Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Notice of completion

The Town Council is supposed to notify the residents that the Audit has been completed. Last year the Town Council had the temerity to charge 60 pence a copy for the damning report into the Town Councils' finances.

What of the notification this year? Huntingdon Town Council has the way forward with the notice appearing on their website. No mention of charges. One of the main criticisms of the Auditors was the lack of financial information on the Town Council website. Obviously this Liberal Democrat run Town Council isn't up to the job!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Transparency in local government

I still feel it is only the County Council that is some way in getting the policy of transparency over with the publishing of the over £500 payments. But there is a long way to go. Where the Department of Communities and Local Government leads the rest will have to follow.

Hampshire County Council wanted to charge for Freedom of Information requests because they cost too much. Eric Pickles, Secretary of State at DCLG said to this request:

"If town halls want to reduce the amount they spend on responding to freedom of information requests they should consider making the information freely available in the first place.

"The simple act of throwing open the books, rather than waiting for them to be prised apart by the force of an FoI, might even save a few pounds in the process.

"Ninety councils have already published details of day-to-day spending over £500 online. Those councils recognise that not only does the public have a legitimate right to see information about what their council spends and the decisions it makes, but that openness and transparency is absolutely critical to root out waste and inefficiency.

"Greater local accountability is essential to accompany the greater powers and freedoms that the new Government is giving to local government."

Too often the Councils hide behind secret meeting and "commercial" interest. The DCLG is leading the way over contracts. The DCLG goes onto say:

"Suppliers and those organisations looking to bid for public sector contracts should be aware that if they are awarded a new Government contract, the resulting contract between the supplier and Government will be published."

Insert Council instead of Government into the above statement and this is what all Councils should be doing, now.

Eric Pickles is a former Leader of Bradford Council. He knows a thing or two about local government. This is why with one hand he is trying to give local government more powers and responsibilities and with the other give genuine public accountability through the democratic process to the people who pay for these services. Local Government is part of the top down approach to local government that has been instilled since the beginning. Local Government know best. If this level of government wants more powers it has to be open with the public. It is Council Taxpayers money they are spending. We should have the right to know how and why it is being spent!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

More on old bones

I put in an Freedom of Information request into HDC asking about closed churchyards and how much they cost for HDC to maintain. The reason behind this was an article where HDC stated they were in charge of a closed churchyard in Colne. I thought this strange because the Town and Parish Councils normally pick up these costs. We do in St Neots. Colne seems to be a special case.

From the FOI answer £4500 was sent on Colne with an extra £1500 spent on cutting grass at Ramsey and Farcet - say £750 each. Now it isn't as though this couldn't be afforded by these Parish Councils.
These Parishes pay a lot less than here in St Neots. The question is could the parishes afford this burden. The tax base says yes.
Farcet would add £1.30 to a Band D Bill. Ramsey would add £0.26 and Colne would add £13.08. All below what we pay in St Neots.

The piece of information that did pop up as the £286.86 spent on a contractor at Hemingford Grey. So how are the Councillors for Hemingford Grey? Cllr Bates (Leader of the Council) and Cllr Stephens.

I do believe all Town and Parish Councils should be treated the same. So if one gets a concession then all get the same. The problem is HDC doesn't seem to work that way with exceptions to the rule all over the place. Either HDC maintains all Closed Churchyards or the Town Councils and Parish Councils do. No exceptions!


Re: Freedom of Information Act – FOI Request No 1494.
I am writing in respect of your recent enquiry for information held by the Authority under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. We have dealt with your request under the Freedom of Information Act.

Your request for information has now been considered and the information requested is enclosed.

You requested:
‘In a report in the Hunts Post there is a problem with bones being unearthed at a graveyard in Colne. The article goes onto state that HDC is responsible for the maintenance of grass and pathways. I therefore request how much it costs the Council to maintain this graveyard in the last financial year and whether HDC or Colne Parish Council was charged for this maintenance.’
Colne had about £4500 spent on it by Countryside Services last year, as it has taken a lot of effort to bring it up to standard compared to other closed churchyards.

‘Further I would like to know whether HDC maintains any other graveyards and the costs and who pays for the maintenance in the last financial year.’
Of the others (Farcet and Ramsey) we spend around £1500 per year cutting the grass.
There was also £286.68 spent on a contractor at Hemingford Grey

Friday, November 26, 2010

What is wrong with the burial plots?

I see from the latest Town Council agenda there is a bit on Burial Plots. This item is being held in secret.
I wonder if it has anything to do with this?
This was taken for the 2008/11 Forward Plan. Most of the Town Councillors approved the Forward Plan.

It would be laughable if the Town Council has gone ahead with selling burial plots for land that can't be used. I suppose as this is secret I'll have to wait until January 2010.

Something is up over this. Bringing a Town Council meeting forward by 4 days basically for this item means something is pretty serious. This is the earliest meeting date available. Nothing else on the agenda warrants this attention.

On the other hand I'm just speculating as I don't know.

HDC secrecy and David Monks to go.

Sometimes I have to wonder at why HDC is so secret. Less than a week ago the Dismissals Panel went into secret session to look at who had applied for voluntary redundancy.
Less than a week later we find out that David Monks is looking to leave with a pay out. This has hit the headlines on the local newspaper websites.

So why aren't the public being informed of these secret decisions via HDC? Transparent this Council is not.

Can the Town Council regain Quality Status?

The Town Council is looking to regain Quality Town Status. This is a tough ask of the Town Council as many of the required tests will need a shift in how the Town Council is run and communicates with the residents. The Guidance for obtaining Quality Status is here.

I've had a run through of the tests to see how far off the Town Council is and looked at this through the eyes of a resident and not those who will judge any application. For more information go to the guidance.

Passes with flying colours.
The Town Clerk has gained these qualifications.
The Town Council doesn't always give public notice to meetings. One example was the Special Council Meeting held on 13th September 2010.
The main reason for failure is the non publication of the Annual Report. There are also issues over Priorities as there is no specific section. Also, whilst delivered to every home, I haven't seen this at public sites.
The Town Council meets only 4 out of the minimum 9 discretionary requirements. Number 8 has an X next to it because it has formulated a Community Engagement Strategy but hasn't informed anyone about it. At the time of writing it wasn't on the Town Council website. What is the point of this strategy is no one is informed of it? Hardly community engagement! So 5 out of the minimum 9.

This would be fascinating and courageous of the Town Council to do. Therefore unlikely to happen!
The Town Council has been getting away with just a the Mayor's Report at the Annual Town Meeting. Now it will need to inform residents of what it has been up to. 
After the 2 damning reports into the Town Council, the town Council could have gotten away with them as they were both unqualified.
In my view to pass this test the Town Council needs to change. It needs to inform and engage, neither which it has done in the past. Secrecy still abounds with meetings not publicised and minutes and agendas for some committee meeting not on the website. Of course they could take the easy way out of do schools. But this is a large Town Council and the largest Town in the County. It should do more to engage with residents.
I don't know it the Town Clerk is employed under NALC?SLCC terms and conditions.
The Town Council has some way to go to meeting all the tests. CPALC will be the ones to judge whether St Neots Town Council is worthy of the status of Quality Town Council.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Town Council Draft Budget up for discussion.

I was surprised by our Town Council. Rather than just sending through the budget details they also sent through the Working Papers on the proposed Base Budget. These papers give an explanation as to the spending decisions. A note of caution. These are the preliminary numbers and can be added to or taken away from depending on the decisions taken in Committees and Council.

For the Town Council this is a big thumbs up for transparency over this budget. It would be a even bigger thumbs up if the Town Council had published these via its own website.

So what are the base numbers?

The base budget for 2011/12 is looking to be £858,406. This is down £321 on the 2010/11 precept of £858,727. With the Council Tax base due out next week, this could allow the Liberal Democrats space for a small decrease in their portion of the Council Tax. But there are many other factors which includes HDC abandonment of services and any other Conservative Stealth Taxes on the Town Council (therefore the St Neots Council Taxpayer) which still need to be resolved.

The standstill budget has been achieved by:

Central Administration
A long overdue cut in the number of Council Staff. This saved £63,521. To be taken away from this is the new position of Accountant which costs £12,600. The Town Mayor didn't mention in his annual report. This equals a cut of £50,951.

Other budget cut backs and a loss of income from HDC plus a near tripling of administration charges for the Swimming Pool Trust (accounts 295 days late and counting) means the cost of Central Administration has fallen by £58,511.

Other Costs and Income (Loans and Interest)
This cost has fallen by £5,472 mainly due to higher interest rates on larger reserves.

Cemetery and Churchyards
The cost of this has fallen because Burial Charges are down and the £5,000 allocated for the cemetery extension isn't needed in 2011/12. Net cut in expenditure of £6,600. Taking out the cost of the War Memorial will make Cemeteries and Churchyards cost neutral.

Play Areas and Open Spaces
These cost are down by £1,985 mainly due to a cut in Repairs and Maintenance.

Depot and Operational
An increase in staff costs by £16,202 is offset with cuts in Ground Maintenance - £10,000, Vehicles - £4,300 and Rent and Rates down £2,000.

Community Services
These costs are up £26,653. This is wholly due to the abandonment by HDC of the Public Toilets and the taking up of this service by SNTC. The extra cost is £28,000 and is a Conservative Stealth Tax on St Neots.

Grants and Donations
At a standstill.

Highways and The Environment
The £5,355 decrease is mainly due the the build up in reserves on Traffic Management Schemes. The £5,405 carried over from last year will be used instead. The only problem I see with this is as the budget goes down and is harder to resurrect in future years. Better to keep the money rolling in and deal with excess with virements.

Eatons Community Centre
The net expenditure has risen by £5,678 to £28,603. Whilst the cost base was predicted fairly accurately, the lack of income is what is pulling this centre down. The purpose built pre-school has had no takers on a full-time basis. Hall booking income is less than budgeted. Whilst this is entirely predictable, this is not as wild a forecast as Cllr Barry Chapman made.
Neither party comes out of the ECC looking good. Both parties supported this venture.

With the Town Council informing us ECC needs to break even this year, the budget doesn't allow for this.

Town Promotion
This cost centre has had a large drop with the Town Centre manager post deleted. With the post goes a £5,500 from the Town Centre Initiative. What has crept in here is a £10,000 splurge on the Riverside Festival. At its October meeting the Operations and Amenities Committee decided not to have a budget for Sunfest.
Are the Town Council Officers getting around this decision by making it a budget decision? Seems so!

Capital Projects
Just an extra £45,000 on the Forward Plan. This has yet to be finalised. Whilst welcome, there are no provisions for other capital projects. The Priory Centre will need loads of money. Play Areas need to be constantly renewed. Vehicles and other machinery will need to replaced. All this takes money and, I feel, the Town Council is ignoring these problems. This will cost the Council Taxpayer dearly in the future as problems build up.

Priory Centre
This has a small increase in cost of £1,698 to a budgeted figure of £97,430. With costs increasing and a downturn in the bar profits this doesn't look like it is going to break even in 5 years. The budget doesn't indicate this.

What is missing?
£60,000 for the new boiler system at the Priory Centre.

£? for the movable seating at the Priory Centre.

£? for the legal costs and potential fine.

£? for taking over abandoned HDC Services

In conclusion
This is the second year running that St Neots Town Council has produced a budget which is a fair reflection of the cost of running the Town Council. In the previous budget I said this was deficient in capital spending. I still feel this is a problem and the Town Council should be looking for a £100,000 to set a side each year to build up resources for capital spending. There is also little room for manoeuvre if the District Council abandons services.

On the whole it is the second good budget by the Town Council. Not too sure it makes up for the casino budget and the 4 wasted years. The Town Council is on the right track. Whichever party wins in 2011 they have a Town Council set for the future. Whether St Neots residents want the services the Town Council delivers and will continue to pay the costs is a different matter.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Forward Plan Version 4

At the next  meeting of the Finance and General Purposes Committee of St Neots Town Council there is a look at the Forward Plan for the Town Council 2010 - 2015. Though by the time it is approved it should be 2011 to 2015.

The one major change is over how the Town Council deals with Shady Walk. In version 3 it says:

In version 4 this is now changed to:
Notice the change from PROTECT to ENHANCE. By changing this wording the Town Council can sell off land at Shady Walk as they will argue they can enhance the play area/open space with any money obtained.

I suppose this small change could let the Town Council off the hook for not protecting this open space.

Another bit of jiggling is over the Eynesbury Community Centre. The idea is for Eynesbury residents to use the Community Centre over in the new development. Now I'm not for the building of a Community Centre in Eynesbury. I feel such a proposal would be a waste of money. Instead of just admitting that a Community Centre for Eynesbury is infeasible the Town Council feels that a Community Centre on the new development means it has satisfied this aspiration.

Even by any stretch of the imagination how can this facility be over the other side of the railway line and far away from the main body of Eynesbury residents satisfy this Town Council aspiration. This is Stupid!

What is missing from this version of the Forward Plan is how the previous plans have worked. Version 1 was in tatters in a matter of months. Version 2 didn't make it. Version 3 was full of what little had been achieved. Version 4 just cuts out the rhetoric and is basically a standstill plan.

The Medium Term Planning page is currently empty. This is probably a good idea for what the rest of the document is empty of anything forward. Not so much a Forward Plan but a Plan that shows the Town Council has little idea of how to take St Neots forwards.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Old Town Council Budget explanations

In the run up to the 2001/12 budget I thought I would re-publish some of the old budgets explanations and why they were wrong.

The first is the 2008/09 budget.

From the outset this looked a good budget to our Liberal Democrat Councillors. But it wasn't. In the report on the 2008/09 accounts the Auditor found that there was little detail on how this budget was formulated. This meant this was a budget whose figures could not be relied on.

Whose fault is this? Well, the Deputy Town Clerk, at the time, has much to answer for. The former Town Clerk had the responsibility of supervision of the Deputy Town Clerk. The Chairman and Deputy Chairman (Cllrs Giles and Thorpe) of the Policy and Resources Committee were in charge of the budget process. [7] [9]

What was missing from this budget?

The Council decided to cancel most of the Grounds Maintenance contracts and start its own department. This is known as bringing the service in-house. Despite a detailed study that should have identified the costs involved these weren't included into the accounts. This totalled £95,000 in costs over a full year. As this was started during the year then roughly £55,000 that should have been added to this budget.

The Capital Receipt of £60,000 is a large problem. The reason why it is a problem is the amount against reserves. The inclusion of a £60,000 against a reserves of say £16 million is minimal risk to the budget if things go wrong. In the case of the Town Council the inclusion of a £60,000 Capital Receipt against balances of  virtually zero is a gamble and a gamble that didn't pay off.

This casino budget caused many problems for the Town Council. The inclusion of the extra £55,000 Ground Maintenance costs and the exclusion of £60,000 Capital Receipt would have given a budget of £874,873. This is up from £695,794. That would have been a £179,079 increase. That would have been a 25% increase in the precept or a 24% increase in the Towns portion of the Council Tax. This would have been politically unacceptable for the Liberal Democrats and would have outraged the Town.

So instead of a proper budget of £874,873 the Town Council passed a budget of £695,794. This caused many problems. During the financial year this underfunding led to the cancellation of many projects which should have gone ahead. From the cutting of the essential Town Plan to the Play Area Upgrades. This Town Council lost its way on a big gamble and lost. The gamblers were those in charge and time and again the former Liberal Democrat leadership of Cllrs Giles and Thorpe are those who gambled and lost. This is bad  government.

The second explanation is about the 2009/10 budget.

This budget was formulated (link to budget document) against the realisation of the problems caused by the 2008/09 casino budget.

In January 2009, the Liberal Democrat run Town Council had a massive problem. They weren't too sure how much money they had and were not sure of the whole financial situation. The Town Council Leadership (Cllr Giles and Cllr Thorpe) took a series of emergency measures. This left the Forward Plan, which the Town Council had passed less than 8 months earlier, in tatters.

So what did they dump?

Town Lottery (Saved £10,000 in 2008/09. Money transfered to a Traffic Scheme the County decided that wasn't important. The Town Council decided, without professional advice, that it was necessary.)
Play Areas Upgrade (Saved £40,000 in 2009/10. £55,000 in 2010/11)
New Cemetery (Saved £17,000 in 2009/10. Likely £29,000 from 2010/11 onwards)
Town Plan (Saved £30,000 in 2008/09. Money went to prop up the General Reserves. Saved £30,000 in 2009/10)
Town Wardens (No budget, so not happening)
Council Office Refurbishment/One Stop Shop (Saved £50,000 in 2009/10. £30,000 went to prop up the General Reserves. £20,000 to create a budget to fit out the Eatons Community Centre.)
Market Stalls (Saved £5,000 in 2008/09. Money transfered to fit out the Eatons Community Centre.)

By dumping all the above projects the Liberal Democrat leadership was able to prop up the 2008/09 Budget and have some money to put towards the fit out of the ECC which hadn't been budgeted for. This is partly why the Liberal Democrats were able to keep the rise to 5.05%.

In itself this was a major foul up by the Liberal Democrat leadership (Giles and Thorpe) and has gone pretty much un-noticed by residents.

So why did the Liberal Democrat leadership (Giles and Thorpe) get into this mess? Although they were Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the Policy and Resources Committee they seem to have little idea on what was happening with the finances. Below part of what the Policy and Resources Committee is for:
So what were the main problems that arose during 2008/09?

Ending the contracts for much of Grounds Maintenance and starting a new department cost this Town Council dear. During 2009/10 budget process this was predicted as an extra cost of £89,332 more than in 2008/09. This was despite the assurance this scheme had a detailed study.

The ECC was not properly funded and "mission creep" and other changes were not accounted for in the scheme. This led to a financial crisis which needed more money.

In the previous article I pointed out the Liberal Democrat leadership of Giles and Thorpe had understated the 2008/09 precept by £180,000. This casino budget caused problems for 2009/10.

After the January cuts in the 2008/09 casino budget the cuts continued into the 2009/10 budget process.
The £36k decrease in the Central Administration is because they only budgeted for a new Town Clerk for 6 months. So Giles and Thorpe had decided to under staff the Town Council for 6 months. If they employ another full-time Town Clerk with the same staff structure this will mean an increase for the 2010/11 budget of £36k.

The Other Costs/Income fall of £33k is to do with the loss of interest from the use of those reserves to pay for the ECC.

Because Grounds Maintenance was brought in-house this has added costs to the Depot and Operations section but has dropped the cost of both the Play Areas and Churchyard section. But this still represents an increase of £89,332 in costs over 2008/09.

The upping of the Promotions budget to £46k from £24k has much to do with the under budgeting in previous year.

The Town Promotion budget increased from £6k to £23k is to do with the inclusion of the xmas lights from the reserves budget.

The Priory Centre budget was cut by £26k which was a political decision.

The Capital Budget was a decrease from £188k to £48k meaning £140k reduction. Whilst this looks good cutting capital programmes will mean this will need to be reinstated in the future. To reinstate above £48k will mean tax increases.

The Town Council did put £25k aside for the running costs of the new ECC.

It should also be noted the 2009/10 budget left out Play Area Upgrades and Town Plan which saved another £70k. The leaving out of Play Area Upgrades will mean this will become a cost further down the line.

The 2009/10 budget was a slashing budget which the Liberal Democrat leadership of Giles and Thorpe used to rip up to tatters the Forward Plan and trash many of their programmes. The ECC carried on as the money pit. This budget has stored up problems for the future which can only be resolved by more tax rises. Of course the Liberal Democrats are hoping the 2011 annexation of parts of Eynesbury Hardwicke and St Neots Rural with all the extra housing will ease these budgetary problems.

Thirdly the 2010/11 budgets.

I went down to the Town Council offices to collect the draft budget. Only to find there are two draft budgets! I've scanned in the summaries for Option1 and Option 2.

There has been a bit of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. The first thing to point out is neither option has regard to any provision for public toilets or the Eaton Socon Car Park. The second point is some of the under budgeting in the 2009/10 budget have come back to bite this council. I blame Giles and Thorpe for this.

Option 1
This draft budget increased from £803,576 to £892,997. An increase of £89,421.  This is equal to £87.59 band D or  + 4 pence increase over 2009/10. The main cost increase is a massive £67,996 on Central Administration. The vast majority of this is a hike in salaries of £67,991. About half of this of this increase is due to the under budgeting for the Town Clerk in 2009/10. The other part I don't know. Other increases are: Priory Centre + £13,542; Capital Projects + £14,751.

Option 2
This draft budget increased from £803,576 to £858,727. An increase of £55,151. This is equal to £84.23 band D or -£3.32 decrease on 2009/10.

The main changes to Option 1 are:

Capital Projects are now zero. -£26,500
Priory Centre -£2,000
Eatons Community Centre -£4,650

The changes at the ECC are strange. (ECC Option 1 + ECC Option 2)

Staff salary: Option 1 = ££ / Option 2 = £9,000
Hall Hire: Option 1 = £25,000 / Option 2 = £40,000
Pre School Lease: Option 1 = £12,000 / Option 2 = £6,000

In my opinion there are three problems with these budgets.

The first problem is central staffing. We seem to be in the savage circle. An increase in the central bureaucracy without a massive increase in services delivered to the residents. The Town Council is over staffed and needs to be cut back rather than keep increasing.

The second problem is the budget for the Eaton Community Centre. Option 1 has an entry is just ££ for staffing. So the Town Council has made no budget for this section in Option 1. This is wrong. An estimate should be made and a figure entered. There are major differences in the estimates on income and on the lease for the pre-school. The assumptions behind these figures should be the same. The lease cannot be £12,000 in one option and £6,000 in another. Nor can you have hall hire income at £25,000 in Option 1 and £40,000 in Option 2There should be only one view on these income items, not two.

The third is there is not much money for capital projects. This Council needs to keep setting aside large amounts of money in a capital programme to renew the Town Council facilities. Otherwise these facilities will continue to deteriorate and will cost more money in the future.

What we should remind ourselves is this budget would have been much worse if it wasn't for the extra £89,000 from the annexed areas. If we took the new council tax base and applied it to the old budget we would be paying £78.82.
Option 1 we would be paying £87.59. An extra £8.77 or 11%.
Under Option 2 we would be paying £84.23. An extra £5.41 or 6.4%.

Whilst this is not a cost increase for 2010/11 it should be remembered that Grounds Maintenance is still costing SNTC £83,000 more than in 2007/08. This is a major underlying cause of the budget problems.

In conclusion, this budget is partly a carry over from the 2008/09 casino budget which left SNTC in a right mess. What is troubling is the lack of funding for a capital programme or indeed a capital programme. But what is most troubling is the salaries increase of £67,991. We should be reducing the central bureaucracy instead of increasing it!

These draft budgets are due for discussion at a Special Town Council Meeting on 15th December 2009.

Option 1 Summary
Option 2 Summary
ECC Option 1
ECC Option 2
Salary Increase

Liberal Democrats dodge the question

News and Crier Latest News

In an article Cllrs Thorpe and van de Kerkhove complain about car parking charges. With the Tsunami of cut coming, what would they cut instead of raising car parking charges. Utter silence from these two Liberal Democrats. They are District Councillors so I would assume they have more information than us residents.

Even with doubling of car parking charges St Neots will be paying significantly less than surrounding Towns. When Cllr Thorpe made a statement on car parking back in February be said:
"as people will be unwilling to pay when, for the same price, they could go to Bedford, Cambridge or Peterborough."

I did some research back then to show this wasn't the case.
So Cllrs van de Kerkhove and Thorpe, please inform me where you would make the cuts to replace the £500,000 of lost income! 

Eatons Community Centre breaks planning conditions.

Any Council should always look to the law rather than what is expedient. The Town Council has a problem with the Eatons Community Centre. Instead of building a cheap hall for the area, the Town Council decided to embark on a grandiose scheme to build a large community centre abutting local housing. This led to restrictions being put on the building which the Town Council has found restrictive.

The planning restrictions restrictions are:
This is why a temporary events notice has to be obtained when the Town Council exceeds its Licence.
The Town Council has put in for 4 more Temporary Events Notices to run to 23.30.
I understand these Temporary Events Notices have been withdrawn. More on the notices here. If the Town Council finds these planning restrictions too restrictive why not go through the planning process and try and get better hours.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Why doesn't business club together to pay for CCTV?

If CCTV is so necessary why don't the retailers band together and pay for the CCTV system themselves? The moaning that comes from business over the cuts getting extraordinary. The ball is in their court. Instead of moaning about the cuts, business should do their part in the "Big Society" and set up a Co-op to run these services that business feels they need.
The Federation of Small Businesses along with other business lobby groups should be looking at what they can do for the community rather than calling for subsidy from the Council Taxpayer. Whilst Huntingdonshire residents are looking at the deep cuts in services should business play their part in helping to soften the cuts. Obviously not.

Instead of complaining about the increase in car parking charges why don't retailers band together to bring in a £5 minimum expenditure and we'll refund your car parking charges. Waitrose do this in St Neots for their customers. The alternative is the retailers take on the cost for parking in St Neots.

I did a bit of research after the public was informed by the Town Mayor, Cllr Gordon Thorpe, that: "as people will be unwilling to pay when, for the same price, they could go to Bedford, Cambridge or Peterborough."
As I said back then parking in St Neots is already cheap when compared to other Towns.

Should Town Council facilities be run at a profit?

There seems to be a notion in St Neots Town Council that services should be run at a profit or break-even. But not all services. Open spaces and Play Areas need lots of money to maintain and money for this is paid out of the Council Tax raised. No charges here then.

The Priory Centre and the ECC are both examples of public services which shouldn't run at a profit. Nor with the likely maintenance costs are they likely too. The cost of these should be paid by the Council Taxpayer. What the Town Council should be looking at is the acceptable cost to the Council Taxpayer and the users of the service. 

Looking at the Priory Centre, this is a prime example of wishing it could break even over 5 years. This is impossible. The budget shows just why. The Priory Centre is budget to lose £112,135. This is before any capital expenditure is added.

To cut this loss the Town Council would have to triple the bar profit or double the hire charges. The only other alternative is to cut the staff. Jacking up prices will only move customers on. 

The Town Council has to come to terms with Public Services cost money. Setting targets which cannot be achieved may look good to the Public but they restrict staff and eventually they leave. 

I actually feel a budgeted loss of £100,000 is roughly right for The Priory Centre. Yes, the Town Council should bear down on costs. Yes, the Town Council should give the Manager the right to manage the facility rather than meddling with the prices. But don't make it impossible.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

If turbines go ahead we won't move here.

The Hunts Post St Neots - 17/11/2010

There are many if and buts in this letter from Shauna Collins Rumbelow. What I find fascinating is I looked at the local environment before I came to live in St Neots. I then looked at where to live in St Neots. I didn't look for somewhere to live first, reserve a house and then complain.

Cotton Farm has been rumbling on for ages. In researching somewhere to live why didn't Shauna look at the local papers or the Council planning portal where there is an abundance of information.

Instead of spending time actually researching the area she proposes to live the complaint is about how after reserving a 5 bedroomed house they discover a windfarm may be built.

Stop the windfarm or they won't move here! Everything revolves around what Shauna Collins Rumbelow wants. Really Shauna just stay in Essex.

A new political party for St Neots?

I received an email a few months ago about setting up a political party for St Neots. I have considered this very carefully. In doing so I asked myself a series of questions. These are:

1) Is there a need for another political party? The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have really wrapped up this Town between them. The Labour Party is virtually non-existent. Both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are doing a bad job. That in itself could be the calibre of Councillors. To be honest there is a problem with the number of people willing to be proper candidates rather than just paper candidates.

One answer is to join the current political parties. But I disagree with them and oppose several of the current councillors. So the answer is to set up a new political party.

2) What to call the party?
The First Party concept has some traction. But what would putting St Neots First actually mean?
Action Party seems a good name. But what action are we talking about?
Is this Independent in wanting to leave the UK or Independent is wanting to leave Huntingdonshire?

3) The ethos of the party?
This is always the sticking point of any new party. It is no good just saying a "Better St Neots" if I don't define what better actually means. 
Now I'm a bit of a libertarian in that I believe in transparent government at all levels and minimal government at that. What do I mean by minimal government? I believe all Government does too much and is also too far away. Communities should take responsibility for many of the services. The community should be in charge of local police, fire, schools, planning, emergency planning, planning of utilities, transport, lighting, ambulance, rivers, parks, leisure, local roads, street cleaning, social housing and many other services. 
I also believe taxation should be local with the community able to raise taxes through business rates, personal taxation, council tax and other charges decided locally. The community would then be able to decide the service levels and the taxation to fund these services. 
If St Neots wants a gold plated services and is willing to pay for them then fine. On the otherhand if the community wants low taxes then services would have to be reduced accordingly.

I'm for low tax - low services. To me that is a better St Neots. Others may want high taxes - high services. That is their better St Neots. A new party does need principles which it can promulgate to the St Neots electors.

4) Am I willing to spend my time doing politics for a new Party?
Time and money is always the sticking point. Currently, the Town Council pays minimal expenses and no salary. The District Council pays a basic salary of roughly £4,800. County Council is £7,600. Pretty abysmal pay really. I know at District and County levels more money is added with more responsibility. But these Councillors are in charge of a budget and aren't paid enough to encourage good new entrants.

In conclusion:
I am not willing to put time an effort into organising a new party for St Neots. Producing leaflets, running websites, campaigning on the ground to get a job as a Councillor with abysmal pay. This is a vicious circle. By not paying politicians enough then people aren't willing to put the time and effort into running for office. Those that do are open to ridicule. So less want to stand and it is harder to get people to stand. The Council Officers who do get well paid are left to rule the roost as they have all day to think up schemes. Councillors don't.

I want to see a political class of properly paid politicians standing for election to fewer seats. Then they have something to lose and are very likely to campaign on the ground to win. 

When I started this blog I asked "Why are they being so quiet?". This is probably the main reason why!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Do we need St Neots Town Council?

I was reading a piece on Muck and Brass and I noticed a link to Help Eliminate Letchworth Parish Council website. The history of this is Letchworth Garden City was an unparished area of North Herts DC. In 2005 there was a referendum to create  a Parish Council. Supporters of this move won the day and Letchworth Garden City Council was born in 2006.

By 2008 things had gone sour and the Town Council looked out of control. At the 2009 Elections the HELP campaign won 22 out of 24 seats and simply shut Letchworth Garden City Council down. The Council still exists on a minimal level holding the minimum statutory meetings.

This begs the question: "Do we need St Neots Town Council?" To answer this question we first have to take a look at what SNTC does.

Everything below can be run by a District Council.

Allotments: Could be run by an Allotment Holders Association.
Bus Shelters: Why don't bus companies provide these?
Cemeteries: Doesn't have to provided.
Closed Churchyards: This is a legal responsibility. I believe this should be for the church to run not the Town Council. But the District Council could run these.
Footway Lighting: Never understand why this is provided by the Town Council. The County Council should be the provider.
Grant Aid: Can be done by a District Council
Open Spaces: Many spaces but not Priory Park or the Riverside Park which are maintained by HDC.
Planning: SNTC is a consultee. This is an utterly useless committee.
Play Areas: Can be run by the District Council.
Promotion of Town: Can be run  by the District Council.
War Memorials: Can be maintained by the District Council

With the cuts coming along one way HDC can pass down the costs is by abandoning services and making the Town and Parish Councils take up the slack. There is nothing wrong in devolving services downwards. The problem is HDC only gets rid of services which cost it and no finance goes with the service. The payers, which the Town Council can do, such as Car Parks, are kept by the District Council.

The answer to my question is St Neots needs a Town Council to carry on some of the services HDC is going to abandon. Just because HDC abandons a service it doesn't mean the Town Council should pick this up. What is needed but HDC doesn't want to do is have a proper agreement between HDC and the Local Council over who does what. Whatever services HDC does abandon, the Local Councils should remember that HDC has £1.9 million in a special reserve to smooth these service cuts.