A Fire Sale ?

A regular onlineFOCUS reader has contacted us because he is concerned about possible plans to privatise the Fire Service.
The Daily Mirror reported earlier this month:

All 46 fire and rescue services in England could be sold off to private firms under secret Government plans.Local government minister Brandon Lewis calls for new laws that “would enable fire and rescue authorities in England to contract out their full range of services to a suitable provider” in a letter obtained by the Mirror.He continues: “I appreciate that the proposals are not without controversy; however these changes will help remove barriers and to increase choices that fire and rescue authorities have to contract out their services.

The campaign group 38 degrees is running an online petition on its website here – it has over 95000 names so far. The webpage frustratingly doesn’t have very much information, for people who like to check things out before signing anything.

However on their emails to supporters they include a link to a letter. The letter was sent by government minister Brandon Lewis to our local MP James Duddridge, in his capacity as the chair of a House of Commons committee. You can download the letter here, but here’s a snippet (click to enlarge)

As we said above, if you want to oppose this, you can sign the petition here.

Councillors Are Revolting ….

The government’s proposals for relaxing some of the planning rules are facing a backlash revolt from grassroots Lib Dems and Tories.

Certainly, our four Lib Dem District Councillors – Chris Black, Ron Oatham, Chris Lumley and June Lumley all oppose this. And we understand that our local Tory leader , Terry Cutmore, expressed similar objections when he briefly spoke to a government minister last week. Other councils are intending to resist any changes.

As Hertfordshire Lib Dem Chris White (no relation) says here:

…on 6 September the Government made various announcements about relaxing planning rules, claiming that these will help kickstart the economy. In summary these are
• agreements between local authorities and developers over affordable housing can be renegotiated if the agreement threatens the viability of the scheme
• councils which are poor performers in planning terms may lose their rights to determine planning applications.
• there will be consultation on a temporary (3 year) relaxation of the planning rules governing rear extensions, allowing in some cases extensions of 8 metres in length to be erected without planning permission…..
…..There are two main points of objection. One is the matter of principle: planning is a local matter and should be determined locally without Government interfering either positively or negatively. That principle is breached as often as it is honoured, however, as you can see from the amount of national ‘guidance’ issued over the years, the various legislative interferences by successive governments and the very concept of the planning inspectorate.
The second is whether there is a benefit in economic terms. The Chairman of the Local Government Association, a practising Conservative, said: ‘Local authorities are overwhelmingly saying “yes” to new development. There are enough approvals in the system for 400,000 new homes.’ And the House Builders Federation has said the real problem is lack of demand, not least a shortage of affordable mortgages.
Moreover, it beggars belief that a surge in large extensions will do much to stimulate the local economy – although it may do a lot to ruin relations between neighbours.
The whole thing smacks of fag packet policy-making. There are rumours that Tory ministers in fact wanted something far worse but that the Lib Dems restrained them. If so, good, although nobody is going to remember this when gathering signatures (fruitlessly under the new rules) against Mrs Miggins’s massive 8 metre conservatory in Acacia Avenue….

Blue , Yellow , Red

A few items worth reading from other Essex blogs:

Southend Tory leader Nigel Holdcroft pays tribute to the late Tony Tomassi:

Very sad news this week with the death of Mr Tony Tomassi, a freeman of the town, but also an essential part of our recent history through his longstanding and popular High Street restaurant. As a child the ultimate holiday or weekend treat was a visit to Peter Pan’s playground followed by a visit for lunch or tea to the Tomassi restaurant. Originally on the east of the High Street the main course was good but only the warm up act for the real treat for any child – the amazing selection of Ice creams…..

Colchester Lib Dem Councillor Nick Barlow says it’s time to end the coalition (though he is probably still in a minority amongst Lib Dem councillors):

The principal reason for the coalition coming into existence was because we were – and still are – facing a global economic crisis, and the national interest required a stable government that could take steps to deal with the economic situation. On that count – the prime mover behind the creation of the coalition – the government has failed. The British economy is at best stagnating and at worst going through the opening pangs of an overlong multiple-dip recession. The government’s plan for dealing with the problems has failed and there’s no agreement between the coalition parties over what we should do instead.

Southend Labour Blogger Jack Monroe has won an award for voluntary work and has got a new job: :

In case you don’t recognise the rare-as-hens-teeth Jack-in-a-dress, I’m the one on the right of The Worshipful The Mayor, Councillor Sally Carr, looking very chuffed and only slightly embarrassed!….
…… First day at work over with yesterday and I am officially a working mother again. This morning, terrified that the Benefit Fraud Police were lurking in my lavender bush, I took the plunge and called Her Majesty’s Revenue And Customs Tax Credits Helpline to start the ‘oh my god I’m back at work’ process. Third time lucky, I guess.

The Coalition’s Idea Of Planning…..?

Since the coalition announced its latest proposals on planning last week, we’ve talked to a few Lib Dems and Conservatives and got a mostly negative reaction. The most optimistic response was ‘Wait for the details’. The most hostile response – in relation to building extensions – was ‘This is just desperate stuff that won’t help the economy’.

You can read the Downing Street Press Release here, but these are the important bits:

The first key proposal is to offer guarantees for major projects- a £40bn guarantee for major infrastructure projects and £10bn guarantees for new homes (targeted at affordable housing). This, at least, seems to be welcome news.

The second key proposal is to allow developers to renegotiate agreements on affordable housing. Developers that have not pressed ahead with a project despite five years of permission will be able to appeal to the planning inspectorate to lift the conditions about including affordable housing. The idea is that some sites are ready to be built on, but in the current financial climate developers can’t afford the affordable housing they had already agreed to.

So at a time when we need more affordable housing, the government is thinking of letting developers break their agreements? What next, allow them to break agreements on open spaces? A lot of councillors will need a lot of convincing on this.

The third key proposal is to treat councils that are slow at decision-making as bad boys and allow developers to ask permission directly from the Planning Inspectorate. This seems to be a case of ‘playing to the gallery’. Councils have to process documents, consult neighbours and other bodies like Highways Departments, and then prepare reports. Applications may then go to a planning committee – that’s part of local democracy. In any case, with most applications, if a decision hasn’t been made within eight weeks an applicant can then go straight to the planning inspectorate anyway.

Incidentally, Rochford District Council is fairly quick at making planning decisions, In the first quarter of this year it made a decision on 88% of ordinary applications within 8 weeks. Though it was slower at dealing with bigger schemes.

The fourth key proposal is to allow, for one year, people and businesses to build bigger extensions without needing planning permission. According to the Guardian the coalition is suggesting

– On a detached house a single storey extension can be up to 8m long.

– On a terraced or semi-detached house a single storey extension can be 6m long.

– Rules on height, materials and so on are expected to remain unchanged

Things aren’t quite as drastic as we first thought. They can only be one storey high without planning permission, and can’t be more than half the length of a garden. But even so, this seems to be ill-thought out:

  • Building lots of extensions might help the economy a bit, but is getting planning permission really the problem here?
  • Don’t reasonable extensions get planning permission anyway?
  • Isn’t it more likely that people haven’t got the money to build extensions?
  • How will the quality of life of an area be affected by having even more garden space covered by buildings?
  • Won’t the extra bedrooms create a need for more parking spaces?
  • Where there are small gardens already, couldn’t this cause noise problems or even odour problems (think of landlords including kitchens)?
  • Won’t planning departments have ‘fun’ for decades to come trying to work out if an extension was really built during this ‘year of lax planning’?
  • Ho hum.

    A Bit Of Help…..

  • According to figures we’ve received tonight, 31,400 people in our district will receive a tax cut in 2013/14 following the budget announcements today.
  • By next month 1,750 workers in our district will have been removed from Income Tax since the Labour Government
  • After the increase in allowances announced today, that number will rise to 2,880 in April of next year.
  • £513,000 Pupil Premium For Rayleigh and Wickford Constituency

    Chris Black received the following email today from Lib Dem Education Minister Sarah Teather:

    Dear Christopher

    Liberal Democrats have always believed that education is the engine of social mobility, now we are making it happen.
    Today the Government released the final Pupil Premium figures for every English local authority, constituency and school. I am delighted to announce that every school this year will receive an extra £488 for each child on free school meals they have on their roll.
    Schools in your constituency of Rayleigh & Wickford are getting an extra £513000 from the Pupil Premium to improve the education of the most disadvantaged children. You can find out what each school in your council area is getting by clicking here.

    This is a real milestone for our party. The Pupil Premium is a policy we devised and campaigned for, and put at the heart of our Coalition negotiations. Now it is more than good policy, it is a reality making a difference to the school down your road. It goes directly into classrooms and will benefit all pupils…….

    ……Thank you

    Sarah Teather MP
    Minister of State, Department for Education

    The Government’s New Planning Policies Are Up For Consultation

    Things have just become even more complicated regarding planning.

    This week the government has announced a new “Draft National Planning Policy Framework” which is now up for consultation until October 17th.

    You can download the document from this page here and you can respond to the consultation online from this page here.

    What does it all mean in practice? It’s difficult to be sure till we’ve read it thoroughly and had some bits explained, but here’s a couple of extracts:

    14. At the heart of the planning system is a presumption in favour of sustainable development, which should be seen as a golden thread running through both plan making and decision taking. Local planning authorities should plan positively for new development, and approve all individual proposals wherever possible. Local planning authorities should:
    • prepare Local Plans on the basis that objectively assessed development needs should be met, and with sufficient flexibility to respond to rapid shifts in demand or other economic changes
    • approve development proposals that accord with statutory plans without delay; and
    • grant permission where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date.
    All of these policies should apply unless the adverse impacts of allowing development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole.
    15. All plans should be based upon and contain the presumption in favour of sustainable development as their starting point, with clear policies that will guide how the presumption will be applied locally

    17. The application of the presumption will have implications for how communities engage in neighbourhood planning. Critically, it will mean that neighbourhoods should:
    • develop plans that support the strategic development needs set out in Local Plans, including policies for housing and economic development
    • plan positively to support local development, with the power to promote more development than is set out in the Local Plan; and
    • identify opportunities to use neighbourhood development orders to grant planning permission for developments that are consistent with an adopted neighbourhood plan.

    The Guardian writes about it here. The British Property Federation -speaking for big landowners of superstore sites etc supports the proposals here:

    Liz Peace, chief executive of the British Property Federation, said: “Planning policy should be streamlined, succinct and to the point if it is to deliver the growth and sustainable development that this country needs.

    “The new draft Framework follows closely the version submitted by the Practitioners Advisory Group which fully incorporated these principles. On that basis we will have no problem in giving today’s Framework our ringing endorsement.”

    But the National Trust has ‘grave concerns’ here:

    The National Trust today signalled our grave concerns over the Government’s planning reforms, warning that the proposed changes could lead to unchecked and damaging development in the undesignated countryside on a scale not seen since the 1930s.
    The draft of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), published by the Government yesterday, contains a core presumption that the default answer to any proposed development will be ‘yes’.
    This finally sounds the death-knell to the principle established in the 1940s that the planning system should be used to protect what is most special in the landscape, creating a tool to promote economic growth in its stead.

    Chris Black has asked the District Council if we will have a special meeting to discuss this.

    A Hopefully Helpful New Government Policy On Business Rates

    An interesting story on the BBC website:

    Councils in England will be allowed to keep the business rates they collect rather than paying them into Treasury coffers, under new government plans.
    Deputy PM Nick Clegg said councils had no financial incentive to boost growth and prosperity in their areas.
    But he said changes would be “fair” and poorer areas would not get less money than they do under the current system.
    Business rates are charged on most non-domestic premises, including warehouses shops, offices, pubs and factories.
    They are calculated and collected by local authorities, and at present are put into a central pool before being redistributed to all councils in the form of a grant.

    The full article is here.

    Nick Clegg is right – up till now, councils have simply acted as a collection system for business rates. Whatever councils collect is passed to government. If councils will be able to keep what they collect , this could be a real incentive to encourage new business. And a real incentive to help struggling businesses (e.g. by keeping car parking charges down).

    Also makes you wonder how any expansion of the airport will relate to this….

    New Government Planning Statement

    Prue Bray, who is a Lib Dem Councillor in Berkshire, has pointed out a rather worrying statement on March 23rd by Conservative MP Greg Clark, the Coalition minister for Decentralisation. You can find it here.

    It’s about ‘planning for growth’, which sounds good in terms of improving the economy, but there are some alarming bits for people concerned about over-development:

    …..there is a pressing need to ensure that the planning system does everything it can to help secure a swift return to economic growth. This statement therefore sets out the steps the Government expects local planning authorities to take with immediate effect.

    So new policies come into effect immediately.

    Authorities should work together to ensure that needs and opportunities that extend beyond (or cannot be met within) their own boundaries are identified and accommodated in a sustainable way, such as housing market requirements that cover a number of areas, and the strategic infrastructure necessary to support growth.

    So a council like Rochford may have to accept extra development to cover the needs of other areas such as, say, Southend? (this has happened before, but perhaps not as directly as now proposed.)

    local planning authorities… should… consider the range of likely economic, environmental and social benefits of proposals; including long term or indirect benefits such as increased consumer choice, more viable communities and more robust local economies (which may, where relevant, include matters such as job creation and business productivity)

    Does that phrase about increased consumer choice give more leverage for new supermarkets to be built? (some residents may welcome this, many others will be concerned about the viability of town centres)

    …….To further ensure that development can go ahead, all local authorities should reconsider, at developers’ request, existing section 106 agreements that currently render schemes unviable, and where possible modify those obligations to allow development to proceed; provided this continues to ensure that the development remains acceptable in planning terms.

    So even where developers have agreed to fund new open space, education or health provision or highways improvements, developers can pressurise councils to CANCEL these funding agreements?

    Mr Clark is the Minister for Decentralisation. That should be about giving coucnils more power and freedom, not less.