Summertime…

I’ve taken some time in August to watch the Rio 2016 Olympics. TiVo worked overtime to keep my attention on amazing sport achievement. Wasn’t it great? Aren’t you feeling proud? 

A lot of what I’ve been doing in recent months has more to do with long term strategy than fixing individual problems. Council life ebbs and flows like that. 

  1. Using the Local Plan examination and consultation process to save as much of the Vale’s Green Belt as possible. This effort continues into Local Plan Part 2 and builds on successes with Local Plan Part 1, where collaboration with local parishes and community organisations reaped major rewards. 
  2. Working to improve the way Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (OxLEP) engage with the public and local representatives. I’m trying to improve transparency and accountability through using council’s overview and scrutiny process, which I now chair. 
  3. Collaborating with other Oxfordshire Lib Dem groups to encourage political leaders to work together to come to a consensus on the way forward for local government reorganisation. I think residents needs should come first. 
  4. Learning how to be a more effective Chairman of Scrutiny. Scrutiny Committee is a public responsibility to hold council’s decision makers accountable and recommend policy and strategy improvements. It’s challenging to make recommendations that could improve policies or save money, when we aren’t a decision-making body. 

It’s hard for me to summarise those items in a nutshell. That probably accounts for how quiet my blog has been in the last month. I can take one of them at a time and tell you about it. 

What is equality?

The workshop facilitator asked the local councillor attendees this question: “What is equality?”

One newly elected Tory offered up, “Treating everyone the same.” 

Lib Dems jumped in to disagree. I sort of felt sorry for her; she obv had not thought much about it, not engaged in discussions about it. Lib Dems talk about it all the time. It’s one of the basic principles our party tries to uphold.  

Is equality treating everyone the same? 

Or is it treating everyone in the way they need in order to have the same opportunities? 

Or is it removing the barriers to everyone having the same opportunities? 

In different air instances, it’s each of the set things. I look at these as ideas of increasing complexity. 

Understanding the difference is important in defining your objectives.  

What do you think?

Is it OK for us to thank ourselves?

A Tory councillor, formerly of these parts, tabled a motion at council meeting 20 July 2016:

Council welcomes the interim findings of the Local Plan Inspector, which allows the process to move on to modifications stage ahead of final adoption. Council thanks the officers and councillors involved in directing the Local Plan process for their hard work, professionalism and perseverance and looks forward to the successful adoption of the Local Plan Part 1 in due course.

My first thought? Well, here’s another of those Tory self-congratulatory motions telling the world what a good job they think they’ve done. But it was residents, parish councils and community groups who fought the Tories the whole way to save some of the Green Belt and AONB.

So we (Lib Dems) proposed an amendment:

Council welcomes the interim findings of the Local Plan Inspector, which allows the process to move on to modifications stage ahead of final adoption. Council thanks the officers, and councillors, parish councils, residents and community groups involved in directing the Local Plan process for their hard work, professionalism and perseverance and looks forward to the successful adoption of the Local Plan Part 1 in due course. 

I had an email from Cllr Sandy Lovatt, who said he’d like to see ‘councillors’ come out, as self-congratulatory motions aren’t the done thing. I agreed, as that was totally my first thought.

In the debate, I said:

  • The original motion thanks ‘councillors’  I think self-congratulatory motions are bad form, so I support removing that word.
  • Thousands of members of the public engaged in the Locl Plan process, and dozens of parish councils and community organisations did too. This was the biggest Examination anyone had ever seen. It is due to the engagement of everyone that the plan is now likely to be found sound, and that much of the Green Belt and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is preserved.

To be honest, I don’t remember whether ‘councillors’ stayed in was was taken out. I pronounced this a silly thing to be spending time debating, and said I would support it either way.

Motion, as amended, passed.

Motion for £2m for affordable homes in Botley

UPDATE:

Tories tabled an amendment to our motion for Botley’s affordable housing, to make the motion read:

Council notes that the planning permission for West Way development in Botley, which includes 140+ new houses, will not include any provision of affordable housing. Council also notes that the developers have contributed £2,000,000 to off-site affordable housing.

Council will ring fence the contribution in lieu of affordable housing in the Affordable Housing earmarked reserve fund as has been the case with similar contributions. Priority will be given to funding schemes in North Hinksey area and Cumnor area and council asks officers to work with North Hinksey Parish Council, Cumnor Parish Council and local Members to identify suitable schemes.

As Council debated this motion, I said:

  • Vale policy is that for developments of more than 10 homes, 40% of them must be affordable. The applicants at West Way claimed their project was so risky and expensive that they couldn’t provide any affordable housing at all, but they offered £2,000,000 as a contribution to affordable housing elsewhere.
  • The people of Botley would like council to make it a priority to provide some affordable housing in Botley.
  • Our whole central area is to be demolished. We’re losing all our office space, and after the rebuild there will be fewer shops than we have now.
  • We need houses that are affordable to the working professionals who want to live here: teachers, nurses, university staff, etc.
  • Its not clear what sort of opportunities exist in Botley; we’re feeling rather full at the moment. But there are organisations that have creative models, such as Community Land Trusts, who build houses that will be permanently affordable for local people. Council can explore some of those options.

The motion passed, I’m happy to report. We now have £2,000,000 to support affordable housing schemes for Botley. If it isn’t spent in 10 years, it will go back to Mace. So let’s get busy.

——– Original post…

The Lib Dem councillors of the Vale have tabled a motion concerning affordable housing in Botley. Full council meeting 20 July is open to the public.

“Council notes that the planning permission for West Way development in Botley, which includes 140+ new houses, will not include any provision of affordable housing. Council also notes that the developers have contributed £2,000,000 to affordable housing elsewhere. This council believes in fair play, and that communities who accept new housing developments should benefit from developer contributions; therefore the council asks officers to take the necessary steps to ring fence this donation, and any future overage, for affordable housing in Botley, and to explore options for providing such affordable housing in Botley.”

We’ll try to get some Tory support for this. I can’t see how it’s party political.

Why I abstained from the chairman’s motion

I’m being asked why the Lib Dems abstained from the vote on the chairman’s motion last night.

Our Lib Dem group had a free vote on it. That means everyone was free to vote as they saw fit, and without needing to share their reasons. So I can share my reasons for not supporting the motion, but I cannot speak for other members, each of whom made their own decision.

All of this blog post is my view of things. I do not speak for others.

It so happened that all of the Lib Dems abstained because we couldn’t support the motion. The leader of the council said last night that we had opposed it. We didn’t oppose it; we simply didn’t support it. Our abstention was a statement of principle. We are a small minority of the council, and whatever the Conservatives want to vote through will succeed. Our votes don’t actually accomplish anything other than making a statement of principle.

  • Amnesty International’s national campaign had a clear objective: supporters who were concerned about the reported rise of racist and xenophobic incidents and hate crimes since the EU referendum were to ask their local councillors to table a motion at their next council meeting:

“We are proud to live in a diverse and tolerant society. Racism, xenophobia and hate crimes have no place in our country. Our council condemns racism, xenophobia and hate crimes unequivocally. We will not allow hate to become acceptable. We will work to ensure that local bodies and programmes have the support and resources they need to fight and prevent racism and xenophobiaWe reassure all people living in this area that they are valued members of our community.”

  • The Vale Lib Dem group discussed this, and we decided to table the motion exactly as our residents had requested. Every one of us supports Amnesty International’s aims.
  • This motion asks local councils to unite with one voice against the hate crimes that have seen a rise in the UK since the EU referendum. It asks councils to actively work to fight against hate crimes. We are fortunate in Vale not to be seeing much the hateful sorts of behaviour directed toward foreigners that is growing elsewhere in our country.
  • Chairman also had sight of Amnesty International’s campaign, and saw a reason to bowdlerise their motion, to add in references to our existing equalities policies concerning discrimination on age, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, etc.  The Amnesty International campaign isn’t about that. It’s about standing up against the hate we’re seeing that’s based on race or nationality, and that’s increased since Brexit. Somehow Chairman decided to broaden it, thereby softening the stand. He submitted this motion:

“We are proud to live in a diverse and tolerant society.   We believe that hate crimes have no place in our country, whether they are based on race, religion, sexual orientation, age, disability or gender identity. Vale of White Horse District Council condemn racism, xenophobia and hate crimes unequivocally.  We will not allow hate to become acceptable. We reassure all people living in the Vale that they are valued members of our community.”

  • Chairman also removed a sentence about a commitment to support organisations and programmes in our area that fight racism. For me, this was the deal-breaker. It was where we could stand up and promise to DO something in this fight; without this part, it’s just cheap words, and embarrassing for that. There’s difference here in how Conservatives view this sort of support and how the Lib Dems do. The Conservative view, as expressed by the leader, was that since there was nothing in their motion that prevented support and resources to anti-hate programmes, therefore it was supportive. (Remember they deliberately removed this sentence from the motion.) Lib Dems feel that explicit statements of support followed by inclusive action is what ‘support’ looks like. We feel that support for community programmes is a key responsibility of our grants scheme and no one should be discouraged from applying for a grant to support their programmes.
  • Maybe this is a main difference between the two parties; that side of the aisle thinks a closed door is still an invitation as long as it’s not locked. We prefer the unmistakable invitation of an open door.
  • I did wonder if Chairman’s motion would be more appropriately tabled at Abingdon Town Council, where he is currently Leader. It was the town council that caught the attention of the national press, and quite a bit of public ire, when they decided NOT to support a gay pride event by flying a flag for a day, or something like that. It’s the Abingdon Town Council that could benefit from such an anti-discrimination motion.
  • Vale council is not allowed to address issues that have been decided on in the past 6 months. The chairman’s motion was higher on the agenda (they’re on the agenda in the order received) so once we had voted on the chairman’s motion, ours could no longer be tabled. Chairman would not give way so our motion could be considered.
  • I support Amnesty International’s campaign against the hate crimes fomented by racism and xenophobia, which are on the rise since Brexit. I thought the chairman’s motion was watered down based on political fears (we might have to support something we don’t want to) and parochial events (gay flag blowback in Abingdon). For all these reasons, I did not support the chairman’s motion.

Site 2 – land north of Abingdon

The land for this development is mostly (or completely) in Sunningwell parish, which I represent. Around 900 houses are planned.

On Saturday 16th July, I attended the first of the public exhibitions hosted by the master planners, CEG. They won’t actually be building the houses. They plan the community and infrastructure and also develop a Design Code, which provides for the eventual developers the quality parameters for the developments in this community.

You can see the exhibition online at www.northabingdonconsultation.com

I filled in a feedback form:

image image

 

Politics? Or principles?

What do these two things have in common: A councillor who hasn’t attended his council or committee meetings in over 6 months, and Amnesty International’s anti-xenophobia and anti-hate crime motion?

This week they both reinforced to me the importance of living my life based on principles. 

Councillor non-attendance

Councillors must attend at least one meeting of council or committee every 6 months. Failure to do this means the non-attender is no longer a member of council and a vacancy occurs.  

Vale of White Horse uses a loose interpretation of the law. If a councillor misses all his council and committee meetings, he can just come along to any meeting and sit in the audience. Vale doesn’t require that he attend the meeting of a committee where he is a member. Any audience time will do. 

I’m arguing against this interpretation of the legislation, because the law was clearly intended to ensure councillors met their conucillor responsibilities. But that’s not the main point. When people said to me, “But, in the past, members of your own party group have benefited from this interpretation” I shrugged because that’s irrelevant (it’s politics); the council’s stance is wrong in principle. 

Anti-hate motion 

Amnesty International have a current campaign to contact your local councillor, and urge them to table an anti-hate motion. You can see their wording of the motion here

Both Lib Dem and Tory councillors were approached to propose this amendment. One senior Tory proposed to change the wording to omit reference to the ‘support and resources’ promise. He worried they might get applications for grants they didn’t want to give. That’s the politics. 

I shrugged at this argument. If we get inappropriate grant applications, we have an approval process that would catch them. I said, “The answer to this concern isn’t to shut the door to applications for grants that you might not want to give.” It’s the principle. 

I don’t know yet the wording of the final Tory version of this motion; I left it with the council leader to sort out. (Both motions are on the agenda. But the rules say only one motion on the same subject is allowed every 6 months. So it’s likely to be the Tory motion that will be considered first (motions are tabled in the order received). Sadly this would mean the Lib Dem motion can’t be considered. That’s more of the politics part of this. 

These two frustrating situations this week taught me that sometimes the right thing to do is apparent because it’s based on principles. 

Motion for tolerance

Update: to read about the outcome of this, see my post Why I abstained on the Chairman’s motion.

Vale Lib Dems have proposed a motion in support of Amnesty International’s campaign against hate crimes. Full council meeting on 20 July is open to the public.

“We are proud to live in a diverse and tolerant society. Racism, xenophobia and hate crimes have no place in our country. Our council condemns racism, xenophobia and hate crimes unequivocally. We will not allow hate to become acceptable. We will work to ensure that local bodies and programmes have the support and resources they need to fight and prevent racism and xenophobia. We reassure all people living in this area that they are valued members of our
community.”

Motion to allow only enforceable conditions

Update: Tories proposed an amendment, which made the motion read like this:

During the process of approval of planning applications, the public sometimes has a mistaken concept of the protection afforded by the conditions attached to the planning permission. Officers and members already make great efforts to ensure that conditions are only imposed where they are deemed to be enforceable. This Council will continue to impose such conditions only when enforceable in accordance with national guidelines and our own enforcement policy.

I said, “Conditions are applied to permission for applications that would be unacceptable without the conditions. The conditions are explicitly attached to make an otherwise unacceptable development acceptable. (Then list of examples.) We need better governance over our planning conditions. If the condition is necessary to make a development acceptable, then they need to be enforceable and enforced. We shouldn’t see any applications be approved to remove conditions. That would be a useful metric to track.” Debate continued with many examples of recent conditions deemed (after the fact) to be unenforceable.

I also pointed out that the ruling group was becoming predictable: any motion we table with any element of criticism, is amended to read, ‘We already do this really well and will continue to do it really well.’ That’s pretty immature.

The amended motion was passed. Cllr Roger Cox is responsible for the quality of planning conditions.

—- Original post follows…..

Vale Lib Dems have proposed a motion to allow only enforceable conditions to be attached to planning permissions. Full council meeting 20 July is open to the public.

“During the process of the approval of planning applications, the public sometimes has a mistaken concept of the protection afforded by the conditions attached to planning permission. This council will only attach such conditions as are deemed enforceable.”

Motion for more open and transparent consultations.

Lib Dems tabled this motion at council 20 July 2016.

I said this:

  • At the Local Plan examination, Inspector allowed a resident a seat at the table specifically because his consultation response had been lost.
  • The Housing Delivery Update Consultation has has many problems identified, For example, in the village of Radley, there were 550 letters of protest et they were counted as one objection, Consequently, the report state that there were 40 comments received concerning north Radley, rather than 590, and 45 concerning NW Radley rather than 595.
  • Something went wrong with the Abbey Meadow consultation.The public thought they were promised one thing, and the council thought it was something else.
  • In the consultation for the controversial Botley SPD, two responses were completely missed out: the response from Savilles (the developers agent); and the response from a consultant for West Way Concern, who pointed out questions of lawfulness that were later cause for the three month delay to reassess.
  • The LEP SEP refresh, as council just heard from Julie Mabberly and Annie Thomas.(Speakers from the public on the night.)

Debate included some heartfelt expressions of dismay from Tories about how much they hated to see young officers cut down when they try so hard. No one blames inexperienced officers. It’s the strategic decision makers who are responsible for these failures; the most inexperienced staff, or indeed temporary staff, are charged with logging consultation responses. I think no one senior ever reads them! Had any senior officer or member read the consultation response about serious questions of lawfulness, legal expenses incurred by the pubic and the council could have been avoided.

This motion passed.

From the new list of Cabinet members responsibilities, I can’t tell where consultations lie; it isn’t included in the Leader’s delegation list (which says a lot). I’ll see if I can find out.

Trying hard isn’t the most important thing here. It’s the senior managers and Cabinet members who must ensure the right level of staff are on the right jobs. If we are legally held to account for our decisions, it isn’t trying hard that’s the most important thing, but being effective and making the right decisions. This is a recurring theme of the Tories, that trying hard should be enough.

——— Original post follows…

Vale Lib Dems have tabled a motion to do more to hold fair, open and transparent consultations. Full council meeting 20 July is open to the public.

“This council resolves to manage our public consultations with openness and transparency, using industry best practice. Our public consultations will use open-ended questions that encourage a range of responses, and officers will produce consultation reports that highlight all major concerns raised and the actions to be taken in response. Where we have control of the consultation, we will ensure openness and transparency. Where we are part of a governing body managing the consultation, we will openly encourage openness and transparency.”