Please find below an end of year update from the Leader of Cotswold District Council:
Leader’s End of Year Update – December 2013
The time has flown since my last update and, as usual, a lot has happened in a relatively short space of time.
Budget Consultation 2014-15
We are currently consulting the public on the Council’s draft budget for 2014/15 against the backdrop of our Medium Term Financial Strategy up to 2017/18. Please encourage people to comment by filling in this survey now. The closing date is 10 January 2014 so that comments can be taken into account before the Council meets in February to agree the budget.
You may already know about the changes to our funding resulting from the introduction of the Local Government Resource Regime. Under this new regime, around 40% of the Council’s Government funding comes directly from Business Rates with the balance from Revenue Support Grant and New Homes Bonus. This is a key strand of the Government policy to localise financing of local authorities and brings the potential for increased risks or increased rewards depending upon the Council’s ability to raise business rate income.
The Council’s four-year financial strategy takes into account these risks to its government funding and other changes which will have a financial impact upon the Council. Full details are contained within the report to Cabinet.
We had some good news coming out of the recent Autumn budget statement when the Chancellor announced that – unlike other government departments – there will be no further cuts next year for local government. He also dropped proposals to top slice up to 35% of our New Homes Bonus – had this been implemented it could have had a major detrimental impact on our medium term financial plan. This will help us greatly at a time when we still need to continue making efficiency savings. Officers and Members at the Council were at the forefront of lobbying for the changes announced yesterday and it seems that all of our efforts have paid off.
We are always looking for ways to work more efficiently so we can meet the expected reductions in Government funding over the next few years. That is why I am very pleased to tell you that the Council will be revising its senior management structure soon, enabling us to work more closely with West Oxfordshire District Council. The changes should save taxpayers in both districts a considerable amount of money – an annual total of £300,000 by 2014/15 rising to £1.2m by 2018/19.
As you probably know, both Councils have shared the services of Chief Executive David Neudegg since 2008 and the number of staff, including senior officers, working across both authorities has continued to rise since that time. This has worked very well, and we feel that the time is now right to align the senior management structures as much as possible so we can facilitate further joint working in the future.
The two councils currently have four directors – with two of these roles already shared – and 17 service heads. The changes will see a phased reduction to three directors and the number of service heads cut back to 12, with 7 of them heading teams across both councils. The service units earmarked to share heads will be: Revenues and Housing Support; Business Information and Change; Legal and Property Services; Customer Services; Environmental Services; Public Protection; and Leisure and Communities. The Planning teams and Democratic Services teams at each Council will remain as separate units.
Additionally, the head of a Shared Services unit employed by CDC will continue to be responsible for the provision of Human Resources finance, payroll and procurement services to both Councils as well as local authorities in Cheltenham and the Forest of Dean.
The new structures will be phased in from January 2014 and we expect they will be fully established by 1 April. I can assure you that there will be no impact on our provision of services to residents.
New council website
We’ve recently launched a new version of our website – at www.cotswold.gov.uk – following extensive feedback from the public. The new site takes into account many comments from users of the previous site who suggested a range of improvements. In particular, they asked for simpler and clearer language and a user-friendly format which makes it easier to navigate the site and find what they are looking for quickly. A recent review of the new site during testing showed that 70% of users submitting comments welcomed the changes, and we are confident that the new-look pages will continue to improve. We value comments and suggestions from users – you can provide your feedback by completing a short survey now. Additionally, if you experience any difficulties using the site, please let us know by filling in the relevant form.
Cotswold News Autumn 2013
By now all residents in the district should have received a copy of the latest edition of Cotswold News. As you may recall, we no longer issue the newsletter by rote and only produce it when we have important issues to communicate or consult on. In this instance, we wanted everyone to know about the improvements we have made to our waste collection service during severe weather. The biggest change is that when our waste collector, Ubico Ltd, cannot pick up waste on the scheduled day or the following day, they will now operate kerbside catch-up services for refuse the following week (weather permitting) rather than making residents wait for a further fortnight. When this severe weather option is brought into play, Ubico will suspend weekly garden waste collections until things settle down again. We consulted the public on the way forward and this was the preferred option.
The other big issue we have highlighted in the newsletter is the way national policy impacts adversely on housing development in the Cotswolds. The article goes into some detail about the government’s planning policy and how we believe it has taken away significant decision making powers from local authorities. I strongly recommend that you read this article, especially the section which describes how difficult it is for many councils – including Cotswold – to convince Planning Inspectors that they have established a five-year supply of housing land, and the consequences when they have failed to do so. We have tried to challenge several Planning Inspectorate decisions without success – it’s always an uphill struggle to overturn decisions endorsed by a Secretary of State, but we believed that it was right and important to question these judgements in a court of law. At least we now have useful clarification about the interpretation of delivery of housing in the context of a five-year supply which will help us and all other councils plan for the future. It also reinforces our view that the drafting and interpretation of the National Planning Policy Framework is weighted heavily in favour of promoting new development even when there is considerable local opposition.
Finally, I must draw your attention to the forthcoming Christmas and New Year waste collection arrangements which are set out in Cotswold News.
Draft Local Plan consultation
Since my last newsletter, the public consultation on the Local Plan: Preferred Development Strategy has taken place. We received over 2000 comments from 667 individuals and the Forward Planning team will make these public once they have finished collating and considering the input. The team has also conducted a very successful call for sites for housing, employment and retail development, receiving over 200 submissions. They are assessing the proposed sites and any constraints, and this work will feed into the site-specific work for the Local Plan.
The next step will be an independently facilitated training event for Parish and Town Councils in January. This should enable participants to work with their communities with a view to taking forward site allocations. Feedback from these events and any updated evidence will be used to draft the Cotswold District Local Plan document which will go through two further rounds of public consultation before being submitted to the Secretary of State and Planning Inspectorate for final inspection.
Recent figures have shown that the Council is re-using, recycling and composting just under 60% of our waste for 2012/13 thanks in part to the introduction of kerbside mixed rigid plastic collections in Autumn 2012. This shows that residents in the district are very conscious of the need to prevent as much waste as possible going to landfill. Aside from the huge environmental benefits of recycling, the cost of landfill continues to rise at an alarming rate – it now costs £72 to bury one tonne of waste in the ground, and this will increase to £80 in 2014/15. We are literally throwing away money when we don’t recycle and I am pleased to see that the message seems to be getting through. Thank you to everyone for your efforts. You will be pleased to know that we are doing our bit at the Council too; in line with our Climate Change and Carbon Management Plan, we’re on course to achieve a 25% reduction in carbon emissions over a 7 year period to 2015 against a 2008-09 baseline. This represents a saving of almost 4,000 tonnes and will reduce our energy costs by about £900,000 over that period.
On the same theme, public donations of clothing to the 21 Salvation Army ‘bring banks’ across the district have risen to well above the national average. The amount increased to 113 tonnes compared with a previous total of 90 tonnes. Some Cotswold sites are receiving more than double the national average, with banks at Fosse Way, Stow on the Wold and Bourton-on-the-Water proving to be especially popular.
Leisure and Culture Services
On 31 July, Everyone Active took over the operation of the Council-owned leisure centres in Cirencester, Bourton on the Water, and Chipping Campden, as well as the Corinium Museum. Negotiations to transfer responsibility for the two remaining Council-owned leisure centres in the district to the two schools where they are based (Farmor’s School, Fairford and Sir William Romney’s School, Tetbury) are still ongoing but should be resolved soon. Even though these services are extremely well run, they were costing the Council a combined total of over £600,000 each year and bringing in Everyone Active to manage and deliver these services – and handing the remaining facilities at Fairford and Tetbury to the schools – will enable the Council to make savings of almost £300,000 per year.
We are working in partnership with Everyone Active to ensure that residents will continue to enjoy good value sports and leisure facilities and that the terms and conditions of the staff who transferred from the Council are safeguarded. Some of the changes that have made have already improved the range of activities on offer. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend a visit to the Everyone Active website www.everyoneactive.com – which provides a comprehensive guide to the services on offer, and the option of booking and paying online for sessions.
Old Prison, Northleach
Residents in Northleach and further afield were celebrating on 18 July when they completed the purchase of the town’s historic Old Prison building from the Council. We announced our intention to sell the building in 2011 when the running costs were becoming onerous for taxpayers. However, during the sale process, we became aware of a vigorous public campaign – on the part of Northleach residents and many others – to have a say in the future of the Old Prison, and we concluded that the final decision on the sale would not just take account of the price offered, but would also give due weight to local social, economic and environmental concerns. As a result, we were delighted when the ‘Friends of the Cotswolds’ raised sufficient support to emerge as preferred bidders and their plans – including the restoration of the resident Lloyd Baker Collection of artefacts for display to the public, and the retention of the Cotswolds Conservation Board as the main tenant – bode well for the future.
Planning officers at Cotswold District Council have recently been awarded ‘Smarter Planning Champion’ status which recognises that the Development Service has raised the standards of its planning application submission process. As a ‘Smarter Planner’ the Council has pledged to promote the online submission of planning applications (which now amount to almost 70% of the total received) and will also encourage the planning community to adhere to best practice guidelines. We will now be able to display the Smarter Planning logo as a mark of its status and – as one of the first adopters of this government scheme – we join only 34 other planning authorities working in partnership with the Planning Portal to implement Smarter Planning throughout England and Wales.
The A417 ‘Missing Link’
Everyone is probably familiar with the significant problems caused by the lack of a dual carriageway on the section of the A417 from Cowley to the A419 at Brockworth. This has led to considerable pollution, congestion and serious accidents, including recent fatalities. Despite a number of studies over the years, and various lobbying activities by the Highways Authority, Gloucestershire County Council and local MPs, no scheme for this ‘missing link’ is currently included in any national infrastructure delivery programme. However, in the light of the reaction to recent fatalities, and the subsequent lobbying of the transport minister and other senior government figures, there appears to be a ‘window of opportunity’ to campaign for a project and to get it approved for Government funding in spring 2015. This is considered to be an almost one-off chance to solve a major and long-standing problem, and one that is unlikely to present itself again for a significant time. As a result, when the Council met in December we formalised our support for what is known as the ‘Brown Route’ scheme and will be lobbying all relevant parties in an attempt to secure the necessary Government support and funding. For the record, the Brown Route scheme would cost about £255 million to build and would provide a range of improvements, including the following:
- A grade-separated dual carriageway from Brockworth to Cowley.
- Avoid the Air Balloon roundabout and by-pass Nettleton Bottom.
- Reduce the likelihood of collisions and congestion.
- Provide wider economic benefits – reducing business costs, widening markets for goods/labour and creating construction jobs.
The first ever Cotswold Crime Prevention Week took place in early October with a full programme of events for residents. This new initiative – organised by the Council and other partners who make up the Cotswold Stronger & Safer Communities Partnership (CSSCP) – raised awareness of local crime and community safety issues, and provided information, advice and guidance to residents.
Highlights included a children’s safety poster competition judged by Gloucestershire Police and Crime Commissioner Martin Surl, drop-in advice sessions at Moreton Area Centre and Cirencester Charter Market, and a visit to the Royal Agricultural University’s Freshers’ Fair to provide information about keeping safe to 450 new students. From a national perspective, the Cotswold district remains a relatively safe place to live, with one of the lowest crime rates in the country, but we need to ensure that people know how to take care of their personal safety and look after their belongings.
Cotswold Water Park and Beach
Since the tragic drowning of Kajil Devi in the summer of 2010, the Council has undertaken substantial investigations into the health and safety operations and procedures at the Cotswold Country Park and Beach, which is operated by WM Active Ltd. After significant examination of the facts, we recently concluded that there was sufficient evidence – and it was in the public interest – to prosecute WM Active Ltd for non-compliance with health and safety legislation. As this is a criminal prosecution, the Council will not be able to provide any further information until after the conclusion of the legal proceedings.
Re-sale of ‘Right to Buy’ houses
We are proposing to modify conditions relating to the resale of properties in the local Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) which were originally purchased from the Council under the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme. The aim is to ensure that local people will have more time to purchase the properties before they can be made available on the open market. Additionally, we are pressing for members of the armed forces to be recognised as local people so that they can take advantage of these enhanced conditions.
Experience has shown that the initial 28 day period currently set aside for prospective local purchasers only is completely inadequate because it does not allow sufficient time for them to consult financial advisers and raise a deposit. As a result, the Council will be seeking the public’s views on the appropriate length of time which should apply and we have proposed a range of options, including a recommendation to extend the marketing period for those with a local connection to 12 months. The consultation period ends on Friday 3 January. For details, including a response form, please see our website.
Review of Housing Allocation Scheme
We have recently approved a new allocation scheme for affordable housing, following consultation with the public. We believe that the revised scheme will correlate housing need and aspiration more closely with the current and future availability of affordable housing in the district. In doing so, we have taken on board a lot of suggestions made by residents about issues such as the local connection criteria, and the introduction of an income limit for eligibility. The council website contains a full copy of the new scheme.
I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a merry Christmas and a very prosperous New Year. I hope that many residents took advantage when we waived fees in car parks to tie in with the recent Christmas light switch on ceremonies in Cirencester, Bourton and Tetbury.
Cllr Lynden Stowe