Monday, October 31, 2011

If the New Homes Bonus is bribery then bring it on!

The New Homes Bonus has been described as bribery by The Daily Mail. This isn't peanuts. A housing development in Somerset of 3750 properties is likely to bring in £54 million in New Homes Bonus. Think what East of St Neots is bringing in and will bring into HDC and CCC coffers. My back of the envelope calculations comes to about £40 million. Just for St Neots.

The Bribery allegation has much to do with the amount of money coming in. The amount is 6 years of Council Tax at the full rate for each property built split 80/20 between HDC (which gets most) and CCC which gets the 20%. This is worth roughly £8000 for each property.

Rt Hon Grant Shapps denied the new Homes Bonus was bribery. In his response he said:

And where homes are built, it is right that local people share in the prosperity and growth that this will bring to their community.

Only that HDC has pocketed this money and St Neots isn't having any of it.

New Homes Bonus funding can be used however communities see fit to improve their local area - and I would urge all councils expecting to receive funding to speak to their residents about how they would like to see it spent locally.

HDC hasn't asked St Neots what we want to do with the New Homes Bonus gained from properties being built in St Neots. Instead HDC disguises the New Homes Bonus as the New Homes Reward Grant or similar. HDC has denied or is in self denial about the purpose of the New Homes Bonus.

The recent Neighbourhood Forum would have been a good start to this.

So what are the St Neots Conservatives going to do about the New Homes Bonus?

At the last election the Conservatives said:
Read it again. The Conservatives have promised they will ensured the New Homes Bonus monies come back to St Neots where they belong. So why is HDC nicking our New Homes Bonus?

If HDC is just going to nick the New Homes Bonus money to prop up their failing budget the New Homes Bonus isn't worth anything to St Neots. On the otherhand if the New Homes Bonus monies comes to St Neots - where they belong - then bribe away.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Reflections on the Neighbourhood Meeting

I went to the Neighbourhood Forum meeting at Ernulf College on Monday 24th October 2011. The first problem was where was the meeting taking place? I took a chance and headed for the school building and went through the doors. I couldn't see a single sign up pointing the way. I wasn't the only one a bit lost.

Having found the meeting I was a bit taken aback at how few residents that actually turned up. I would have thought the more would be there. This was an opportunity for the Cinema groups to turn up. Also as parking in Longsands Road was on the agenda I thought many from that area would also be there. Only a couple of residents.

Anyway looking at the agenda there was something local with the Police, Longsands Road and the new Traffic Light system for the Town Centre. Goods bits of information. There was a piece by the Skateboard Users which was enlightening.

Also on the Agenda was a bit about Hate Crime.

Now I'm against Hate Crime and I can see the reason why this was put on the Agenda. Getting people to know about a service is generally a good idea. But should a Neighbourhood Forum be about puff pieces for District services?

This is the downfall of the Neighbourhood Forums. How are the Councils going to get people involved and attending if it doesn't allow residents to speak of their concerns? It is the chicken and the egg question. Which comes first?

This is the problem with Neighbourhood Forums. They don't address what concerns people may have for the future. Some instances:

The cinema has never been talked about.
Changes to the District Council opening hours at its St Neots Office.
Changes to Street Lighting.
The Open Air Swimming Pool has never been talked about.
Car Park charging at Riverside has never been talked about.
Changes to bus services has never been talked about.

These are some instances I've just thought about.

And when important decisions are talked about these seem to happen in Kimbolton or Great Gransden. St Neots is the central conurbation to this Neighbourhood Forum. I know there is a wish to get out and about with these forums. The expectation seems to be that everyone should go to the small villages to hear about St Neots. Whilst this is a good idea, in practice the Neighbourhood Forum should be held at the Priory Centre and only there. The Anti-Windfarm lobby were able to turn up to one meeting held in St Neots. If is is decided to have meetings in the villages then don't talk about St Neots issues. Why the St Neots Drop In Centre was talked about in Great Gransden is a bit beyond me.

And the chicken and egg question? I feel the Neighbourhood Forums are pretty useless. Yes, they could be much more. Instead of Councils presenting what they think the public wants to know why not ask the public what they want to know about. Yes I know there is a section within the Agenda for this to happen. But which comes first. Instead of talking about issues such a Hate Crime, talk about the cinema or the swimming pool or wind farms or whatever.

As for input, if the Councils want Neighbourhood Forums to have a higher status then what happens at these meetings should be reviewed by panels and committees at the various councils. Currently they are not.

There is also an issue of publicity. The Councils need to look at the publicity for these Forums. On the District Council website is good. But this didn't even touch the Town council website or their Priorities propaganda rag.

The future of Neighbourhood Forums looks pretty bleak. Instead of talking about what the Councils want residents to hear, these Forums need to have a purpose. That must be to discuss the upcoming issues and decisions. This will allow the residents to have an input into Councils' decisions. Therefore Councils should think like residents and put items on the Agenda that are controversial.

Whether any changes will mean a much greater attendance I doubt. The residents will only turn up if they see a reason to turn up. Cuts are happening. Yet nothing is really said on how these cuts are going to affect residents.

I know I'm probably putting in too much into 2 hours four times a year. But an attempt to make these Forums a useful tool for residents rather than being a useful tick box for the Councils could make these Forums actually useful to residents.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Museum or not museum? That is the drop in question!

On the front page of the Hunts Post there is a piece on the Town Council dropping the proposed Drop In Centre for the St Neots Museum to extend its operations. During his reign former Town Mayor, Gordon Thorpe, raised £2,500 for the Drop In Centre. In the article Gordon said: "I'll be very disappointed if we can't get this off the ground after 2 years of planning."

So what of the Drop in Centre. After 2 years of planning and Gordon Thorpe raising £2,500 what has been raised by the Drop in Centre project. The briefing by Ms Stocker-Gibson at the Neighbourhood Forum on 25th July 2011 is very telling:
I take from this that the Youth Drop in Centre has no other money than Gordon's £2,500 and then only if the project goes ahead.

On the otherhand we have the museum. According to the 2010 Museum accounts, the museum currently gets a £30,000 grant from the Town Council and the Town Council receives back £6,000 in rent. A net figure of £24,000 to the museum. It also has £102k in the bank. Over the last 5 years the museum has made a small loss or last year a small profit.

Therefore the question before the Town Council is either lease the annex to a Drop in Centre with hardly any money or to a Museum which relies on Town Council money to keep going and has £102k in the bank.

If the Drop in Centre had come forward with a business plan which had guaranteed sources of money I would go for the Drop in Centre. From the briefing on 25th July 2011 to the Neighbourhood Forum it seems the Drop in Centre has neither the money for the venue or money to run the project.

Therefore it must be the museum that gets the annex. Whilst the museum can afford to do something with the annex the net £24,000 grant must either stay the same, in cash terms, or be reduced. It is no use allowing the museum to expand and then expecting the Town Council to pick up higher lease costs.

This must be the start of weaning the Museum off the Town Council subsidy over a period of time, say 10 years.

As for Gordon Thorpe et al complaining about this decision, well you were in power until May 2011 and you didn't do the deal with the Drop in Centre. It looks like 2 years in planning were wasted because the money wasn't there in the first place. Just because Gordon Thorpe raised £2,500 for this project doesn't mean the project should go ahead with more public money. If Gordon had raised say £250,000 for the Drop in Centre the decision would have to be different.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Drowning in the swimming pool of despair

A source informed me of the following:

The Swimming Pool Trust has abandoned plans to sell the swimming pool site and now intends to rebuild the open air swimming pool on the original site.

If my source is correct, this is a U-turn of major proportions. The Conservatives have therefore dumped McCarthy and Stone retirement flats. Probably the only way out of the situation the Conservatives find themselves in. And that is why I asked for a briefing to the next Neighbourhood Forum.

To recap, the Town Council/Swimming Pool Trust are in a legal quagmire/catch 22. They cannot sell the land without HDC, run by the Conservatives, taking half the proceeds. The Charity Commission will not let the land be sold unless the Swimming Pool Trust gets all the proceeds.

At the last elections the Conservatives promised ALL the proceeds will be used for a new outdoor swimming pool. This is a way round that promise.

When my source was asked: "where the money to rebuild the swimming pool was going to come from?" I was informed there is money in a trust. I had to scratch my head here. The swimming pool trust has about £70,000 in cash. So there is no money to rebuild a swimming pool.

The big question has to be is where the Town Council/Swimming Pool Trust is going to get the money to pay for a new swimming pool. Will they go for lottery funding or look to a loan to pay for a swimming pool? Is there money squirrelled away from Section 106 agreements? Or has Rowley come forward with another million to pay for this facility? I await with baited breath for the answer!

The basic problem remains the same. The old pool was closed because of losing money and not enough to repair the pool. Any new pool will require public money to run it and public money to refurbish it in the future.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The next District Election won by the Conservatives

Even before the polls are being thought about the Conservatives have won the next District Elections. Whilst the overall result is in no doubt, the individual ward elections are still to be fought and won.

These are the wards up in the electoral cycle:

St Ives East - Conservative - Jason Abelwhite (Council Leader)
Brampton - Liberal Democrat
Godmanchester  - Conservative
Huntingdon East - Liberal Democrats
Huntingdon North  - Conservative
Ramsey -  Conservative
Sawtry  - Independent
Somersham - Conservative
St Ives West - Conservative
St Neots Eaton Ford - Conservative
St Neots Eaton Socon - Conservative
St Neots Eynesbury - Conservative
The Hemingfords - Conservative
Warboys and Bury - Liberal Democrats
Yaxley - Conservative

There are 52 Councillors sitting on HDC. 27 for a majority. The current political make up is:
41 Conservatives
8 Liberal Democrats
1 Independent

There are 15 seats up for election.
11 Conservatives
3 Liberal Democrats
1 Independent

The Conservative spread is 45 seats - 30 seats
The Liberal Democrats is  12 - 5 seats
UKIP is 3 - 2 seats
Independent 1 - 0 seats.

Even if the Conservatives drop all their seats up for election they will still retain 30 seats. A majority of 8.

The battlegrounds

The Liberal Democrats need to demonstrate they are still a political force in St Neots. There has been hardly any activity by them so far. Potentially they have St Neots Eynesbury and St Neots Eaton Socon to try and win. Eynesbury has the only Liberal Democrat Councillor for a St Neots ward. They also need to fight back in Eaton Socon

The Conservatives need to thump home their wins of 2011 in Eynesbury and Eaton Socon by scoring good wins against the background of the NO2AV campaign not being behind them.

On the wider District, the Liberal Democrats need to defend the seats they already have and push ahead. Huntingdon East is a Liberal Democrat/Conservative battle. Huntingdon North is also a three way battle between Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour. This is the only seat Labour could take.

Ramsey could see the last of 3 Conservative seats fall to UKIP which is making this their centre of power.

Whether the Independent Councillor in Sawtry will continue is open to question. If he doesn't re-stand this should be another Conservative win.

HDC continues to break the law

The Corporate Governance Panel should have approved HDC accounts for 2010/11 on 27th September 2011. They didn't. The minute for that meeting says:
So there is to be a Special Meeting on 2nd November 2011. The Agenda for this meeting has been published.
Not a word about the accounts. No reasons given for their non-appearance on of the accounts at this "Special Meeting". Utter silence. The longer these accounts are not approved (30th September 2011 was the deadline) the more it looks as though it is something very wrong. A short statement from HDC would suffice. Yet rather than say anything HDC does its normal trick of staying silent.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Town Council Planners know best?

As someone who follows the antics of the useless Town Council Planning Committee I was somewhat taken aback by Margaret Cooke in her letter to the Hunts Post. In the letter Margaret Cooke says:

Why does she think the council planners voted against this development. Was it for the fun of it or could there be genuine reasons why this happened?

Having got hold of the minutes of the Town Council Planning Committee where the cinema proposal was voted down I have must have been for fun as there were no genuine reasons for refusal given.
As can be seen from the minutes there are no reasons given for refusal. Whilst the useless Town Council Planning Committee voted against the cinema development there is little to back up this refusal. What has been said in the press about the reasons for refusal are useless arguments.

Now if the residents really wanted to stop this scheme they should have started back when the consultation over the development brief started. The residents could have put up candidates at the elections in May. The residents could have lobbied their councillors. The residents could have gone to Town Council meetings and protested at the lease of land to Turnstone Estates. The residents could have applied for Shady Walk to become a Town Green.

If the development goes ahead all the residents against this scheme have done is to get a petition together and object. Not much else. The political class in St Neots is for the cinema scheme. HDC including its Planning Department is for the scheme. With the decision due for the Development Management Panel Meeting of 19th December 2011. This could be an early Christmas present for someone and a awful Christmas for others.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

What has Djanogly actually done wrong?

Our MP, Jonathan Djanogly, seems to be a bit of a lightning rod. Controversy over his expenses and the questions he didn't answer. Controversy over spying on fellow Conservative members also did him harm. In this latest controversy I don't see what Djanogly has done wrong.

His declared shareholdings, woodland and his membership of the Djanogly partnership at Lloyds have been put into a blind trust. This change should have been declared earlier but these interests have already been declared so this is rather a red herring.

What seems to be the trouble is over his brother-in-law who owns several companies which technically Djanogly had oversight. Nothing untoward has been discovered in the sense that it hasn't been found that Djanogly has taken decisions about these firms. There is also trouble over his teenage children holding shareholdings in a couple of his brother-in-law firms. This is slightly more difficult because Djanogly, being a parent, should have known about these.

But at what point should a shareholding become an actual interest. If what seems to be the argument that he should have declared these shareholdings by his teenage children then I have to disagree unless he is a signature to these shareholdings.

The argument seems to be that Djanogly should not have oversight of companies dealing with legal claims because his brother-in-law owns a couple. Does this mean he shouldn't have oversight? The argument continues that because his brother-in-law businesses that Djanogly should not be making policy over this area. I believe Djanogly should carry on.

The basic problem I have will this so-called scandal is there is nothing inherently wrong. If we are going to go down the road that a relative or friend have businesses or interests this means that a Under Secretary of State or any Government Minister cannot make policy where relatives or friends could be involved.

For example: Djanogly is a solicitor. Therefore Djanogly shouldn't make policy about lawyers because some of his friend are lawyers.

My example is in planning. Just because friends and relatives can make planning applications doesn't mean Councillors cannot decide planning applications. Just when a planning application comes up from a friend or relative these Councillors should declare an interest and withdraw from the decision. This must be the case for Government.

It seems that the detractors want Government Ministers to be "nobby nomates" with no family, friends or interests to take all the decisions in Government. 

If it was found that Djanogly had changed policy or had made decisions or even influenced any change in policy or decisions for the sole benefit of his brother-in-law that would be wrong. No such evidence has been produced. If evidence were produced then this would change the situation.

I'm no fan of Djanogly. I'd rather have him go for something he has done wrong and not for something which has been made up.

The problems for Djanogly goes back to his expenses scandal. The press and interest groups will dig around for something that seems wrong. Whilst the electorate has forgiven Djanogly over his expenses, because he was re-elected, this means he is still a lightning conductor over anything that in some peoples minds is wrong.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The granny wars over the cinema. Which one will Djanogly support?

On the Hunts Post website there is an article about two grannies at war over the Cinema project. Mrs Cooke against and Mrs Winters for.

Both Mrs Cooke and Mrs Winters are meeting with Huntingdon MP Jonathan Djanogly on Friday to discuss the project, before the application goes before HDC later this year.

What has Djaonogly got to do with this? He is the MP but this is a matter for the Councils and not him. All he can do is listen and monitor the development.

On Djanogly's website there is a picture of Djanogly and Cllr Barry Chapman looking at the plans for the site.
They look like they are at the back of Cressener House which isn't in the proposals. From the looks of this Djanogly is supporting the cinema development.

As Cllr Barry Chapman says:

'We are very pleased by Mr Djanogly's interest in the project which already has the support of Town, District and County Councillors. Huntingdonshire District Council is currently updating its plans for the Huntingdon Street site and we hope these will reflect the view of St Neots residents who wish to see a cinema here.'

With most of the St Neots representatives already on board it seems extremely likely to go ahead.

It seems likely that Djanogly should come down on the side of the cinema project having had his picture taken at the site with the plans. But will we end up with another case of fence sitting yet again? Yes it will.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Should our County Councillors be paid more?

That is the question being put to the County Councillors on Tuesday 18/10/11. My simple answer is YES! The public undervalues the role of councillor and their ability to run this organisation and, if in opposition, to hold the ruling party to account.

What should be the rate of pay?

The report from the Independent Remuneration Panel says it should be £9500 a year or £13571 if the 30% cut is taken into account. The 30% comes from a weird idea that somehow part of the job is Public Service and therefore salaries are discounted by 30% to take this into account. Whilst I understand why this Public Service discount element is included, because Parliament says it should be, I disagree with this assumption. A job is a job and discounting is simply wrong. Otherwise shouldn't the public demand that all Council jobs have a element of Public Service and therefore all public jobs, from cleaner to Chief Executive, should therefore contain this public service element.

The £13571 is for 2.5 days a week which equates to £27142 a year. This is therefore the basic amount for a County Councillor. By my rule of thumb this is probably the right amount for a County Councillor.

What adds to the job is Special Responsibility Allowances (SRA). These are paid to many of the County Councillors. From the Council Leader down to Opposition Spokesman. Panel Chairmen also get SRAs. CCC doesn't have a 1 SRA rule. In theory Councillors could take on several SRA and boost their pay. I believe the 1 SRA rule must be introduced.

The major problem is comparing the job of being a County Councillor to that of any other job. Whilst the comparable jobs seem to be a Non-executive NHS Trust directorship and those member of a Police Authority neither of these are elected. Comparisons made against other County Councils also adds to problems because these add to wage inflation. because if A and B get paid higher then C has to have a pay rise. Many of the problems in Local Government Finance happen because the lower scales rise and this pushes the salaries above upwards. I could go more into Senior Officer pay but I'll do that at a later date.

The basic problem is these comparisons are really a paper chase with numbers that, in reality, aren't comparable. What the Independent Remuneration Panel is actually doing is having a stab in the dark.

There seems to be a recognition that Councillors need to attend meetings. The idea that Councillors should lose money for not attending meetings is a good idea. The bar seems to be set too low. The idea is if a Councillor attends less than 75% of all meetings then they lose 10% of their allowance for each 10% they don't attend. Under these rules if they attend 66% of meetings they don't lose any money. If they attend 65% of meetings they lose 10% of their basic allowance.

The bar should be set higher. As Councillors are our employee I expect them to be there 100% of the time. At work I'm expected to turn up every day. I have holidays. Take this off and I'm expected to attend work for 90% of the time. Therefore the bar should be set at 100% attendance with any Councillor attending less than 90% being docked 10% of basic allowances. Each subsequent 10% meaning a loss of another 10% of basic allowances. Under this scheme a Councillor attending 90% of the time will get full basic allowance.

I feel our County Councillors should be paid more. What meetings they attend and the reasons why they don't attend should be made available to their employers. Namely the people who elect them, the electors, and this information should be public. And YES their pay should cut if they don't attend than 90% or more of the the meetings they should attend. 

The problem is there is no good time to increase their pay. Now is probably the worst. Either we pay and value our politicians properly or we expect this job to be done for free. For what is seen by the public as an easy job for easy money doesn't entice many of the electorate to apply for these jobs. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Cllr Ablewhite (and others) cost us £5000!

Looking back at the Co-op in St Ives Planning Application I have eventually gotten around to finding out how much the District Councillors who voted for the decision to refuse actually cost us. The answer is £5000.

Why were costs awarded against the District Council?

Because those on the Development Management Panel didn't following the officers professional and technical advice. When they came up with their reasons for refusal, the reasons given were not evidenced. The planning Inspector found against HDC because the reasons for refusal weren't evidenced.

So are the District Councillors who voted to refuse, including the Conservative Leader Jason Ablewhite, paying up for this entirely predictable cost. So far NO!

This piece of showmanship cost the Council Taxpayers £5000. A waste of money by the Conservatives.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Town Council Accounts - why did the Conservatives take so long?

The Audit of St Neots Town Council Accounts has finally finished. Under the regulations there has been a change as the Town Council is now regarded as a smaller relevant body.
The new regulations the Town Council finds itself under means the accounts have to be published along with any certificate, opinion or report issued. The Annual Accounts are here. As the Conclusion of Audit states:
Copies are obtainable from the Council Offices. In my opinion these should be on the Town Council website rather than inaccessible in the Town Council offices.

The initial accounts were filed late to the Auditors. Those accounts produced on 17th June 2011 were not agreed and the Auditors were told that these new councillors needed time to review these accounts. 

But was this delay really needed? Apart the bracketing of budget costs which was an error there was no need to delay the approval of these accounts. The reason given by the new administration was that it was new. But the main part of the Town Council was elected in May and the Eynesbury 7 were elected on 9th June 2011. Plenty of time to look at the accounts. The only real difference between the 17th June version and the approved version was the inclusion of the following:

During the election much had been made by the Conservatives about the cost of the Eatons Centre.
Including the Eaton Centre Trading Account isn't that strange nor does it really take a month to insert. These trading accounts aren't actually required. HDC doesn't in their accounts. Loan repayments and interest paid are also not part of the trading accounts. HDC doesn't do it this way. Are our Town Councillors, who are also District Councillors, pressing HDC to change the way it presents their accounts. Maybe this is why the HDC accounts are late?

Looking at the Priory Centre trading accounts there is a difference between 17th June 2011
This shows a deficit of £39,603. In the final set of accounts agreed by the Town Councillors this has changed to:
A trading deficit of £19,153. This is because the Loan Repayment has been treated as income instead of a cost.

There is no good reason why the accounts were filed late. The new town Councillors had plenty of time to review and look into the accounts. The Conservative chose to break the law and . Even when they did they made a mistake!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Putting up car park charges keeps council tax down

In the Hunts Post this week the effects of the increase in car parking charges due soon are have got some people furious. In the article there is this piece of advice:

Malcolm Lyons, Huntingdonshire chairman of the Federation of Small Business, whose members include many shopkeepers, was furious.

He said: “It’s appalling at a time when people’s wages are going down that they put the charges up. They never listen. It’s a discouragement from using the town centres.

“They should keep the first two hours down to encourage people to do their shopping in the market towns, and put up longer-term charges.

“For local people, it’s the first two hours that are important. I say to the council: if you need to save £2m, don’t take it out on the electorate.

What Malcolm Lyons doesn't seem to understand is Car Parks cost money. In neighbouring Fenland District Council the cost of the car parks cost the Council Taxpayer roughly £400,000 a year. Fenland has a much higher Council Tax at twice the rate we pay in Huntingdonshire. The car parks that HDC control bring in roughly £750,000. 

The £2 million Malcolm Lyons alludes to is money that needs to be saved in the future. The increase in car parking charges is to do with £5 million of savings that had to be made. This is because HDC kept its council tax low for many years because it got caught out. Having kept Council Tax at a very low rate when it had to increase the Labour Government capped any increases. Not that this stopped Conservative run HDC from claiming the Conservatives were keeping Council Tax rises low.

The choice is very simple. Either cut services and put up charges or make a substantial increase in Council Tax. I believe the user should pay for services. Car Park charges in Huntingdonshire are very low in comparison with surrounding Towns and will continue to be low.

As for Malcolm Lyons and his "if you need to save £2m, don’t take it out on the electorate." it is utter nonsense because either we have a choice and pay for car parking or we pay through the Council Tax. Either way the electorate will be hit. Better to have a choice than no choice.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Another promise begging to be broken!

One promise made to the people of Eynesbury was the starting of a monthly surgery by the Conservative Eynesbury Councillors.
It says: "We pledge to hold a monthly surgery for the public to meet with their Councillors to enable them to talk about local issues concerning them."

Out in Eaton Socon a similar promise was made. And they have fulfilled this promise. The image below is taken from the Town Council website.
Our Eynesbury Councillors have yet to fulfil this promise. I can see nothing in the press or websites to indicate when these Eynesbury surgeries are going to take place. The Councillors who made this promise are:

Applying for Freedom of Information with HDC

Secrecy still abounds at HDC. Getting information out of HDC can be quite difficult. I know I do ask for some information which is difficult for HDC to publish. HDC just loves secrecy. Below are all the FOI requests I've made to HDC with dates and how long these information requests take.

FOI Request No. 1077 22nd November 2009.
This was asking for a report to Cabinet on the Outdoor Swimming Pool.
I received a reply on 23rd November 2009 saying what they would do.
My request was refused 3rd December 2009.- This took: 8 days
I appealed this decision on 7th December 2009
I received an email setting up an internal review on 9th December 2009.
Review refused appeal on 20th January 2010 - This took: 27 days

FOI Request No. 1103 19th December 2009
This was asking about South Street Toilets
I received a reply on 21st December 2009 saying what they would do.
My request was refused on 12th January 2010 - This took: 12 days
I appealed this refusal on 12th January 2010
The appeal was rejected on 15th February 2010 - This took: 24 days

FOI Request 1157 - 3rd February 2010
This was requesting Agendas, Minutes and reports for the Car Parks Working Party
Refused 26th February 2010 - This took: 17 days
Appealed 26th February 2010
Sent another e-mail asking when this appeal was to be heard on 12th March 2010
I received a reply on 26th February 2010 stating:
We will be in contact with you again by the end of March.
Appeal Refused 6th April 2011. This took: 25 days

FOI Request No: 1304 - 7th June 2010
This was about the contradictions in the amount of money claimed to be spent electing a Mayor.
Answered: 2nd July 2010 - This took: 19 days

FOI Request No: 1305 - 7th June 2010
Request for notes on Neighbourhood Forums.
I cancelled this request on 25th June 2010 as these had been published after the request had been made.

FOI Request No: 1487 - 15th October 2010
Information on Chairman's Charities costs.
Reply received 1st November 2010 - This took: 11 days

FOI Request No: 1494 - 27th October 2010
Information of closed churchyard costs
Reply received 16th November 2010 - This took: 14 days

FOI Request No: 1592 - 16th January 2011
Requesting St Neots Town Centre Initiative minutes
Reply received 3rd February 2011 - This took: 14 days

FOI Request No: 1624 - 3rd February 2011
With new information I carried on with 1077
Reply received 3rd February 2011 setting out what they would do.
Reply 3rd March 2011 with some redacted information. - This took: 20 days
Appealed 15th March 2011
Appealed to ICO over
Review decision was refusal. Informed 28th June 2011 - This took: 71 days
Appealed to ICO - awaiting outcome.

What is strange is that HDC was able after the intervention of the ICO to hold an internal review in less than 7 days!

FOI Request No: 1917 - 18th August 2011
Information on reports to cabinet about cinema site
Reply received 18th August 2011 setting out what they would do.
Refused 19th September 2011 - This took: 20 days
Appealed on 19th September 2011
Replied setting out the appeal on 20th September 2011
I should be informed of the internal appeal by 17th October 2011.

FOI Request No: 1970 - 28th September 2011
On the cost of the Co-operative Planning Appeal award of costs.
Awaiting reply.

What does the Information Commissioner have to say on time limits. The ICO says:

Q: How quickly will I receive a response?
A: You must be informed in writing whether the public authority holds the information requested and if so, have the information communicated to you, promptly, but not later than 20 working days after they receive the request.

So how has HDC done against this 20 days time limit?

Days taken - 8, 12, 17, 19, 11, 14, 14, 20, 20

Whilst they have started taking their time all requests have been initially answered not later than 20 days. Whilst this has been on the 20 day limit on a couple of times, HDC is within the rules.

What does the ICO have to say on internal review time limits? The ICO says:

In view of all the above the Commissioner considers that a reasonable time for completing an internal review is 20 working days from the date of the request for review. There may be a small number of cases which involve exceptional circumstances where it may be reasonable to take longer. In those circumstances, the public authority should, as a matter of good practice, notify the requester and explain why more time is needed.

Days taken for internal review: 27, 24, 25, 71, - none of these times are under the 20 working days limit. At no time have I received any communication to inform me there was a delay in the review. 71 days is quite remarkable. I had to go to the ICO to get HDC to get a move on because this is where HDC can stump me. Without going through the internal appeal procedure I cannot appeal to the ICO.

When HDC is dealing with me the Internal Review can take between 24 and 71 days. When the ICO gets involved it took less than 7 days. So the answer has to be get the ICO involved if HDC takes longer than 20 days on Internal Reviews.

Note: All days calculated in the above article are working days which do not include Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays. The day after the request is made is counted as day 1.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Robina Hooper resigns from useless Planning Committee

I see from the agenda for the last Town Council meeting that Robina Hooper (Conservative) has resigned from the useless Town Council Planning Committee. As to why hasn't been stated. Robina hasn't been turning up to recent meetings.

At the election Robina was in St Neots.
According to the Town Council website Robina now lives in Yelling.
Now the Conservatives can point to Ian Gardener who lives in Grafham. Good point, but he actually turns up to some meetings. Robina even missed the planning meetings about the cinema in the middle of her ward. With Robina living outside St Neots I feel it is wrong for Robina to hang on to a seat that could be taken by a St Neots resident. Instead of turning up once every six months - resign so a by-election can be held. 

The next elections due are in Priory Park is in November 2012 for the Police Commissioner. Thereafter May 2013 with a County Council election. So waiting around will make no difference.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The first broken "WE WILL" by the Conservatives

At the District and Town Council elections the Conservatives said WE WILL:
So how is covering 75% of the green open space at Shady Walk with tarmac "protecting and enhancing" the said green open space? Of course it isn't and the first Conservative "WE WILL" has already been discarded.

The Conservative line seems to be that "and provide additional leisure activities" lets them off the hook on this one. It doesn't. When I order Coffee and Doughnuts I don't expect my Doughnuts to to be bobbing around in my coffee. Nor when I order sausages and chips do I expect to find my chips stuffed inside the sausages.

From the Conservative "WE WILL" I expected "protecting open green spaces" to be separate from "provide additional leisure activities". The Conservatives must have known the lease needed to be agreed when writing their leaflets. Making this "WE WILL" was therefore foolish. Having written it the Conservatives should have stuck to this "WE WILL".

The rhetoric of the Conservative Town Council election campaign was "Give Us A Chance" and look at what the Liberal Democrats promised and failed to delivered. In one of their first major decision the Conservatives have shown they can dump promises quicker than the Liberal Democrats without even acknowledging this U-Turn.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Riverside Parking Charges to go?

In an article in the this weeks Hunts Post, Cllr Churchill (currently suspended by the County Conservatives and voted against by a majority of the District Conservatives) is in the news about being against the car parking charges at Riverside Car Park. Apparently the St Neots Conservatives gained an agreement that charging at Riverside Car Park will be reviewed when the District Car Parks are reviewed. No date for the review has been set.

Cllr Churchill said: "I was always against parking charges at Riverside, and I abstained on the cabinet vote."

Abstaining is non-committal. You are neither for or against the proposal. To be against the parking charges at Riverside Cllr Churchill must have voted against this proposal. Which he didn't.

As a Cabinet member Cllr Churchill says the Riverside Car Park is used mainly for recreation and that 38 spaces are not enough. Hmm... Hinchingbrooke Country Park is charged at £1 for 2 hours with no free spaces. This was instituted at the same time as Riverside. So why is there one policy for recreation users at Riverside and another for Hinchingbrooke?

Cllr Churchill is in the Conservative bad books. Having been dumped off many panels he is groping round for popular issues to show he is doing something. All the St Neots District Councillors who vote for the District Councils budget therefore endorse the car park charges at Riverside, yet deny they do so.

The St Neots Conservative Councillors all have a choice on this issue.

They could have voted against - which they didn't.
They could have resigned the whipped - although Cllr Farrer did threaten he didn't resign the whip.
Cabinet members could have resigned from Cabinet - none did.
They could have voted against the budget - none did.

In the end this is a continuation of the pantomime. With the worst case scenario being £6 million of cuts still needed at District our Councillors should concentrate on this.

snrednek says:
There is a solution to this. The Town Council takes responsibility for all the functions in St Neots which it has powers to do. Parks and recreation grounds are really the Town Council's responsibility and should be paid by the Town. The Car Parks should be run by the Town Council instead of District Council. There needs to be a fundamental look at who does what in the District. Currently the District Council wants contributions from the Towns for running a number of services. I feel this should change. It is what Localism is about. Decisions about services brought closer to those who will have to pay for them.

In the case of car park charges this would be decided by the Town Council who will have the responsibility for running and maintenance. The trouble is this is a revenue item for the District Council and the District Council wants to keep revenue and only lose the costs.

The problem is the District Council will want to cherry pick the services. Those that cost most will go to  the Town and Parish Councils and the revenue retained by District. There needs to be a whole package of revenue and cost for the Town Council to take up these services. Trouble is I feel any deal is now too late.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Is the Council tax freeze really good news?

For the short term it will be good news to Council Taxpayers. In the medium to long term this is plainly wrong. As can be seen in the picture below the current Council Tax Special Grant runs out in 2014/15.
This will mean a cut of £200,000 for the year 2015/16 and beyond. The one off council tax freeze announced by the Chancellor is just that - a one off. Say HDC gets £200,000 for holding the council tax down. All this will do is hold down the Council Tax rise for 1 year. In 2012/13 the money for this Council Tax  freeze will end. So HDC will have a choice. Either cut a further £200,000 from its budget or increase the Council Tax by 5%.

Keeping down Council Tax by this means is a fallacy. It is the same as using reserves to keep down Council Tax. Local lessons with some of the the Town Council rises that were instituted under the Liberal Democrats and the massive hangover by the binge that HDC undertook by using reserves should be learnt. The underlying budgets go up which means Council Tax has to rise or services have to be cut. As the Government is putting £800 million to keep Council Tax rises down to 2.5% next year it will take double that (£1,600 million) the year if this continues.

The only way to cut Council Tax is to cut the cost of the Council. Cut services, cut jobs and drive down costs. Balance the budget each year (which means no use of reserves) and this will keep Council Tax rises down. All George Osbourne has done is put off rises for later years. This one will come to bite the Chancellor on his bum just before the next election.

It should be noted the Town Council receives no Government grant or funding.

Is Pickles right over weekly bin collections?

Eric Pickles has announced £250 million for weekly bin collections. But does this make sense for Huntingdonshire? We have a three bin collection with each bin collected every two weeks. Grey bin for household waste. Blue bin for recycling. Green bin for food waste and gardening waste. In his press statement Eric Pickles says: 

"Weekly rubbish collections are the most visible of all front-line services and I believe every household in England has a basic right to have their rubbish collected every week.
"Our fund will help councils deliver weekly collections and in the process make it easier for families to go green and improve the local environment."
What is the point of having more collections when this does the job. It would be a waste of money to institute a weekly collection of all the bins. Food waste should go in the green bin. If smells and rats are a problem, though I don't think they are, the green bin would be the one that is deemed as needed to be collected. This would mean pulling 3 bins out a week.

Collecting one or more of these bins once a week would be a waste of money! The Government should be using this money to pay off the National Debt,

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

8th July 2011 - What happened at the Town Council?

I was rather surprised when looking at an agenda for the meeting of 21st July 2011 that there was a Council Meeting held on 8th July 2011. What was all this about? Why so secret?

The Agenda for 08.07.2011 cannot be found on the Town Council website.
So what is so secret? I obtained a copy of the agenda and it says the following:

3.     Accounts & Financial Statements 2010/11

To receive an update from the Chairman on communications with the Councils external Auditors

4. Employment Matter (1)

To receive an update on an employment matter and resolve action to be taken
by Council

5. Employment Matter (2)

To receive an update on an employment matter and resolve action to be taken
by Council

So what action was taken for items 4 and 5?

Er..I don't know. Because there is no minute of the action to be taken.
The Press and Public can be excluded. But the decision itself is not secret. There is no record of the decisions taken and that is illegal. Because a minute is there to record a decision. From these minutes I can therefore ascertain that no decisions were taken.

The Conservatives said at the Town Council elections that:

Hardly transparent!

The Conservatives said they would be more transparent. They have taken a bit from the previous Liberal Democrats and not publicised the meeting and then come up with meaningless minutes.

Throwing Rocks into the pool of despair - Swimming Pool Trust Accounts

The Swimming Pool Trust had another good year. The bank balance at the close of the accounts was £68,027. The Trust has enough money to do the basics.

The accounts show the Trust is between a rock and a hard place. The accounts says:
Later on:
So the Trust cannot sell the land unless all the money goes into a permanent endowment. HDC wants half the money.

Yet the residents were informed by Cllr Ursell that:
As the Town Council and therefore the Swimming Pool Trust are Conservative controlled and also HDC is run by the Conservatives the finances should therefore be resolved very soon.

At the election we were informed that:

Only Conservative Town, District and County Councils working together can deliver these objectives.

Well the Conservatives had better get on with it!

Monday, October 3, 2011

New Homes Bonus - where now?

The Government wants the New Homes Bonus to be used in the communities which are shouldering new housing developments. As such St Neots must be in for a large load of money heading our way. But HDC has nicked this money to prop it failing budget.

As the St Neots Conservatives said in a leaflet during the elections:
In a report to Cabinet the OSP Economic Well-being said:
How much is HDC looking at nicking in New Homes Bonus. In the recent financial forecast HDC has upped the amount it will receive in New Home Bonus.
In 2016/17 it is looking at an extra £1.9 million increasing the total from £4 million to £5.9 million. This has an effect on the Medium Term Plan.
If the New Homes Bonus was taken out of this forecast HDC would have to make an additional £5.9 million of cuts or put up Council Tax to pay for these services. But that is not what the new Homes Bonus is for. It is to show the communities that house building brings tangible benefits. St Neots will see none of this. The St Neots Conservatives say they'll bring the New Homes Bonus back to St Neots where they belong. Having said this how are they going to ensure this happens. If they support this budget the St Neots Conservatives will be breaking an election promise. Yes another promise will be discarded. The St Neots Conservatives are getting rather good at breaking their promises.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

CCTV - Who should pay?

I've got a Porsche! Well no I haven't but if I did and couldn't afford to run it should I therefore ask my wife and friends to contribute to running my Porsche. Oh, I could come up with many ideas as to why other people should pay for the running of my Porsche. I could charge my wife for running her to Tesco or Asda. I could charge her for taking her out to dinner. I could charge my friends whenever they rode in the car or we are going to meet up. My Porsche is mine but everyone else should contribute to the cost of running it otherwise I just can't afford to run it.

Of course I could give up other things I want to do and use this money to pay for my Porsche. I could even work harder and get more money to run my Porsche.

The same is with the CCTV system owned and run by HDC. It is there CCTV system. They decided on it and run the CCTV system. Now they want others to contribute to the running of the system. The Police are the prime target. They use the system to investigate crime. The Police also use privately owned CCTV systems to investigate crime. Should the Police contribute towards these? Well the answer is NO!

Another soft target are the Town Councils. HDC feels they should contribute towards the cost of the HDC owned system as it benefits the Towns. This is literally "Conservative stealth taxation" because the money will come from the Council Taxpayer through the Town Councils. As with the Public Toilets the cost was pushed onto the Town Councils whilst HDC boasted about keeping Council Tax rise to 2.5%.

In the end the CCTV system is my imaginary Porsche. I own it and I have to deal with the costs. Likewise the Councillors on HDC have to deal with the CCTV costs. If they want to keep it then they will have to find the money to keep it going either with cuts elsewhere or upping the Council Tax to pay for it. Blaming others because you don't want to afford it is not good. HDC Councillors must step up and decide CCTV or Council tax rise. Their decision and only their decision.