A balanced approach

So in fairness (considering earlier today I criticised his Local Plan for failing to plan for solving our most serious problems — http://cllrdebbyhallett.com/2017/04/24/vale-local-plan-pt-2/) here’s a kind thank you. 

Cllr Roger Cox, Cabinet member for Planning, was the one who approved £2500 for the cleanup of, and making secure, the vacant and derelict property 82 Westminster Way. 

Thank you Cllr Cox. Botley is appreciative. 

So do you think you might be able to help us get this house back in use? 

Vale Local Plan Pt 2 – housing people can afford

I’m working on my review of Vale’s Local Plan Pt2. Consultation closes the 4th of May, but we’ll be away so I want to get my comments in early this week. 

We’ve heard the Vale’s leading Tories repeatedly tell us lack of genuinely affordable housing and over-congested highways (esp A34) are the two main obstacles to growth in the Vale. 

At a recent Scrutiny meeting, I asked the Cabinet member for planning, Cllr Roger Cox of Faringdon, a few questions. 

The main thing I wanted to know was how his Local Plan will help ordinary working people on ordinary wages (UK average is about £27,000 per year) to have a decent home. 

Cllr Cox is the Cabinet member responsible for the Local Plan. I had to repeat my question more than once: “What does your Local Plan do to provide more housing that ordinary people can afford?” Finally his shoulders dropped and he said, “Nothing.”

Well there we are. 

Vote the Tories out. 

To change the course of our country

Tomorrow we expect Parliament to overrule the Fixed Parliament Act and call an early general election for 8 June. Mrs May’s speech today was breathtakingly self-centred, showing how much she values her own status and her own party over our country. 

Do you trust anything she says?

I’m committed to doing what I can to help turn out the Tory Government. 

I’ll actively support the Liberal Democrats, the party that supports Remain, the NHS, our schools, and improving our transport infrastucture. I support freedom of movement in Europe and recognise the real contributions of immigrants.  We oppose the snoopers charter, the rape clause for child benefits, the cuts to our most vulnerable disabled residents. We oppose the policy for more grammar schools, which leaves more children behind. The hurtful, intolerant, inhumane polices show us the Tory mind at work. 

So I’ll be rearranging my commitments for the next 7 weeks. If it’s not urgent, I’ll take it on after the GE. 

It’s a Brexit election! Game on. 

West Way Place – new phasing plans

Mace announced they have a new phasing plan for West Way Place development. Their new plan means 2 years less construction time overall, but it also means Botley loses some of our local services for the whole period.

At the Community Liaison Group meeting on the 10th of April, we heard officially about the new plans for phasing. Tesco, Co-op and Lloyds will be among the tenants temporarily housed in modified quarters in Elms Court and the old Grant Thornton building. This is to help with continuity of services to the local community during construction.

To see the plans, check out Mace’s West Way site, here: http://westwayconsultation.co.uk/ Use the contact tab on that site to ask about anything not already there. (They aren’t all there at the time of writing this, but I’ve asked that they be put up.) Particularly see this 2 page update.

It’s been upsetting to learn that community favourites, local independent businesses such as Cafe Aloha and Hair Therapy and the chain Iceland, which so many rely on, are closing down. Everyone had hoped they would continue during construction and be part of the new centre. Some discussions are still ongoing and are therefore sensitive and private. But the traders make their own decisions about what’s best for them and their circumstances.

Who approves the change to phasing plans?

Ultimately, the Vale planners do.

The developers obligations are set out in the Section 106 agreement, which is a legally binding contract about what the developers and other parties will do.

I’ve downloaded a copy of the s106 agreements to Dropbox , so you can see it here. Sadly it’s not searchable, so you have to browse it to find what you’re looking for. (I did ask Vale to fix this but they said they couldn’t. I’ll see what I can do.)

Para 5.5 (approx pg 10)  there gives authority to the Vale planners to agree any changes to the phasing plan (approx page 52). Our planning officer said he wanted the public to have sight of the proposed changes and to be able to comment on them. So he asked Mace to include the phasing changes in their imminent planning application for a temporary change of use, and they agreed to do that. Mace have said there will be public exhibitions and a chance to raise concerns and get your questions answered.

So we’re about to embark on another period of significant change here.

82 Westminster Way – vacant and derelict, for now

For years this property has been empty and derelict. For months I’ve been working with Vale officers to get the property cleared up; it’s the best we can do without legal action. But in the long term, I’d really like to see this house put back into use, either by making it habitable and ensuring there are occupants, or by demolishing it to build some new affordable residences.

This week I met with the head of planning, who agreed to seek advice from the legal team and housing team to begin to move forward on efforts to bring this long-term vacant house back into use. I feel renewed optimism.

Here’s the short history: 

Before this year, Vale enforcement officers served notices on the homeowner to clear up the property. There was no response to the orders.

There have been fires set, causing the fire brigade to respond. Windows and doors are broken, blighting that part of the neighbourhood. Environmental health have been called-out to deal with vermin infestation. Young people find it an attractive place to vandalise; police have been called to deal with brick throwing, for example. (Thanks to Emmett Casley for the photo.) It’s all made worse by being right beside the pedestrian under crossing children use to get to North Hinksey Primary School.

In January this year the Enforcement Team began the process of procuring a contractor to come and clear the site of overgrown shrubs and rubbish, secure broken doors and windows, and basically make it look not so derelict. Of course this is a short term solution, and will need to be repeated periodically as long as the property is neglected. Vale are realistic in not expecting to recoup these costs from the homeowner; apparently there is a long list of creditors with liens against the property.

One bit of good news: in the opinion of building inspectors, the building is not unsound and is unlikely to fall down. It’s not known what all the scaffolding at the site is for.

I’m concerned about three things, basically:

  • that we minimise the amount of taxpayers’ money used to make the property safe and reduce its attraction for more vandalism
  • that we explore legal options for bringing this house back into use
  • that action is ultimately taken to either make the house habitable, or demolish it and provide some new dwellings

This week I met with the head of planning, who agreed to seek advice from the legal team and housing team to begin to move forward on efforts to bring this long-term vacant house back into use. I feel renewed optimism.

As to what happens next, well the Vale is obliged to give the owner 30 days notice to retrieve any personal property from the site, and then the site will be cleared up. Notice was given in early March, so that clear up should happen in April. I consider this to be a reasonable use of our tax money to arrest decline.

(Have you heard of the broken windows theory?  In areas where there are broken windows, graffiti, and other vandalism and signs of dereliction, it somehow acts as implicit permission for more of the same behaviour. If we don’t clear up our neighbourhood messes, more messes appear. So I bang on about litter, graffiti, derelict houses and the like. Read more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broken_windows_theory)


Local Plan consultation thru 4 May

I’m proud of my work over the past few years with some of our local parish councils, residents and other groups. We sought to protect our open spaces in the northeast area of Vale.

We’ve taken our share of housing here, and we do all we can to support appropriate development. 

Under Local Plan Part 1, we have about 1300 new houses to come in the Tilsley Park area, in land Vale removed from the Green Belt. There are other former Green Belt sites in Radley and Kennington. But we managed to save more than 20 sites that Vale Tories wanted to remove from the Green Belt, including many local playing fields. 

Now the Vale’s Local Plan 2031 Part 2 defines the sites for the rest of our housing need, plus our share of Oxford’s housing need that they aren’t able to meet for themselves. Sites over 50 houses are included; smaller sites are not. 

So there will be no further incursion into the Green Belt in the north east area through 2031. At least, that’s the proposal. 

You can read the Local Plan 2031 Part 2, and comment via this link: http://www.whitehorsedc.gov.uk/services-and-advice/planning-and-building/planning-policy/local-plan-2031-part-2 

The 2016 Housing Act: no action in Vale so far

Here’s the question I asked at the Feb 2017 Vale full council meeting. 

E. Question from Councillor Debby Hallett to Councillor Roger Cox, Cabinet member for planning.

In December 2015, Council passed a motion in support of the Housing Bill, which would build starter homes, grant automatic planning permission to build on brownfield sites, sell off high value vacant council assets and use the money to build more affordable homes in the same area, and extend right to buy to housing association tenants. How many starter homes have been sold in the year since? How many automatic permissions have been given for brownfield development? How many council assets have been sold off, and how many new affordable houses have those sales funded? How many housing association tenants have exercised their right to buy?


Councillor Cox responded that the Bill became the Housing and Planning Act 2016 in May last year. We are waiting for the relevant Regulations to come into force so we can implement or act on the proposed changes.

Vale approves Unitary proposal

Last night Vale of White Horse District Council approved the “Better Oxfordshire” proposal for a unitary authority to move forward toward submission to Government. 

Good debate brought up important issues that need to be recognised and solved. For example, we discussed number of councillors and their workload, how to ensure current districts’ financial reserves are used for local benefit, and how to have wider inclusion in decision making as this project moves forward. And more. 

Many councillors spoke, which is always a good sign.  

So Vale has committed. I do hope the three districts not yet on board will join us: Cherwell, West Oxfordshire and Oxford City.

Budget 2017/18 speech to council

On 15 Feb here’s what I had to say about the Tories’ proposed budget:

This council is constrained by central Government’s continued cuts in funding to local government. We expect no complaints from the ruling administration about that; it’s their party running the show.

This budget is supported by a c tax increase for residents. I heard the leader of County Council said yesterday, ‘Who in their right mind would vote for a c tax increase?’ Does the Leader of this council agree with that sentiment?

In this past year, we’ve adopted a Corporate Plan, which lists councils priorities for five years. Tonight’s budget is for year two of the five. Since the details of the Corporate Plan are delayed a little, we don’t yet have sight of what this administration plans to do to achieve our objectives. So it’s not easy for council members to see how the proposed budget supports this councils’ priorities.

The Corporate Plan explicitly prioritises keeping our position as a top performer on waste collection and recycling. This budget shows reduced income and higher costs for waste and recycling. How much more yearly expense is it worth to keep our position as a top performer? What IS a top performer, exactly?

We have a Corporate Plan priority of ‘Supporting community events through our grants scheme.’ But this budget eliminates community festival grants. Really?

The Corporate plan says right up front that ‘housing is our greatest challenge’. Which of these budget growth items will provide more housing at affordable prices, to rent or to buy, for residents of Vale?

In keeping our Corporate Plan’s promise to keep communities clean and attractive, what sort of budget support is there for litter picking along our A roads? How about intractable problems such as the Fly Tip Mountain in Redbridge that made the news just this week?

It appears this year’s budget decisions were driven by something other than our adopted Corporate Plan, but I don’t know what that was, because the process is not yet open to public scrutiny. Hopefully our Scrutiny Committee can improve that.

We are in year one of the Five Councils partnership for outsourcing. From the essential  growth bid we see a £1.5million hit in savings forecast over the next two years. I’m surprised this council didn’t get some financial benefit for being the first to go live, considering the extra risk on our shoulders for going first and letting our partners benefit from our learning. Was this the intention?

In order to make some limited revenue savings, this budget sells our planning officers’ time to other councils for training and service. I question whether this a good idea. Do our planning officers actually have extra time on their hands that we can sell to other authorities? I’d like to see a net financial statement for this please.

For six years  my colleagues and I in the northeast area of the Vale have persisted in arguing for a fair provision of leisure facilities for people who live in Botley, Cumnor and surrounding communities. This budget sees a 2-days-a-week Vale officer to help the Botley community plan for the leisure facilities they need and want. Then when the money is received from the sale of West Way, some of it is to be prioritised for the provision of leisure facilities for the people in the Botley area. I’ve been told off the record that this is the intention. Will the leader confirm publicly that these things are a priority for council to provide for the people in Botley and the northeast area of the Vale?

Budget setting processes take place behind closed doors. We used to hold public consultations on the budget, but that has shut down in recent years. I’d like to see council be more transparent in how it determines what growth bids are included and wish care rejected.  After all, it’s public money and the public should have a view into and a say on how it’s all managed.

In times of austerity (even when that austerity is imposed arbitrarily from central government) we owe it to our residents to make our budget decisions based on our agreed corporate objectives, ensure our agreed expenditures are systematically managed and overseen, and that our performance is assessed at year end against our objectives. I don’t think council is doing its best in this, and I’d like to see improvement.

Children’s Centres Grants speech to council

On 15 Feb here’s what I said about the Children’s Centre grants amendment motion:

I think we all agree the Children’s Centres provide vital community resource for early intervention for children under 5 and their families. It’s the main programme I’m aware of that improves children’s social mobility and therefore their life chances.

I heard this Government tout grammar schools as a way to give every child a chance at achieving their potential. But studies show unequivocally that children’s life outcomes are largely determined by the time they are 5 years old. Their life achievements are more predicted by the demographics of their families than any other thing. So it makes sense that programmes designed for early intervention have the best chance for success.

I’ve heard the argument that children’s centres are not district business, they are county. Clearly  county can’t afford to support the children’s centres any longer. Towns and parishes are doing what they can to help their local children’s centres, because it’s the right thing to do. We aren’t proposing taking on the management of children’s centres; they are actively working toward managing themselves. We propose a grants pot to help those organisations through their first year.

I’ve heard the argument that it’s not a statutory responsibility. We do lots of things we aren’t required to do. Did you know we have no statutory responsibility to supply leisure centres? But we spend millions on them.

Children’s Centres are exactly the sort of not-for-profit organisation our grants schemes are intended to support. Once we have transformed our local government into a unitary authority, this sort of service provision will be very much in our remit. In the meantime, we are able to help, and we should.