Challenging the Council on Reserves

At Corporate Issues committee today I challenged officers on reserves. (The Council have 50 pots of money). Some allocated to nothing, others apparently allocated for future needs). We were told that the Council is/wants to use £75m of reserves between 2011-2017.

So for example if reserves were £100m you would expect to have £25m left wouldn’t you?

That is what officers and the Labour Party want the public to think. The reality is though that they are saying they will use £75m but not telling us how much they are putting into reserves. They add money in and then take it back out but:

If you add £100m to reserves but only take out £75m then you have more left than before. You can’t then say in a public meeting that you have used a lot of reserves because quite clearly you have actually added to reserves. (more…)

County Plan update

Full Council 17th September 2014

Today, a report goes to full council to approve the addition of 86 comments into the County Plan submission which were “overlooked” previously. As most people know, most public comments have been ignored throughout this process, but the report makes for interesting reading as it is clear that if you are a developer, your comments are taken very seriously. So the Developers Charter that is the County Plan marches on.

Interesting reading for those who have been following the County Plan. The report says at one point that any requests for greenbelt land to be erased are being passed to the examiner. We can only hope that those views against destroying the countryside are also equally considered.

http://democracy.durham.gov.uk/documents/s44008/County%20Durham%20Plan%20Feedback%20Supplement.pdf

Website hits pass 550,000!

I was checking the stats this week and suddenly realised that this site has now had more than half a million hits. I will update the hit counter page today. Thank you to everyone who reads the site and emails me comments off the back of it. We are currently delivering our quarterly leaflet (a bit late this year), to make sure that everyone including those not online get to know about what we are doing in the local area. If by next week you haven’t received a copy please do let us know in case we missed a few houses.

Newton Hall Post office Update

We have discovered there have been significant responses to the consultation on proposals to downgrade the post office.

The consultation ended last week into plans to move Newton Hall Post Office into a neighbouring business. The branch would be downgraded from a Mains to Local which would see reduced staffing and services.
Yesterday I contacted Consumer Futures, which is part of the Citizen’s Advice Bureau. They are responsible for independently assessing Post Office branch changes.
I was really concerned as to whether or not they were receiving all the relevant data. I also wanted to raise various concerns about the consultation process. What I was told was that they were looking very carefully at the comments put forward by ourselves and residents. They were aware of the publicity in the Northern Echo and the community and had received far more than the average number of responses to a consultation of this type.”
As local councillors we are committed to making sure that we retain a Mains branch for Newton Hall. I am reassured by the comments from the CAB that they are looking very closely at the proposals and their impact on the local area.”
Online and paper petitions with more than 1000 signatures have been added to the consultation process. Possible options which could come out of the consolation are the protection of the Mains status, the re-running of the consultation or for the proposals to stand.I have been told that because of the number of responses, the findings of the consultation may only be known in November, although it is hoped a response will come earlier.
The petition will remain online for residents to sign until the outcome of the consultation is known.

Clothing allowance – Official: Lib Dem success getting it scrapped

Interesting story about the Labour Clothing allowance in the Northern Echo today. Whilst we told residents that this was being scrapped a while ago. Official confirmation in the press.

Of course the chairman still gets a whopping great £6650 chairmans allowance pls £13300 for being a councillor, and can claim expenses instead of the clothing allowance, so they are not hard up by any means. Good old Labour socialists eh? Labour councillors claimed the £12000 clothing allowances for the chair and vice chair for 30 years without anyone knowing about it until we unearthed it by accident after looking at the cost of councillors.

http://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/news/11469508.Council_chairman__39_s___39_clothing_allowance__39__scrapped___but_has_change_gone_far_enough_/?ref=var_0

Perhaps those chairmen still alive who claimed this behind closed doors should consider a donation to a local charity which helps struggling families with cheap or free clothing.

LABOUR’S GARDEN WASTE TAX GOES AHEAD

Your labour-run council is going ahead with taking a million pounds out of the local economy and charging households £20 to take away your garden waste.

Our press release of last week which was not published in the papers:

LABOURRUN COUNCIL PRESSES AHEAD WITH GARDEN TAX – IN FACE OF INCREASED FLYTIPPING AND RESIDENT BACKLASH.
Durham County Council, with £165m in reserves is pressing ahead with a charge for garden waste collections. The Council will start sending out letters to residents this Friday.
The Council, which despite increasing its reserves, says it is cash strapped, wants to charge residents £20 for the service. The garden waste collection service currently provides 16 free fortnightly collections for more than 150,000 households between April and November. Introducing a charge means that the service would be substantially funded by those using the service and according to the council would save it £933,000. Residents in some areas not currently receiving the service will be able to apply, but a small number of households across the County will lose the right to get the service even if they want to pay for it.
Lib Dem Councillor Mark Wilkes (Framwellgate and Newton Hall) branded the charge a Garden Tax which will hit the lowest paid the hardest saying “Labour is simply not considering the repercussions of this proposal. In some poorer areas and on some Council housing estates this is going to cause real problems.”
“People are paying more in this county for council tax than in most parts of the country. Labour doubled council tax when in government. The Coalition has frozen council tax for five years, giving the Council the money to cover for inflation. Labour refused this money from the government this year and now intends to fleece Durham residents. This will hit low and middle income families and many will simply not pay it.
Councillor Wilkes believes the savings are an illusion as many residents will start to use their general rubbish bin for garden waste. This will massively increasdisposal charges. He says that Labour Head of Scrutiny Councillor Joe Armstrong said in a meeting last year that residents could do just this. Councillors are also concerned that there will be a significant increase in fly tipping adding further costs to the council budget.
Last year when the proposal was announced, Lib Dem councillors previously suggested scrapping the position of Chief Exec as a means of helping to fund the service.
Cllr Wilkes said of this “The council is paying out over a quarter of a million pounds to employ one person, why not cut this so people don’t have to stop cutting their hedges. At the very least, with so much money in reserves the Council could delay implementation of this policy for another year to look for alternatives.

 

Cracking reopening at Indoor Bowling centre

I attended the reopening of the Indoor Bowling Centre in Pity Me on Saturday.

Amanda (Councillor Hopgood)  bowled the first balls, and didn’t do to badly for a beginner. We have used local neighbourhood funding to help the centre lower the ceilings, to cut energy bills and improve lighting. The transformation will save thousands of pounds a year in energy bills and help make the centre more sustainable. In addition the centre has replaced the near 20 year old bowling carpet, making it one of the best facilities in the Country.

The club has over 700 members, has a room which can be hired out, has frequent social events and a bar. You don’t have to be a bowler to join, so why not pop down and see what is going on.

You might not think it but indoor bowling is actually very good exercise as Amanda can testify.

The club is round the back of Abbey Leisure Centre.

 

Press release: BATTLE TO PROTECT POST OFFICE SERVICES IN NEWTON HALL

Your local Lib Dems have uped the pressure in their battle to protect post office services in Newton Hall as shocking new evidence comes to light

In working to save the post office from being downgraded we have uncovered shocking information and held further high level discussions. Last week we held a two and a half hour meeting with Post Office bosses. Further clarification was sought about the proposals to shut the existing post office on Alnwick Road in Newton Hall. Current plans were to run a downgraded branch model with reduced staffing and service cuts out of another premises nearby.

We have been in further discussions this week including a conference call with Post Office management. We discovered that the branch was going to be downgraded regardless of whether it remained in its current location or moved into a neighbouring McColls newsagents.

It also turns out the post office has been for sale for FOUR years, yet no-one locally was told about this. No for sale boards or signs were placed at the post office and most staff knew nothing of the proposed sale. The only place the advert could be seen was on the website of a Manchester based company. Unless someone was specifically looking for a post office to buy they would never have known.

Councillor Amanda Hopgood says “It turns out the existing post office has been for sale for four years, but this was never made known locally. This has left us and members of the local community furious. The whole purpose of our campaign has been to make sure that the branch remains a “Main” post office. The consultation contained nothing about this and intentions have been to downgrade services regardless of where the branch remains.”

Fellow councillor Mark Wilkes who has been leading the discussions has now amended the online version of their petition to focus solely on protecting the “Main” status of the branch saying “The chances of the existing site being retained are diminishing. The owner looks set to accept a retirement offer. The lease has run out. We are now fighting to make sure that Newton Hall retains its “Main” status.”

Craig Martin who is the prospective Lib Dem MP for Durham City added “Keeping ‘main’ status may give staff the opportunity to keep working in a proper post office if they want to. It will save badly needed services and keep the capacity we need. It could be that McColls will be the knights in shining armour. Or there may be an alternative location or solution. What matters is that we continue the fight to protect the service.”

The original plan for the Post Office was for a “local” branch model to be put into McColls. However this would have left a kiosk like service without necessary capacity. Many services would be lost including sending large parcels, paying in cheques, transcash, an ATM for post office payments and up to a dozen other services.

Following their extensive talks with the Post Office, your Lib Dem councillors can confirm that the Post Office is now in high level discussion with McColls about the national newsagent chain upgrading their model.

If an upgrade is successful it is thought it will be the only successful change to proposals so far in the country. Management had previously said to the councillors that they were not aware of any location in the country where a decision had been amended in this way. There is no responsibility for local councillors to take on such campaigns and the campaign is said to have made major ripples at headquarters.

Councillor Mamie Simmons says “We have asked to meet with senior management from McColls, and the Post Office is looking at facilitating this. If we can protect the “Main” status of the branch and services we are certain that residents will be happy. It is possible we may hear news before any further meetings, but it is absolutely imperative that residents sign the online petition. The online petition can be signed at www.ipetitions.com/petition/newtonhallpostoffice. Councillors are asking residents from across the County to help by signing the petition to send a message which “can’t be ignored” to those in charge.

The consultation continues to run and residents are asked to put forward their views on the consultation as well, including the need to protect the Main status of the branch:

The consultation, runs until the 9th September. Residents can email comments@postoffice.co.uk with reference 23131399, or write to: “FREEPOST Your Comments” with the same reference.

POST OFFICE PETITION CHANGES

 

We have amended our post Office petition after lengthy discussions with management and a press release will appear shortly on this site and will be sent out to the local press. Please sign the petition here: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/newtonhallpostoffice

Some considerations as to why the post office must be retained as a main post office.

1. Demographics – The Newton Hall area has the highest elderly population in the whole of County Durham. Access to the main post office in Durham requires parking in a paid parking area and then walking from 250-500m to the pedestrian area where the main post office is located. This will be very inconvenient and costly for a huge number of our elderly residents and does not make social or economic sense.

2. Demographics – Newton Hall has a significantly higher than average for the North East, number of residents with family and friends living overseas. This includes family members of British Overseas forces. The University has an enormous overseas population of students and teaching, and support staff, many of whom live in Newton Hall. Many use overseas services. Note that when it was built Newton Hall was the biggest housing estate in Europe. Some overseas and forces services will be lost.

3. Public Support – There is enormous public support for protecting existing servcies. In the first few days of creating a petition to protect the existing post office and services 600 signatures were obtained. .

4. Opening Hours – If the post office is downgraded, any improved opening hours will be of little consequence to many users as they will still have to go to Silver Street in Durham.

5. Expansion of Population – To the west, and within less than one mile of the post office, the council has put forward proposals as part of its County Plan to build up to 4500 new houses. Residents of these new areas will be closer to Newton Hall than to the main post office in Durham City.

6. Capacity – Whilst attending the existing site on Friday evening, we helped the postman collecting parcels. 5 full sacks of parcels were taken out to the van, his third trip of the day. This during school holidays when many residents are on holiday. There is simply not enough space in the proposed new facility if it is modelled as a ‘Local’ to store and process the level of packages currently processed. Given that the Post Office and Royal Mail aims to increase their parcel business, it is not clear how reducing capacity can possibly assist in that aim.

7. Community hub – Whilst it is recognised that a business must be sustainable, it is also clear that the post office acts as a community hub, a point for exchanging stories and information. This will be lost if the post office is simply a kiosk, and there is a wider risk of such a move reducing the number of customers to neighbouring businesses. This would create a vicious cycle affecting other businesses and is unacceptable.

8. Consultation – The current consultation period is flawed. It commences when schools are closed, and provides no opportunity for the 9 schools using the facility to comment on their views. Some of the services used by local schools will not continue and that business will be lost. The consultation period should be extended by two weeks to allow schools and those parents who may be on holidays to have adequate time to respond.

9. Consultation – The consultation documents contain inaccurate information, stating that some services will remain when they will not, and in other cases is confusing and does not provide detail of many of the service changes. The consultation does not properly explain that this is a downgrade to a ‘local’.

10. Loss of neighbouring facility services – Whilst it is appreciated that no area is losing a post office, there has been a loss of some services at neighbouring relocated post offices. This has placed increased pressure on Newton Hall. Durham City’s main post office which recently underwent modernisation does not have the capacity to provide the services which would be lost if Newton Hall were moved.

11. Business model – It is very clear to us that a main post office would be sustainable in Newton Hall as it is busier than many other post offices.

12. Cost of retention – There is no detail in the consultation as to the total cost of the proposed changes. This should be made available to the public given that it is public money which will be spent. Additional funding would be available if main status was retained.

13. Surrounding area – The post office does not only serve Newton Hall. Smaller communities such Brasside and Finchale Abbey Village, with larger than average elderly populations use the facilities and it would place greater inconvenience on residents from these localities.

14. Sustainability – Durham City is currently under an Air Quality Management Order due to excessive pollution levels. The centralisation of services will contribute to increased traffic having to use the City centre. Because of the topography of Durham, with Newton Hall being on hills and Durham being in the River valley, walking into Durham to use the City Centre facility is not possible for most people. Cycling is also problematic for similar reasons. Despite having a large population Newton Hall does not have great bus services. These issues affect not just elderly, but also the disabled and the wider general public.

15. Safety and Security – It is unclear how a downgraded ‘local’ branch will be able to safely store residents parcels. It is further unclear how the limited staff members will be able to protect the rest of the store if they are spending more time dealing with queues of customers from the post office. It should not be for the local authorities to have to use resources to deal with the deficiencies in the proposed new store.

16. Cash withdrawals – The ATM in the current facility is used by a huge number of people (900 per week), and there is nothing in the consultation detailing what will happen to this facility. It is also free for use which is essential and post office payments can be done at it. It is used so often that if not retained, the other machine is likely to run out of cash regularly and many residents will have to go to Durham city to sort out PO payments.

17. Modernisation Issues – The existing, the proposed or an alternative facility could be upgraded to meet modernisation standards and to retain ‘Main’ status.