns and lower than Helsby.

Figures provided to Frodsham Town Council by CWaC suggest that Frodsham resident's Council Tax Bill may look like this:

Frodsham Town Council area – Band D
CW&C base charge £1,246.26 0.7% decrease (£8.33 reduction)
CW&C Special expense £0.00    
Frodsham Town Council £38.55 27.6% increase (£8.33 increase)
Cheshire Police Authority £144.53 0.0% change Assuming a nil increase
Cheshire Fire Authority £66.43 0.0% change Assuming a nil increase
Total Council Tax £1,495.77 0.0% change  

At this stage no-one knows what the Police or Fire Authorities are likely to do.

The comparator figures, again provided by CWaC to FTC are as follows:

Local Council Precept CW&C Indicative base CTAX CW&C Indicative Special Expense Charge Total
Frodsham £38.55 £1,246.26 £0.00 £1,284.81
Winsford £36.46 £1,246.26 £3.62 £1,286.34
Northwich £73.66 £1,246.26 £12.06 £1,331.98
Neston £32.61 £1,246.26 £12.74 £1,291.61
Helsby £42.67 £1,246.26 £1.59 £1,290.52

It should be noted that some of the Local Council precept figures are from 2011-12 and some from 2012-13 and there may be minor changes to the special expenses figures - but this was the best data provided to FTC by CWaC to assist it in setting its budget.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Setting the Budget and the Council Tax rate for Frodsham

January and February are always intense months in local government - it is when budgets are finalised and Council Tax rates are set.

For those of us in Frodsham our Council Tax demand is made up of four elements.  By far the largest share of the Council Tax (around 85%)  is paid to CWaC - however our total Council Tax bill also includes contributions to the police authority (about 10%) and fire authority (about 5%) - and finally a small element to the Town Council.

Last year the element of the Council Tax paid to Frodsham Town Council was £30.22 per Band D household - this was out of a total bill of £1,495.77.  For those whose properties lies in the other Council Tax bands the figures paid will be different - but in the same proportions.

Now this year CWaC is considering whether to vary the Council Tax it charges across the Borough to reflect the variation in expenses met in some cases by the local town or parish council and those met by the Borough Council.  The three elements it is looking at are - PCSOs, Christmas Lights and play areas.  In Frodsham - it is the Town Council that largely pays for these items.  In contrast Northwich Town has 2 PCSOs funded by CWaC - but none by the Town Council.  Arguably this is unfair to Frodsham residents as we are partially subsidising Northwich's PCSOs and having to provide our own.  

If CWaC adopts this special expenses regime we in Frodsham will see about an £8.33 reduction in our Council Tax payable to CWaC.  This will be the largest reduction in the Borough - shared with 2 other parishes.  I say 'if' - because we do not know at this stage whether this policy will be adopted.

So what is FTC's financial position?

The outgoing FTC Council planned spending in the 2011-12 year of around £156,000.  These expenditures would be met through around £115,000 in Council Tax, some modest income of around £7,000 with the rest coming from reserves.  Our present financial information shows that we will spend £123,787.11 (in the year to 31 March 2012), had income of £16,557.26 - meaning our net payments will be around £107,229.85 as against £115,000 in Council Tax receipts.  In other words showing a small surplus as against our expenditure - exactly where any prudent local authority would like to be.  Whilst this looks pleasing - we have to bear in mind that some of this additional income comes from burial fees and the selling of grave plots.  This is not a demand you want to encourage!

So what of next year?  No-one wants to see taxes increase - however how many people would notice an £8.33 reduction in Council Tax over all?  Could that money be better spent in Frodsham for the benefit of the community?   In other words if there is a proper programme, should FTC take the opportunity to shift resources from CWaC to FTC without affecting the overall Council Tax bills in Frodsham?

FTC's Council Tax rate is presently very low compared with other parish and town councils.  Helsby's Band D rate is of the order of £42.  In Northwich the figure is over £70.  One of the reasons FTC's rate is so low is the fact that the last Council chose to finance some of its programme (that we didn't fully adopt) out of reserves.   Clearly that is unsustainable in the longer term.  Also in the past FTC hasn't been particularly ambitious.  Many of us take the view that our reserves should be used for capital projects and as a prudent buffer against unforeseen events and shocks - not as a resource to pay ongoing expenditures as the norm.

Then there is the question of having ambition - can we do more to promote Frodsham and help the community?  Can we share resources more with our neighbours and colleagues in Helsby, Kingsley and Sutton Weaver?  CWaC have already agreed that we can share 'front of house' facilities with them in Frodsham.  There are exciting possibilities being worked on that can be delivered cost effectively if we all work together efficiently.

So one of the questions we are grappling with at FTC is - do we take this opportunity to raise a little more money from the community - but making sure that there is no net increase in Council Tax for Frodsham residents or not?  Clearly we should not raise 1p more than is needed - and it should only be raised for proper purposes - not just because we can.

Would this help us towards a programme of offering two weeks unpaid work experience to our youngsters who want or need it...  this is certainly one of my hopes and ambitions?

So, anyway everything is in draft.  Plans are being formulated.  If you have any views on the subject or wish to help in any way - please let me know.  We'll have a better idea on 23 January what we are likely to do - and will have to set our precept by 9 February.