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?

Answer

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.

Vale Budget 2017/18

Well, we tried to get some support for the beleaguered Children’s Centres. Tories voted us down, even those councillors from communities where the parishes or towns wanted to help their local children’s centers. It’s like they’ll help their own, not those in other areas of Vale.

The Liberal Democrats submitted a bid to set up a grants pot for the Vale’s Children’s Centres. We think the children’s centres provide vital community resource for early intervention for children under 5 and their families. So we re-submitted it as a motion to amend the budget to include £100,000 to help children’s centres who are working toward becoming self-sufficient. Please read more about it here (there are a couple of articles):  http://cllrdebbyhallett.com/category/grants/

Tories voted against our amendment. It’s sadly predictable. They are all for spending money on economic growth that no one wants, but have no time to spend on the people already living here who might need more support.

The budget includes a £5 per year council tax increase, or 4.3%. As far as I can tell, this is to make the budget balance, which councils are required to do.

To double check my assumption, I asked the Cabinet member for Finance, Cllr Robert Sharp, how he would answer the question of why he raised council tax. His reply, ‘To safeguard and maintain the excellent services provided for residents.’

As far as I’m concerned, it’s questionable whether we can really afford to spend £18.8m on a new leisure Centre in Wantage in these times of government austerity.  Yes, you read that correctly: eighteen point 8 million pounds on a leisure centre for Wantage and Grove.

Here’s what I said about the children’s centres budget amendment at full council meeting: http://cllrdebbyhallett.com/2017/02/20/childrens-centres-grants-speech-to-council/

Here’s what I had to say about the overall budget: http://cllrdebbyhallett.com/2017/02/20/budget-201718-speech-to-council/

My concerns about the Unitary solution

I had this to say in full council meeting on 15 Feb 2017.

Unitary

I think we all agree that a single, countywide unitary authority is best for the residents of Vale. I also think it’s best for residents of Oxfordshire, but many disagree.

If we follow the paraphrased advice of Edmund Burke here, we will prioritise first our judgement of what is in the best interests of the wider county, second the opinions of our local council and wards, and last the interests of our political party.

I have three main concerns about the coming decision.

My first concern is that this proposal must be modified to adequately address the needs of rural communities and not just urban, and in a way that recognises the unique needs of each area, especially Oxford City, and doesn’t supply a simple one-size-fits-all solution that’s just an ‘average’ and so satisfies nothing very well.

My second concern is that this Tory-led movement will silence or marginalise other voices in the county. Since the people haven’t had a chance to vote on this, the county and districts’ ruling groups do not have a mandate to reorganise local government. This isn’t a decision that can simply be reversed by casting a different vote at the next election. Once we’re reorganised, it can’t be undone. To mitigate that, I’d like see steps taken to include other voices besides solely Tory ones. It would help if Labour-run City were at the table. But more broadly, and as a principle, I think a good solution is to have an opposition voice from each council seated on whatever transition board is set up to manage this change.

My third concern is highlighted by the misunderstandings people already have of what is being proposed. That is best mitigated by a better communications campaign, in my opinion. For example, having a look at the dissent online, petitions and Facebook postings, people think the districts will be turning over management of their business to county, and object to that based on their perceptions of county’s ability to manage well. They haven’t got the point that ALL councils will be disbanded and a whole new council elected. A better PR campaign is needed. (PR  Public Relations, not Proportional Representation, at least not in this instance.)

But overall, the Liberal Democrats’ view is that the needs of the people of Oxfordshire are best served by a single, county-wide unitary authority.

 

Cllr Emily Smith, on children’s centres

Last night Vale considered a Liberal Democrat amendment to the 2017/18 budget. We proposed to set up a modest grants scheme to help the Vale’s Children’s Centres that are working toward self-sufficiency through this challenging first year.  

— The Tory councillors all voted against, even those who sit on town and parish councils who are actually supporting their Children’s Centers. So the amendment failed. 

Here’s what Cllr Emily Smith had to say as she seconded the amendment motion.

Children’s Centres improve children’s life chances and strengthen their resilience. They intervene in problems early on before these problems become too difficult to reverse. Across the Vale, these Centres support parents with employment, housing and parenting. They also give under 5s a safe place to play and socialise, helping to ensure that all children are ready when they start school. 

The centres provide a focal point for local families where they can access health services, information and form supportive relationships with other parents that continue as their children grow. The centres we have are well used and fulfil a number of the aims set out in the Vale’s Corporate Plan – particularly in relation to community safety, supporting community groups and encouraging volunteering.

There is a wealth of evidence that investing in early intervention is the best way to reduce inequality and give all children the chance to fulfil their potential.   

As funding for Children’s Centres is withdrawn, the County Council focuses more on the families in greatest need. This means that the universal provision that so many of our residents rely on is disappearing. This is of great concern to me. 

Post-natal depression, domestic abuse, illness, disability, unemployment, bereavement or social isolation can happen to anyone – not just people living in deprived communities. Children’s Centres provide support with a huge range of issues quickly, before they escalate, reducing demand on Social Care and Health services.   

Also, without services that are open to all families, how will know who needs the most support? We risk leaving families struggling until they reach a crisis point.  

Children’s Centres are highly valued by service users and the communities they are based in. This is evidenced by the fact that so many local people are willing to contribute their time, knowledge and expertise to form community groups to keep these services going. But these groups need our help. 

Creating a grant pot, to top-up the Transition funding available from the County Council, will help ensure these not-for-profit groups are able to afford the set up costs for this initial year. It really could mean the difference between these new community groups succeeding or not.  

We have heard some Councillors suggest that Children’s Centres are not the District Council’s responsibility, but the budget being proposed this evening includes spending on both statutory and discretionary items. The discretionary items (that we don’t have to pay for) include leisure centres, the Beacon coffee shop, the outdoor pool at Abbey Meadow and the CCTV Hub. So should we remove these from the budget, because we don’t have to provide them either.  

We all have residents in our wards who rely on Children’s Centres and our communities are stronger because of the services these centres provide. Our finance officers have confirmed the we can easily afford to help these new community groups, so I ask all Councillors here tonight to support this amendment. Not because we have to, but because we can, and it is the right thing to do.

A single unitary authority for Oxfordshire

Today I’m studying the low level detail of Oxfordshire County council’s proposal for a single countywide unitary authority. 

I agree with the view that the only option is a single unitary; it’s the only approach that saves significant money by removing back office redundancy. I’m concerned about some aspects of this proposal, however. So I’m reading it closely looking for how this proposal addresses the needs of rural communities and not just urban, and how it recognises the unique needs of Oxford City and not just an ‘average’ that satisfies nothing very well. 

One big concern I have is that the Tory movement will silence or marginalise other voices in the county. Since we haven’t had a chance to vote on this, the county and districts ruling groups don’t have a mandate to reorganise local government. To mitigate that, I’d like see steps taken to include other voices besides solely Tory ones. It would help if Labour-run City were at the table. I think a good solution is to have an opposition voice for each council seated at this transition table. 

Reading and thinking.