County council demands money with menaces

Our Surrey county councillor has circulated an email to residents in his wards (see extract below) recently, presenting the pros and cons and attempting to explain why Surrey County Council [SCC] is proposing a county-wide referendum for a 15% increase in the county precept to be levied on residents via their Council Tax bills. His explanation illustrates the conundrum faced by councils that have followed the Government mantra of ‘austerity’ to face yet more severe cuts demanded at the local level whilst Whitehall gets off relatively lightly, if not scot-free. However, the message is couched as a threat, “pay up or we’ll slash familiar services and you won’t like that will you” and that does not chime well with residents that are aware the council leader awarded himself a 60% pay rise in 2014 and where Surrey County Councillors were paid nearly £2million and its leader was paid the third highest rate in the south east of England in 2015. Read on and judge for yourselves.

“Over the past six years SCC has done what the Government has asked, and has reduced its costs by £70 million a year, for each of the past six years, so accumulated savings in costs of over £450 million per year (N.B. on a budget of some £2,000 million). In essence the amount of money that the Council spends today is the same, in cash terms, that it spent six years ago.”

“Each year the Government publishes a draft of what money it is prepared to give each Local Council, and has been in the process of reducing the Government grant to SCC from £151 million a year to zero. We are still awaiting the final settlement for the year to come and, if there is no change of heart on the part of the government, SCC will have a shortfall in the coming year of some £93 million.”

“There are only four sources of income to the Council:

  • Government Grants and
  • Business Rates (both of which SCC has no control over);
  • a small amount of money raised through fees and charges;
  • Council Tax, the main source of income, where the amount that can be increased is limited by the Government.

That limit has been set at 5% of this year, but an increase of 5% would only raise about a third of the shortfall. The only way that a Council can consider a Council Tax increase beyond the minimum is to hold a Referendum.”

“So SCC will now consider holding a County Wide Referendum on the future of Public Services in Surrey, asking voters if they will give approval to a Council Tax increase of 15%. The alternative will be an increase of 5% (the maximum allowed without a referendum).”

“If the 15% increase is approved by voters by a “Yes” vote, that will raise sufficient income £93 million a year) to maintain existing public services, including the extra costs being driven by demand for Adult Social Care services and Children’s services.”

“If the vote is “No” then a 5% increase will be the result. However, that will still leave SCC with a £60 million shortfall in this year.”

“By law, a Council is not allowed to set a deficit budget. It must legally set a budget for its expenditure and how much income it will get. It is not allowed by law (unlike the Government) to borrow the difference.”

“So if there is “only” a 5% increase, that will have to be accompanied by severe reductions across all council services and, although the details have not yet been announced, what should be expected will include:

  • Closure of some fire stations
  • Closure of MOST of the libraries, probably leaving just one in each main town
  • Closure of probably half the recycling centres
  • Elimination of the remaining subsidies of uneconomic rural bus routes
  • Severe reductions in road and pavement improvement plans, and less road safety schemes

The Council will have to concentrate the available funds on the statutory services of Adult and Children’s social services.”

“So the expression “between a rock and a hard place” comes to mind. If there is a referendum (assuming the Government does not give extra funds, and enough to avert the above) the county council will all have a hard choice to make. In essence, whether residents personally are prepared to pay an extra 10% increase in Council Tax (the difference between 15% and the 5%) to keep services more or less as they are or that residents are not prepared to pay the extra and accept the consequences to public services, in the knowledge that SCC will simply not have the money available to continue. That option will be a 5% increase in Council Tax and cuts to services.”

“There will be more information over the coming weeks. It is hoped that the Government will finally see that it cannot pile on more and more legal responsibilities onto Councils (about 60 extra legal duties in the last few years) but without the ongoing finance to support those responsibilities.”

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CoVoP comments on “land banking”

Just the other day an interesting email popped into the Inbox from Community Voice on Planning. They have concerns regarding the mis-match between planning permissions awarded for new housing and the annual delivery of new houses by the large house builders and CoVoP’s comments ran as follows:

Property Week reported in September that Housing & Planning minister Gavin Barwell had said that he wanted to crack down on developers that had a “habit of putting in planning applications, getting permission, getting uplift in their land value and then not doing anything”. The Local Government Association estimates there are a record 475,000 homes which have been given planning permission but have yet to be built.

Then last week (7 November 2016) there was an interesting programme on Channel 4 about the way in which developers are land banking housing permissions. Now Stewart Baseley, the Chairman of the Home Builders Federation has written to national newspapers [behind pay firewall] to claim that builders are not holding onto permissions. Meanwhile, on the BBC (Monday 14 November 2016), a representative of the Berkeley Group of developers has claimed that “there is not enough land being released and property taxes are too high “.

ITV News, (16 November 2016) reported that the Redfern investigation has – remarkably, some will argue – found no link between the levels of housing supply and home ownership. Instead it argues the biggest reason first-time buyers are struggling like never before is financial. They believe that more government investment is needed.

These developers are crying all the way to the bank. The profits of the main ten development companies have been stratospheric this year, yet house-building is still sluggish. The claim that property developers are not land banking is spurious, as any examination of their company accounts, or of Government statistics, where these transactions are noted, would lay bare the lie.

We should like to urge people to write to the Planning Minister, Gavin Barwell, and to the Secretary of State for Communities & Local Goverment, Sajid Javid, to remind them that land banking is part of the problem. This works to the advantage of the developers because they alone can dictate when this land is built on and by keeping supply short they are able to keep prices high and demand even more permissions. We need to refute this misleading information and to persuade the Ministers to amend the ridiculous planning legislation that has allowed this situation to develop. The 5 year land supply calculation must be amended to include all outline permissions granted to enable planning authorities to refuse further permissions on precious green spaces.

You can contact the Ministers through the Department for Communities and Local Government or you can write to your MP and ask them to take your letter to the Minister and to ask for a written reply. You could also ask them to raise a question in the house to either Gavin Barwell MP or Rt. Hon. Sajid Jarvid MP on this very point to request the Government to rectify the situation.

Whilst CoVoP understand that residents’ concerns may be local ones, we urge you to write and to challenge this viewpoint. We shall make no headway against the rapacity of the developers unless we fight our cause at this level across the country.

Please copy your letters to CoVoP so that we can see action being taken.”

Open Letter to Councillors

Dear Councillors,

On 24 May you are meeting to consider the Executive’s recommendation that the draft Submission Local Plan be issued for Regulation 19 public consultation. I know you have a huge amount of information to digest and to consider, but I am writing to urge you to look closely at the proposals for the so-called ‘Strategic Site’ (‘A46’) in Normandy Ward and ask yourselves whether you think they are reasonable and fair. They formed no part of the Regulation 18 public consultation in 2014 and therefore came out of the blue to local residents when this latest version of the Plan was published last month. Our MP, Jonathan Lord, has said he is “appalled and aghast at the proposals” (letter to constituents 3 May); both our Surrey County Councillor, Keith Witham, and our own Guildford Borough Councillor, David Bilbe, have said they oppose them (‘Surrey Advertiser’ 6 May, p2). At the GBC Executive meeting on 11 May Cllr Spooner acknowledged he had received numerous emails from local residents opposing the plans – he thought around 500. Continue reading

What’s in a Name?

Names matter – and it matters how they are used. I live in Normandy – that’s Normandy in Surrey rather than Normandy in France, by the way – an important difference when you are setting your SatNav. At least I thought I lived in Normandy, until earlier this month when Guildford Borough Council (GBC) published its latest draft Local Plan. This includes proposals to create a massive building site on the green fields between the two settlements of Normandy and Flexford, taking the whole of the resulting conurbation out of the Green Belt. Then I realised that according to GBC I actually live in Flexford; or at least that I live in Flexford for the purposes of assessing my village’s contribution to the openness of the Green Belt, but that I live in Normandy and Flexford for the purposes of evaluating whether I live in a sustainable community or not… Continue reading

Increasingly authoritarian

Some politicians seem to be ‘men on a mission’ and, yes. its mostly men. In a hurry to achieve an objective so they are voted in again in the next local or national electoral cycle and brook no opposition or delay.

Take the Chancellor. Apparently frustrated with local authorities who appear to be failing to deliver new Local Plans under the mired-in-the-courts National Planning Policy Framework [NPPF] containing house building plans that roll back the Green Belt. Perhaps in his eyes they are failing to contribute to his need as manager of the economy to pump up GDP and reduce unemployment through the well-known multiplier effect of the building sector. Whatever it is, in a written statement to Parliament on 21 July 2015 the Government provided more information saying that “in cases where no local plan has been produced by early 2017—five years after the publication of the NPPF—we will intervene to arrange for the plan to be written, in consultation with local people, to accelerate production of a local plan.”

Continue reading

Lottery winner in my village?

A ‘lottery’ winner in Normandy? Never. Wouldn’t believe it.

However, if you are lucky enough to own a piece of a green field around here nowadays, you might come up for a multi-million jackpot.

Thanks to the local council’s current draft Local Plan earmarking 72.4 hectares of perfectly good Grade 3A agricultural land between our two settlements that fulfills three of the most important aspects of the Green Belt  as ‘safeguarded land’, that is, safeguarded for development over the next 18 years for up to 2,700 new homes, local land owners, house builders and developers are meeting in a perfect storm of speculation and outline planning applications.

Presumably this is what the change in planning regulation heralded by the introduction of the NPPF was intended to create. Large-scale loss of productive agricultural land in a world faced with climate change to low-density urban sprawl is damaging to our food security but the increasingly authoritarian leaders of this government and our local council appear in thrall to their own economic and political dogma.

Why Guildford?

The new planning and infrastructure Tsar appointed by the Chancellor wants 40 affluent southern towns including Guildford to double in size. Guildford doesn’t hit the national headlines very often, so why Guildford?

These things don’t happen overnight. It must have taken a while for George Osborne to negotiate the deal with Lord Adonis as the planning Tsar. The appointment must have been contemplated before Adonis made his own speech in the House of Lords, which was on 16 September and, of course, it was announced at the Tory conference on a key date for the Chancellor’s speech.

If you wanted to square the shires and tell them that they’d got a good deal with, for example, 693 homes per annum as we are in Guildford according to the final West Surrey SHMA, and lose no Tory votes either nationally or locally, how would you do it?

Continue reading