Thursday, 29 January 2015

What's happening in the Borough - the annual local plan monitoring report

The CWaC Local Plan Annual Monitoring Report has just been considered by the council's LDF Panel which I chair.  This lengthy document contains a wealth of data about the Borough from the economic and development standpoint.

The document is well worth a read - as it looks at a range of indicators that give a clear impression as to how well we are doing in the Borough.

The first thing to say is that the unemployment rate in CWaC is 5.7%. This compares very favourably with the Great Britain rate of 7.2% and the North West of England rate of 7.9%.

The report looks at many indicators - but one of the ones that is of particular interest to us in Frodsham is the vacancy rate for our shops and retail premises.  

Frodsham has by far the lowest vacancy rate in the Borough at 2.63% - this compares with Neston's vacancy rate of 10.34% and Chester's of 14.18% the next lowest figures.  It is also good to see that Frodsham's vacancy rate has fallen to 2.63% again  - the same rate as we had in 2011 and 2012 and down from a high of 3.95% in 2013.

Another core indicator for the Borough is the number of new houses constructed.  In the 2013-14 year our housing stock grew by a net 970 houses - the highest figure we've seen since 2005-06.  The rate  of completions is also accelerating with 529 of these 970 houses completed in the period 1 October 2013 - 31 March 2014.

We think the figures for the year we are in will be of the order of 1100 house completions - which is the rate we set out in the draft Local Plan as the long term house completion rate until 2030.  The other good news for all of us in CWaC is that a planning inspector has now accepted that we have 5 years supply or more of housing land in the Borough.  This now provides the council with solid planning reasons to refuse speculative applications from developers to construct houses in the green belt.  This isn't an issue that has affected us in Frodsham particularly - but it has in other communities.

House price figures also tell an interesting tale.

The average house price in the Borough is £151,953 - up 2.7% in the year to March 2014. The average for the north west is £108,814.  The average figure for England and Wales is £169,134.

Employment figures are also interesting.

As a Borough the average earnings per residence is £525.90 per week compared with £483.20 in the north west and the Great Britain average of £518.10.  The figures also show that many residents from the Borough commute to other places outside the Borough - demonstrating what we know - that our Borough is a great place to live!

These figures show that the recovery is well under way here - with economic activity very much on the up.

Windfarm update

For the last year or so Peel have been going through the list of pre-build planning conditions related to the Windfarm and doing what is required of them.  This is important for Peel as they want to start work on the ground in April this year.

The first work they need to carry out is the upgrading of Kemira Road at the Ince end of the marshes - as this will be the main access to the site for the construction traffic.  Once that is done the works will proceed first to establish the infrastructure needed to build the turbines (such as access roads and crane pads), and then later the foundations for and then ultimately turbines themselves.  The development will proceed from west to east - so the last turbines to be constructed will be those at the Frodsham end.  Peel aim to have the works completed by 2017.  They will have to have the turbines commissioned by April 2017 if they are to secure the government subsidies.

Of course it is important with a project of this size and impact that Peel communicates effectively with all of us.  They are also required to do so by the terms of their planning permission - which, lets not forget was issued by Lib-Dem Secretary State Ed Davey in the teeth of sustained local opposition. However we are where we are.

Conditions 56 & 57 of the permission says:
(56) Prior to the commencement of the Development the company shall establish a local liaison committee made up of representatives of the company and representatives of the main contractor for the Development.  The company shall also invite the LPA (ie CWaC) and representatives from the local communities to join the local liaison committee.  The Company shall provide a full secretariat service, determine when to hold meetings and provide a suitable venue.

(57) The local liaison committee referred to in Condition (56) shall provide a forum in which consultation and the dissemination of information can take place to consider aspects of the Development both during construction and operation on the locality.  The local liaison committee shall meet on a regular basis and at least once every quarter unless otherwise agreed by the local liaison committee.

It was with this background that Peel invited representatives from the Town and Parishes of Frodsham, Helsby, Kingsley, Sutton, Elton, Ince, Thorton-le-Moor, Alvanley, Dunham-on-the-Hill & Hapsford, together with the local CWaC Cllrs for these areas to a meeting to discuss the establishment of this local liaison panel.

I have to say for a meeting of this importance it was rather sparsely attended - only Frodsham, Helsby and Elton sent parish representatives.

This local liaison committee is designed to be a discussion forum where information and concerns about the construction of the windfarm and its works can be discussed.  One of the main purposes of the committee is to ensure that information about what is to be done is widely shared in the community - so if, for example, there are going to have to be temporary road closures that people get plenty of advance notice.

With this in mind we were asked to discuss the committee's constitution.  I made the point that every single councillor around the table was up for re-election in May - and as such we should not settle the terms now - but leave them to whoever is elected in May to finalise.

Peel's working document suggested that each of the town and parish council representatives should have one vote on the committee.  I argued strongly against this.  With Frodsham having more than half of the local population and Helsby having 2/3rds of the turbines in front of their village I pointed out that 'one council one vote' would not be fair or reasonable.  I also argued that as the interests of Frodsham and Helsby were most affected that the committee should not be quorate without representatives from those communities being present.  I suggested also that Helsby such have the Chairmanship of the committee.  With the construction access being primarily through Ince & Elton - they too needed to have a greater say than some of the small peripheral parishes.  These principles were largely agreed at the meeting - but as ever in these things the details will have to be worked out.

I also argued that Peel should organise a letter drop to every household in the area explaining what they are doing and flagging up where people can get information.  Peel accepted that they need to get their publicity out - but have not agreed at this stage to a letter drop.  I also asked for a budget for the local liaison committee to be able to organise publicity independently of Peel should the need arise.  Peel will report back at our next meeting (early March) on this.

This meeting wasn't about the community benefit fund - that won't come on stream until 2017 in any event.  However we did briefly discuss this.  There will have to be a consultation with everyone in the locality which will have to work out how any community benefit fund should be run and administered.  I made the point that in any consultation the locals should be asked whether they would want the fund to go into a large project - such as a community swimming pool - or made available for smaller projects.  Clearly the administration that will be required for one large project is very different from administering a fund to be paid out as grants for lots of projects.

This local liaison committee can run the consultation in my view.  Again those at the meeting largely agreed with this principle.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

FTC - setting next year's budget

We had a swift and consensual meeting of FTC last night.  It was our annual budget setting council.  At the risk of stating the obvious the size of the budget has a direct relationship to the council tax rate that is set.   Now yesterday's meeting didn't set the council tax - we will do that later this month - but as a council we did make our position crystal clear.

At my behest the council unanimously resolved not to increase the council tax and therefore set its budget so that the current rate of £38.47 per Band D property in a year should not be exceeded.

Inevitably the devil in these things is in the detail - and unfortunately we don't have all the details that we would like at the moment.  As council tax is charged on households knowing the number of chargeable houses in Frodsham is important.  Every year some additional houses are built and some older ones are knocked down.  Typically Frodsham grows a little bit each year.  Also in April this year Frodsham's boundaries will move bringing in additional houses in Kinglesy Green and on Mill Lane (between the Weaver and the Weaver Navigation).  Now FTC is waiting to hear from CWaC how many chargeable houses we have now and how many more we will have when the boundaries change in April.  Obviously as a percentage of the total number of houses in Frodsham any changes will be small - but it does mean we can't be exact over the figures at this stage - other than saying we have all accepted that we do not want the council tax to be charged to increase at all.  What the figures prove to be to the last penny are, however not yet known!

Incidentally as FTC's council tax is lower than Kingsley - those residents living in Kingsley Green will see a modest fall in their council tax when they join us.

Both FTC's and CWaC's record over the Council Tax is impressive.  Since 2009 the council tax paid by Frodsham residents to CWaC and FTC has fallen by more than 12% in real terms.

Since 2011 we have been able to increase the revenues coming into FTC significantly without affecting any Frodsham resident's pocket - and in fact if you are an 'over 70' your council tax has fallen when you take account of the now £6 Christmas Voucher.  We've been able to do this through:

  • grants from CWaC - such as the automatic receipt by FTC of 25% of the New Homes Bonus money; and
  • using CWaC's special expenses regime (which are £0 in Frodsham) to effectively swap £8.32's worth of Council Tax from CWaC to FTC without increasing what people pay.
The opportunity to increase FTC's revenues yet further will come through the Neighbourhood Planning Process.  Assuming CWaC adopts the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) arrangements - which is likely - FTC will receive 15% of any CIL payments automatically.  If we have a neighbourhood plan the percentage receipt automatically received by FTC will rise to 25%.

CIL payments are levied on developers of new houses or of food retail premises.  It is an alternative to s106 Town & Country Planning Act 1991 payments and help local communities provide for rising demand for services arising because of increased demands caused by additional residents.

One of the other debates we had yesterday was in relation to whether Parish Council council tax changes should be subject to the capping regime that applies to the council tax levied by the principal council (ie CWaC), the police and crime commissioner and the fire authority.   If one of these authorities wants to increase the council tax by 2% or more then that can only happen if the increase is supported in a local referendum.  The Government is consulting on whether to introduce these capping to parish councils.  In recent years, on average, parish council council tax has risen by 14%.

As I've shown we have an excellent track record locally and we've kept our council tax pretty much static both at FTC and CWaC and delivered more than a 12% real terms reduction once inflation has been taken into account.  However I'm not in favour of an automatic cap for parish councils.  You see the numbers involved are so small.

If FTC was subject to say a 2% cap which currently applies to CWaC, the police and crime commissioner and the fire authority then FTC could only increase its council tax up to £39.23 in other words only 76p more from its current rate of £38.47 on a Band D property.   That theoretical 76p more would only raise around £3,000 for FTC.   Also if we have a situation where FTC takes over a service from CWaC - and this could result in council tax being swapped from CWaC to FTC then I wouldn't want any capping rules to prevent that change from happening.

My own position on the council tax is very clear.  Instinctively I don't want to increase the charge on anyone.  We heard yesterday at the council meeting from a young apprentice arguing that any council tax rise would hit the lower paid and those on fixed incomes the worst.  I agreed with him - hence arguing for no increase at all.

I want all councils constantly to innovate and improve service delivery whilst driving out costs.  Sometimes however there can be a step change in what is being delivered - and then asking for a higher council tax in exchange for new or additional services could be justified - BUT ONLY WITH THE SUPPORT of local residents.

The biggest threat to the council tax position in Frodsham comes from Labour.  Labour finance spokesman on CWaC Cllr Ben Powell has already said he wants to do away with the special expenses regime.  This is the regime that seeks to give fairness to communities like Frodsham that do more with the council tax paid to their parish council than others.  We pay for our PCSO, our Christmas Lights etc through FTC's council tax (unlike other areas such as Northwich who get all or some of those services from CWaC).  Those areas who get those things paid for by CWaC as opposed to their parish council have to pay for them by way of special expenses.

The message is very clear and very stark - and in fact has long been evident from practice over many years.  Labour councils increase your council tax.  If, God-forbid, Cllr Powell gets his way we'll all have a council tax rise in Frodsham to subsidise areas without parish councils, or those where the parish councils are doing less than we do in Frodsham.  I am vigorously opposed to Labour's plan to increase our council tax in Frodsham.

Blog update 21 January 2015
Cllr Powell has been in contact with me by Twitter about this blog entry - he disagrees with my comment in the previous paragraph.

This has given me the opportunity to remind him of what he said at CWaC's budget meeting on 16 October 2014.  In his somewhat interminable 13:39 minute long and laboured speech responding to the budget he referenced special expenses twice in critical terms.  He referred to them as being a 'fiasco' and left no-one in any doubt that he disagreed with them and would do away with them if he had the opportunity.

Later on in that budget debate I spoke.  The first point I made was to reference a letter written by Labour MP and Shadow for Communities and Local Government Rt Hon Hillary Benn dated 25 August 2014.  In that letter Mr Benn advises councils that Labour will, if elected, reallocate government grant monies in the 2015-16 year to 'the more deprived local authorities.'  In other words this will mean taking money from the 'less deprived local authorities.'   We know this will effectively mean that Labour, if elected, will divert monies into councils serving urban populations - they see them as 'more deprived' and Hilary Benn's letter makes this point.  This inevitably would pressure those councils losing expected government grant to have to consider raising the council tax to compensate for lost government grant.

The next point I made was to reference Cllr Powell's own speech.  I said to him in the debate: 'if you are going to do away with special expenses you are attacking my community.  My community is one of the few communities that actually funds more of itself than any other.  Thank you for pointing out that you are going to make our situation worse.'  I also pointed out to Cllr Powell that he had given me the opportunity to campaign on this issue.  Frodsham is one of only a handful of communities where £0 special expenses are charged.

No one challenged or questioned my comments or assertions in the council debate or subsequently.

Perhaps in the 3 months that has gone by Cllr Powell has realised that the Special Expenses regime is there for a reason.  However he remains opposed to it.

So let me remind him.  Special Expenses seeks to remedy an unfairness where some communities receive services paid for by the Borough Council, which in other places are provided by the Town or Parish Council.  CWaC identifies play areas, Christmas lights and PCSOs as things that are paid for by CWaC in some areas and by some or all of the Town or Parish councils elsewhere.

As it is communities in CWaC with Town and Parish councils typically pay a little more in council tax than those that don't have them.  For a small increase in cost we get more choice, more service more local influence and more local democracy.  It is this small amount of council tax that has, for example brought us many of our defibrillators, that has given us our wonderful local winter gritting scheme, that pays for our PCSO, our Christmas lights etc and other things besides.

I am also delighted that the differential between what a Frodsham council tax payer pays when compared to a council tax payer in a non-parished area such as Chester has reduced over the years because of special expenses.

So in this financial year a Band D charge varies something like this:

Frodsham                      £1,528.34 (includes £0 special expenses)
Chester                          £1,507.26 (includes c£16.13 special expenses)

In Frodsham we pay c£21 more in council tax in a year when compared with Chester because we pay a small amount to FTC (£38.47).  Without special expenses we would be paying for e.g. Chester's PCSOs, Christmas lights etc through CWaC Council tax and our own PCSO through FTC council tax.  That would be unfair and that is what the special expenses regime tackles.  Don't forget this is what Cllr Powell wants to do away with.