Monday, 21 October 2013

Bench-marking FTC and its council tax.

Comparing town and parish councils can be something of an interesting if not a thankless task - you see there are so many of them and they differ so much in size, character, ambition and approach event though their legal powers are effectively the same.

Records show that there are around 9,000 parish councils in England.  Some 600 of these are town councils - such as Frodsham.

The Daily Telegraph reported this morning that the Government was considering capping the ability of these town and parish councils to raise their element of the council tax - as last year, on average town and parish councils raised their precepts by c5%.

Now before everyone splutters in outrage we lowered our precept in Frodsham!

When considering your council tax bill you also have to take into account that in our part of CWaC is made up of 5 elements which are:

  • CWaC's precept;
  • Police & Crime Commissioner's precept - to pay towards the costs of Cheshire police;
  • Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service;
  • CWaC's special expenses - in other words those services CWaC provides locally in some areas, but not others - which some parish council's provide - eg the cost of a PCSO, Christmas lights etc; and
  • FTC's precept.
Leaving aside the special expenses FTC's element is by far the smallest and in Frodsham the special expenses figure is zero in any event.  You see typically more than 85% of your council tax goes to CWaC, around 10% to the Police and Crime Commissioner, and around 5% to the Fire Service.  If you want more detail you can find it here courtesy of CWaC.

A householder of a typical band D property in Frodsham will have to pay a total of £1,526.42 in council tax of which only £37.20 goes to FTC - less than 2.5% of the total precept.  

So what does this tell us about Frodsham.

Last year - unlike the 5% average increase reported for all parish and town councils - Frodsham Town Council's council tax take went down - albeit by a few pence.

The average Band D council tax levied by a parish council in England last year was £50.19.  Frodsham Town Council's precept is 25% cheaper than this average!  Frodsham residents pay less council tax than any other parished town in CWaC (ie it is the cheapest parished town in the Borough.  Cheaper than Northwich, Winsford & Neston.  Ellesmere Port and Chester are, at present un-parished).  

The council tax paid by Frodsham's residents is lower than other non-towned parishes too - such as Helsby, Tarporley, Saughall & District, Sproston, Marston, Little Stanney, Kingsmead, Darnhall, Moulton, Clotton Hoofield, Oakmere... and I dare say that none of these communities do all the things that FTC provides such as:
  • our own dedicated PCSO;
  • allotments;
  • cemetery;
  • bus stops;
  • volunteer winter gritting scheme;
  • over 70s vouchers
  • community defibrilators (with CWaC member contributions)
  • Christmas lights
  • community orchards etc
  • support with CWaC others in extending cycling and cycle stands in Frodsham
  • support with CWaC and others in Christmas and other festivals and events in Frodsham
  • support with CWaC and others in our own community social enterprise Frodsham Foundation; and
  • play areas...
This is not a complete list by the way!

I welcome the suggestion made in the Telegraph article that if a parish or town council wishes to raise its parish precept by more than 2% should only be supported by a local referendum.  The only problem is that the costs of running a referendum are quite prohibitive if you are looking for a relatively small rise which could engender local support.  

Perhaps we should ask the government to be more sophisticated in its approach - such as requiring a referendum if seeking an increase by 2% when you are above the national average - with perhaps a slightly higher threshold - such as 4 or 5% if you are below that average figure.  Alternatively some less expensive means of testing local opinion than a full blown referendum could be an alternative.  (I estimate for Frodsham that a referendum would cost us around £15-20,000k - perhaps more than 10% of our entire revenue in any year.  The costs of the referendum alone would prevent you ever seeking authority to increase the precept beyond the capping figure in all likelihood.

Incidentally I have no plans to raise FTC's precept - I am simply explaining the realities of what a 2% 'referendum cap' would mean.

What the Telegraph article also highlights for me is the fact that Government needs to review how much it pays to CWaC in grants.  The figures also suggest we are not getting as much as perhaps we should.  I signed a petition a month ago requesting that the government settlement figures for CWaC should be reconsidered.  As a Borough we are much more self sufficient than other areas.  If only the rest of the country was as efficient as CWaC and FTC we'd all be paying a lot less in Council Tax!  

Thursday, 17 October 2013

CWaC Full Council - Badgers and Retail

We had a meeting of CWaC's full council tonight.  It was one of those meetings where most of the time we could agree on most things.

That said there were two debates tonight - one ended in complete unanimity - and the other was decided on a casting vote - the first time that has happened at CWaC.

We had a debate regarding bovine TB.  Should the council ban culling badgers on Council land and support vaccination of wild badgers?  I'm paraphrasing here - the actual motion put to the council by Cllr Mearden was much more lengthy than this - but it amounted to the same thing.  All of us on CWaC had been extensively lobbied - by those for and against a badger cull and we had several public speakers who spoke eloquently on the issue too.  We heard from a diary farmer as well as representatives such as from Cheshire Wildlife.

I felt the motion was premature in the sense that the issue of bovine TB has been taxing greater minds than mine and indeed CWaC's for many years and we are still searching for a solution.  My sentiments are humane - I lean towards vaccination and I certainly don't support killing anything unless it really has to be done.  I do want CWaC to consider this in detail, to call for evidence before we take a decision whether to support the motion or not.  Importantly we must consult all stakeholders - including CWaC's own tenant farmers and listen to the experts.

From a personal point of view I know how devastating TB can be.

My family all come from the Isle of Man.  I have studied my family history.  My father's family bred like rabbits in the middle of the nineteenth century.  At the end of that century and the start of the next my family was devastated - largely by TB.  My grandmother was one of 8.  She was the only one to have children.  Her father lost a wife and 4 children before having a second family - one of whom was my grandmother.  Through a combination of TB, WW1 and Spanish flu - it was just her who had a family.  My grandfather lost his sister to TB too.  I have no cousins, or second cousins and TB all those years ago is a contributing factor.

I know this dreadful disease will not respect land boundaries - and I want to make sure we play our part - and the best part we can in halting the spread of bovine TB in our wildlife and in our cattle.

If you have a view on what CWaC's policy should be in this area do make sure you have your say.  We need to get this policy right.

The Chairman's casting vote sent this matter to Scrutiny with the council dividing largely on political lines.

We were unanimous about wishing to support all our retail centres and more work will be done on this!  I gently pointed out some grammatical and drafting errors in the motion put to Council ... and was called a pedant by the Chairman for my desire to be accurate!

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Planning Update

October has been an interesting month for planning applications in CWaC and we are only 10 days in!

So what's been going on...

Delamere Forest
Tonight the Strategic Planning Committee voted to approve plans put forward by the Forestry Commission for Delamere Forest and recommended for approval by council officers to:

  1. reorganise the visitor centre arrangements - with a new visitor facility to be built, the existing centre to become the Commission's offices and the old offices to be demolished with enhanced car parking arrangements;
  2. the erection of 70 cabins for forest holidays.
The part of this application relating to the 70 cabins has been seen by some, but not all, as controversial. As an example 3 of the 4 parish councils whose areas cover the forest and its surroundings opposed the application - although the other one raised no objections to the proposals.

The cabins are set to be built in the northern part of the forest (Kingswood) which the planning application describes as the least used. 

The Forestry Commission sought permission to make these changes to earn more money from their assets so as to make their operations more self sustaining and less dependent on government subsidies.  They are estimating that each lodge will earn around £3,000 income for the forest each year.  At the moment the forest has a shortfall of some £140,000 per year and has let go around 30% of its staff.

The application also suggests that the wider local economy will receive some £2.7m pounds of stimulus through their proposals and that some 88.5 FTE jobs will be created.

I can see this application from both sides.  I recognise the disappointment that the forest will be, in part commercialised - however the public sector austerity does mean that the forest has to generate more income and be self sustaining.  I welcome improved visitor and events access and car parking.  The plans do show that the Kingswood area would have been cleared by the Forestry Commission over the next 10 years or so in any event and how the new development will given them the resources to enhance the forest cover.  I do welcome the jobs and the beneficial effects of more spending locally.

Chester Student Village
Earlier this month I had a rare opportunity to vote on a planning application personally.  I willingly address planning committees and seek to influence their decisions but I do not sit on either of CWaC's planning committees.

The Student Village application caused great controversy in Chester - so much so that the council voted as a whole for the whole council to determine the application rather than the Strategic Planning Committee.  So, in common with most of the rest of the council I went through the compulsory training so I could be considered fit enough to weigh up the various aspects of the application.

The law in relation to planning applications is quite interesting.  Each decision maker must act in a quasi-judicial fashion and weigh up all the various material planning considerations.  Fortunately we all have the benefit of the professional officer reports who do their best to identify what is, or is not material - and then make a recommendation.  It is then up to the decision makers to decide what weight should be applied to the various competing considerations.

So the student village - outline plans for c2,500 units of accommodation for the University students in the green belt between Blacon and the Mollington Banastre hotel.

The University was neutral - the plans were not their plans.  The application was in outline only - with only the access arrangements in detail.  As a outline application we were being asked to consider the principles - not the design issues.  This meant that, if granted in outline, the applicant would have permitted the developer to come back and seek to build say ordinary houses - and in all likelihood it would have been passed.

The officers weighed up the pros and cons - and came to the strong recommendation that the application should be refused.

We had a named vote - not that one was really needed.  51 one of us supported the officers' recommendation to reject the application, 1 councillor was for it and 4 abstained.  The other 19 councillors were absent for a range of reasons including illness and the fact they had prejudicial interests.