Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Report says HDC spent loads on CCTV

I was looking around on the internet about CCTV in Huntingdonshire and I came across a report by Big Brother Watch. What is surprising is Huntingdonshire is in 25th place in the CCTV league table. The cash totals are for the last 3 years.
I was quite surprised at this. So I took a look at the District Councils in Cambridgeshire and two UA's in Bedfordshire.
As can be seen Cambridge has the highest spend. But Huntingdonshire is the highest per camera in this local group. What is amazing is crime ridden? South Cambridgeshire spends nothing.

Central Bedfordshire spent a third of what HDC did on CCTV for roughly the same amount of cameras. I, for one, doesn't see the need for CCTV. Not only am I paying for this service through the District portion of the Council Tax but also through the Town Council portion of the Council Tax from April onwards.

Campaign for a Council Tax freeze whilst upping this tax elsewhere!

With the HDC Conservatives upping their portion of by 3.5% this St Ives leaflet seems very hypocritical. When the leader of HDC is campaigning against a Council Tax rise in St Ives yet is instituting a rise for HDC this headline seems very wrong.
So who are then St Ives Conservative Councillors who want a Council Tax Freeze next year? They are:
Cllr Ablewhite is Executive Leader who wanted a 3.5% rise in Council Tax at HDC. The others followed him.
Roy Pegram is Chairman of the Fire Authority and Kevin Reynolds is also a member of the Fire Authority which voted to increase their portion of the Council Tax by 2.5%. Both are also County Councillors which raised their portion by 2.95%.
Above are the Conservative town Councillors themselves. Cllr Ablewhite  Cllr Ryan Fuller is also a Deputy Chairman (Political) on Huntingdon Constituency Conservative Association.

On one hand the Conservatives are campaigning for a freeze in Council Tax for St Ives and on the other hand they are instituting tax rises elsewhere. St Ives Town Council will freeze its Council Tax this year. But St Ives Council Taxpayers will see their Council Tax rise as all the other local authorities, which the Conservatives control, are increasing their Council Tax.

A league table the local Conservatives won't want to talk about!

Conservative run HDC likes to blow its own trumpet when it is top of a league table. On the Conservative Home  website HDC currently tops the league table of Conservative run Councils that have increased Council Tax.

Monday, February 20, 2012

0% rise is what the County Conservatives said!

Looking through the 2011/12 budget process I found this:
Last year the Conservative run Cambridgeshire County Council was indicating a 0% rise for this year. The Conservatives need to explain why they are busting what they said a year earlier. Now the Conservatives are looking to introduce a 2.95% rise. So the Conservatives were looking at a 5 year freeze and after year one this is has been given up. This is also against the Conservative 2010 manifesto and against the coalition agreement.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Another reason for the 3.5% rise!

Another reason for an increase in Council Tax by 3.5% is the introduction of a budget to fund "cover for staff side representatives" This just adds £50,000 to the council tax bill. Another addition to the costs which mean we have to pay a 3.5% increase.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Emotional rather than logical

In the report to Cabinet the following is stated:

9.7 Paragraph 4.1 above illustrates one such particular saving, reducing the cut in grants to the voluntary sector, which will cost £188k. This alone represents a Council Tax increase of £3.13 or 2.5%.

So this makes it alright then? Well no. This is an emotive reason for putting up council tax. Less emotive reasons for putting up Council tax are:

One Leisure is not increasing prices. This is a £150,000 cost to the council taxpayer.
The MTP bid says:
Another is:
The cost of Replacement Fitness Equipment comes from capital budget. This doesn't come from the "profits" the Leisure Centres are supposed to make because these leisure centres actually cost the Council taxpayer.
Or how about all this:
The St Ivo Leisure Centre is costing us £3,080,000. That over 36 years is £77,000 a year in Capital repayment. Also in the first year the interest at 4.5% is costing us £138,600.

Of course these few examples show extra money being spent. I just have to wonder whether using the above examples would have been a more honest use as examples rather than the emotive reducing grants to the voluntary sector.

HDC uses an emotional argument for the increase. Yet there are plenty of other examples of HDC spending more money. If these examples were put to the Council Taxpayers this may bring a different response.

Friday, February 17, 2012

How HDC uses statistics

In the cabinet report on the budget there is a set of statistics. The report says:

9.2 The following table shows the current number of properties in each tax band and demonstrates that 66% of properties have tax levels lower than band D.

To the left are the all England averages. To the right are the Huntingdonshire figures
As can be seen whilst 66% of HDC properties are in bands A to C, the national average is 67%. 

The inclusion of these statistics are pretty useless. None of these statistics are unusual. Indeed HDC does better than the English Average for Council Tax. So HDC is better off. Again HDC looks to throw around statistics for no real reason at all. The only reason I can think of is these statistics show that many of the Council Taxpayers pay below the band D average. But that is true nationally as well as locally. So I still don't see the point!

Helen King fights back!

On the front page of News and Crier is the headline:
It doesn't say where the News and Crier obtained the letter that quoted in the paper. There are two choices. Either this letter has come from the Town Council or this letter came from Helen King. Reading the article I can only assume this is from Helen King. The Town Clerk strikes back.

In a blog back in 2009 I pointed out the Liberal Democrats were bad employers. And it seems it got worse. The Conservatives were elected in May 2011 and eventually took proper control in June 2011. The Conservatives had only been in power for one to two months before Helen went sick.

In contrast to the previous Liberal Democrat administration, the Conservatives appointed an Acting Town Clerk almost immediately. This decision I congratulated the Conservatives for.

As Helen King was Town Clerk to the Conservatives for at most two months then much of the Grievances set out in the letter happened within the Liberal Democrat term of office. So what is Helen King complaining about?

Helen says she was working unreasonable hours that were affecting her health and home life as she was acting as town clerk, manager of the Priory Centre and Eatons Community Centre at the same time and that Peter Edward, the finance officer who had been appointed to help her, had retired. (Peter Edwards – Responsible Finance Officer is still in post)

Whilst this was the case at certain points under the Liberal Democrats, this was not the case under the Conservatives. If Helen had come back to work she would have had a communities centre manager and the new post of Town Centre manager. Everything Helen was complaining about, above, has been corrected.

Her letter includes several extracts from meetings of the Personnel Committee from as far back as June, 2010, where she submitted her concerns over her workload.

Helen also claimed:
She was blocked from booking holidays - Depends when and why.
Was forced to cancel them for work purposes - Now that is bad.
At one point had to work 18 days in a row - Now that is wrong.

She also said her GP signed her off work for a month in July last year due to “stress, overwork and exhaustion”. What about the last 5 months?

She wrote in her letter: “The lack of respect that the town council has had for me, or shown me, as the town clerk has been detrimental to my health.” That maybe true. But that was under the Liberal Democrats. The time off is under the Conservative administration. This makes no sense.

The Conservatives hit back with:

Councillor Bob Farrer told the News & Crier Mrs King was paid a generous salary which was “far beyond what she should have expected” and had been granted 47 days holiday, including Bank Holidays. The holidays seems excessive. There were 8 Bank holidays in 2010. That leaves 39 days holiday. Helen would expect 6 weeks holiday or 30 days. This leaves 9 days which could be a carry over from the previous holiday year. As for "being paid far beyond what she should have expected" at £60k that is what a large Town council would expect to pay for a Town Clerk.

Cllr Farrer continued with:I’m not saying that she was not over-workedI think that she was. But if the public knew how much she was being paid and how much holiday she had they might be a little put out. She was being paid fairly for the hours she had to do.”

Well I'm not put out. According to the Town Councils 2011/12 Accounts (which were late) Helen King was paid £60k +.
Another Conservative dived into the fray:
Cllr Chapman (The Town Mayor) said: “It was a lot of nonsense that was withdrawn. There was one letter which was withdrawn because there were so many falsehoods in it that, had it been made public, it would have led to great legal difficulties.”

The Liberal Democrats were in charge when much of what Helen King complains about happened. Now the Conservatives are in control all that Helen King was complained about has gone. But instead of returning to work Helen stayed off sick. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Derek Giles and his predictions 2

Back in May Derek Giles, former Councillor and former Leader of the Town Council, said:    "this time next year we will all be hit by a record rise in our local community charge,"

So what is the Town Council proposing as a rise in their portion of the Council Tax? Err..ZERO.

Other predictions like:
DG: Grant aid will go down. Reality: Grant aid has gone up.
DG: Handing over land to other organisations for free. Reality: Nothing like this has happened.
DG: Ouse Meadows will be built on. Reality: No plans yet!

One prediction of Derek's that is coming true is the Conservative run Town Council is contributing to the CCTV system.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

HDC whines on about a Poverty Trap

In the budget report to Cabinet the following is stated:

9.3 The Secretary of State has announced that Council Tax increases in excess of 3.5% will have to be supported by a positive referendum result as a replacement to the previous capping regime. This seems unfair to Council's with low tax levels as they will effectively be caught in a "poverty trap" of very small cash increases thus requiring higher levels of service reductions than in the high taxing Councils. The Leader has therefore written to the Secretary of State proposing that the referenda limit be based on a cash sum equivalent to a percentage of the average District Council level.

But Councils which are low tax/low spending shouldn't have a problem. The problem is HDC is a low tax/high spending Council. It is still spending reserves to keep the budget from falling apart. Capping has ended. Under the capping regime HDC was caught in the "poverty trap" anyway. Now HDC has a way out! HDC could hold a referendum. But won't. Mainly because the Conservatives don't have the balls to put this to the voters.

The report goes on:
9.5 Overview and Scrutiny recommended that the Council should not accept the freeze grant as future referenda limits may prevent the Council ever being able to increase its Tax level to compensate for the freeze.

The only way to get out of the problems that HDC faces is to get a budget together and put it to the voters. HDC is deluding itself about the "poverty trap" case. Unlike capping there is a way out of the "poverty trap" and that way needs the approval of the electors through a referendum.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Despite being Conservative is HDC really Socialist?

I ask this question because although the Conservatives have a massive majority, these HDC Conservatives seem very socialist when it comes to Conservative policies HDC seems to be behind.

Lets take a look at the basics. Under the Conservatives Leisure Centres cost a couple million and are still run by the Council. In other areas councils don't run Leisure Centres or has farmed them out to Leisure Trusts. Although HDC was looking to save £500,000 by putting Leisure (£400k) and Parks (£100k) into Trusts these savings have been reversed. To put this into context this is £500,000 which HDC could achieve but has decided not to achieve.

Waste collection is another area open to the private sector to run this service. Yet instead of putting this out to tender HDC

Leisure also features on what this socialist council runs. Millions have been spent on St Neots Leisure Centre and £3m on St Ivo Leisure Centre with a bowling alley. This Conservative run Council likes running loss making businesses where the Council taxpayer picks up the losses. And gets cheap money to expand this loss making Leisure Empire.

These are just a few examples where the socialist utopia that is HDC maintains services it wants to maintain. People vote for the Conservative label at local elections. The outcome seems to be a socialist run Council which believes in big spending, high taxes and the Council knows best. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

What is happening to the reserves?

In the report to cabinet on the 2012/13 budget, the minimum level of reserves held by HDC has risen from £3 million to £4.5 million. An increase of £1.5 million.

I do have to scratch my head as to why there is an increase in reserves?

The fundamentals haven't changed. The economy is bad and the same goes for Europe. So not much has changed. The reports says:

7.1 Overview and Scrutiny felt that it would be prudent to increase revenue reserves even further than the uplift from £3M to £4M proposed in the draft budget. The Proposed Budget/MTP is therefore based on not allowing reserves to fall below £4.5M.

(What the OSP actually said: Given the identified risks and the unknown factors the Panel questioned whether the proposal to increase the Council’s minimum level of general reserves from £3M to £4M was adequate. Reference was made to the fact that the New Homes Bonus represented 25% of the Council’s predicted income in 2015/16 and this could pose a significant risk. Having noted that the Auditor had previously suggested the Council should reduce its reserves, Members were generally of the opinion that it would be desirable for the Council in the current economic climate to hold greater reserves. Whilst this would place a burden on the savings programme in the short term, the Panel agreed that the a minimum level of reserves should be set at £4M and that this should be reviewed in two years and, if it was reasonable, should be increased to £5M. It was also agreed that this should be tested and considered in the forecast report each year and built into the draft budget if necessary.)

So what was agreed in this section of the OSP minutes? Well, the Council should hold greater reserves and the panel agreed the minimum level of reserves should be set at £4m and should be reviewed in 2 years and then should go up to £5m if needed.

When the Cabinet is informed that: "Overview and Scrutiny felt that it would be prudent to increase revenue reserves even further than the uplift from £3M to £4M proposed in the draft budget. The Proposed Budget/MTP is therefore based on not allowing reserves to fall below £4.5M. "

The OSP were looking at leaving any upgrade of the minimum reserves for 2 years. This view have been changed by someone to mean reserves have increased again to £4.5 million now rather than in 2 years time.

7.2 It is very difficult to theoretically calculate the appropriate level of reserves but the following factors are all relevant: 

The new rules that require a positive referendum result before a Council can increase its tax level above the limit set by the Secretary of State has the potential to make it very difficult to replenish reserves once they are used. Reserves therefore need to be sufficient to allow a savings programme to be introduced to replenish reserves before they run out.

That argument is the same as under the capping regime. No real increase in reserves during capping. Only after capping has ended. Accepting the Councils argument means the District Council has not had the right level of reserves under the old capping regime. 

The level of New Homes Bonus is forecast as £6.1M by 2016/17 and although a risk provision of £0.9M has been made there is still potential for significant variations depending on how quickly the world, European and UK economies recover.

The Council has made a risk provision of £900,000. In effect padding out the estimations. What this argument is saying is the even with £0.9m of padding there still needs more money put aside in reserves. The Council's argument just doesn't stand up. If more money is needed then the risk provision should go up. This would cause problems for the Council. Increasing the risk provision reduces the forecast for the New Homes Bonus. This means more savings or higher Council Tax is needed to be found.

2013/14 sees the planned move to the localisation of Business Rates to replace the current Formula Grant regime. There is potential for volatility in the new starting point as well as the variations thereafter. Individual items that could have significant revenue impacts include Planning Inquiries, higher than planned pay awards, significant rises in homelessness, reduced Government spending allocations to Local Government and falling income levels due to recession.

Yes this is all very worrying. Yet none of this argument actually means more reserves. Indeed it is more of an argument for not spending any reserves and saving the whole lot. What increasing reserves does is allows the management not to worry about managing.

There in no valid reason to increase reserves from £3 million to £4.5 million. Even the reason to increase from £4 million to £4.5 million has been found to be false. Indeed minimum reserves should be less than £3 million. Much easier to increase reserves rather than properly manage the finances. 

Of course if this money didn't go to reserves this would allow money to be used to keep the Council Tax down for this year. There is no reason for a 3.5% increase for the next year. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Eric says!

The Conservative Communities Secretary has a go at Councils over rises in Council Tax. Eric says:

"We are seeing a number of Labour councils (plus Conservative run HDC) acting as referendum dodgers who quite cynically are raising council tax by 3.49 percent in a naked move to dodge the public vote.

"These councils are treating the electorate with contempt. They should have the courage to put their hikes to the vote and justify the tax rises. Instead they are running for cover.

"Freezing council tax is practical help every councillor can offer their constituents.

"Councillors have a moral duty to sign up to keep down the cost of living. Anything less is a kick in the teeth to hard-working, decent taxpayers."

The two year council tax freeze is Conservative policy. But the Conservatives who run Cambridgeshire County Council, Cambs Fire Authority, Cambs Police Authority and Hunts DC seem to have forgotten this promise by their Party at the General Election in 2010.

Friday, February 10, 2012

South Cambs announces Council Tax freeze!

With Conservative run HDC hiking Council Tax by 3.5% it comes as a bit of a surprise that neighbouring South Cambs District Council is keeping freezing its already low Council Tax rate.
With Council after Council freezing their Council Tax for next financial year, the Conservatives need to explain why HDC won't be accepting the freeze money.

Changes at HCCA

I haven't looked the HCCA website for a while and I was surprised at some of the changes.

Firstly, Simon Burton is no longer The Agent. This has passed to a new person on the block - Sarah Carrick.
Secondly, Cllr Churchill is no longer Deputy Chairman Political. So the Conservative Association didn't stand behind him. No one really has.

Thirdly, Cllr Churchill was suspended by the Conservative County group. Yet Ken is still down as a County Councillor on the HCCA website.

Is HDC deluded?

In the report to cabinet on the 2012/13 budget, it says the following:

9.8 The Council believes that local residents will wish to preserve these grants, recognise the Councils need to meet unavoidable inflation (there will be no pay rises again in April) and preserve valued services as far as possible both this year and in future. In order to do this the plan is based on increasing Council Tax next year by £4.34 per year for a band D property (£3.86 for Band C and £3.38 for Band B). This represents a percentage increase of 2.6% of the average District Council tax level, and 3.5% of this Council’s lower tax level.

Of course the Council believes that local residents will wish to pay more for services. That is how it works. Where are the consultations to back up this belief? I can't find one. So this is really a delusion because it hasn't asked the residents.

HDC believes that:

Local residents will wish to preserve these grants. 
Of course residents will want to preserve these grants. 

Recognise the Councils need to meet unavoidable inflation.
I don't recognise the need to meet unavoidable inflation. If something goes up in price then either change providers or cut services. Yes, it is that simple.

Preserve valued services as far as possible.
The Council has not defined what it considers as "valued services". Are these "valued services" what the public wants? or what the Council itself has decided are "valued services"? Take CCTV for example. The public decided through a consultation to scrap this service. The Councillors decided this service needed saving. 

In order to do the above plan this is based on increasing Council Tax next year by £4.34 per year for a band D property.
This is where Council thinking always goes wrong. Just because the Council believes the arguments, as set out above, then the people will pay for these services. I don't think they will. Otherwise the Conservatives will be pushing for a higher rise and a referendum to boot. 

I feel HDC is deluded it if feels people will pay more. If it does then put the whole thing to a vote at a binding referenda.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Is this fair?

When the cinema planning application came up for decision on 19th December 2011, those opposed were given three minutes to outline their objections to the Development Management Panel (DMP). Supporters were also given three minutes. Seems fair! What has come to light is Turnstone Estates had a much larger bite of the cherry when it came to briefing members of the DMP.

In a letter sent to Barbara Boddington, Turnstone Estates said the following:
Therefore Turnstone Estates gave a full briefing to the Development Management Panel on the planning application. Longer than the 3 minutes available to objectors at the meeting.

HDC owns part of the land and leased it to Turnstone Estates. The other part is owned by St Neots Town Council and has also been leased to Turnstone. HDC decides the planning application. All very cosy but there is no way round this. Someone has to give planning permission.

Whilst it is perfectly legal for officers to arrange a "Briefing" of this type, it does smack of pushing the planning application when it is already recommended for approval.

What about the letter from Turnstone Estates? They know they are lobbying by sending this letter and that it should be passed on to the Planning Department. All this seems stacked in favour of the applicant. Normally I'm for the applicant. But not when it pertains to Public Land.

If the offer of a private briefing was allowed to take place then surely those opposed should have had the right to a rebuttal.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A petition to stop a Council Tax increase!

The St Ives Branch of the Conservatives have been pushing a petition against any rise in Council Tax by St Ives Town Council. This is the only Independently run Town Council in the Huntingdonshire Constituency and is up for election this year.

It would seem reasonable to me if the St Ives Conservative Branch was also against all other rises in Council Tax pertaining to St Ives. But they are not. Many of their members are Councillors and Representatives on local authorities which are looking to up their portions of the Council Tax by 2.95% to 3.5%.

So how are the prominent members of St Ives Conservative Branch? Here are some:
Both County Councillors (2.95% increase) are also members of the Cambs Fire Authority (2.95% increase).

As for the District Council:
These 5 District Councillors include Cllr Ablewhite, who as District Council Leader, is proposing a 3.5% increase.

So what we have is a load of Councillors jumping up and down about an increase in Council Tax by St Ives Town Council whereas local authorities they are on are upping the Council tax anyway. This is just wrong.

The Conservatives should remember what was said in the 2010 Conservative Manifesto. To remind them it says:
What is rather ironic is St Ives Town Council is likely to follow the Coalition policy and keep the Council Tax freeze.
So there we have have it. The St Ives Conservatives are against their Town Council raising Council Tax but are for Council Tax increases in other Councils they are on.  All the Conservatives run Councils should be abiding by the 2010 Conservative Manifesto and freezing their Council Tax.

Riverside Parking Charges - another year on

Back in August 2010 HDC was imposing car parking charges on the Riverside Car Park. There was outrage at the thought of imposing 20 pence a hour - free evenings and Sundays. In the annual footfall survey taken in St Neots and the surrounding Towns there has been a fall off in footfall but an increase in St Neots by 1.3%. This blog held firm that imposing these charges against the background of cuts was the only way forward. 

Back in 2010 the doom mongers were out at the imposition of this modest imposition of charges.

Former Councillor and Town Mayor Gordon Thorpe said: "We have already been advised there has been a 6 per cent downturn in footfall and charging for parking will only increase that downward trend, as people will be unwilling to pay when, for the same price, they could go to Bedford, Cambridge or Peterborough. (Wrong)

"Town mayor, Cllr Gordon Thorpe described the news as “bitterly disappointing” predicting it would have a “devastating impact” on the town’s trade.

“HDC has chosen to ignore the people of St Neots. People who visit the town will now be out of pocket and once we lose shoppers we won’t get them back.”

Cllr Farrer who said: "...he would consider going Independent if the 3 hours scheme did not go through." It didn't and Cllr Farrer didn't resign the Conservatives.

Steve van de Kerkhove said:

"the impact on the town would be immediate with shops and businesses suffering during an already difficult economic period."
“This is going to be tough on the town. All you have to do is look at all the empty shops in High Street to see that the town is already suffering. We should be trying to increase footfall not drive shoppers away.

Town Councillor Jennifer Bird predicted that the move could result in retail businesses closing.

Of the others:

Jon Mountfort amongst his website full of lies said:

They (HDC) will bankrupt our shops
We will lose the Thursday Market

Then there were the statements made on the Facebook site.

Well the charges haven't kill the shops. Trade hasn't been killed off by the introduction of a 20 pence an hour charge at the Riverside. Footfall may have risen by 1.3% after a fall of 3.6% in the previous year.

HDC was right to impose charges as there is a big hole in the revenue. Either the Council Taxpayer pays or the user. I'm for the user paying. As for killing trade this hasn't happened.