Monday saw the 31st council budget from a Liberal/Lib Dem administration in Sutton.
The budget was presented by Cllr Simon Wales, Deputy Leader and Lead Member for Resources, stating that, “Producing a budget is a team effort and I am grateful to all those who have played a part in getting us to this stage.”
To demonstrate this we had a total of 12 of our councillors contributing to the debate on the night. In contrast, and in these times of severe and significant pressure on council’s budgets affecting social care, schools and homelessness, the Conservative opposition had only two of their eight councillors with anything at all to say on the matter.
Even the two independent councillors felt the budget was important enough for them to contribute to the debate, even if Cllr Mattey’s fantastical ramblings took us off to La La Land.
My Lib Dem colleagues talked passionately about what the Government’s cuts meant for the services the council provides, and the innovative ways we have tried to mitigate the damage through shared services, new service delivery vehicles and targeted solutions. In particular Cllr Crossby welcomed the £1.25m that will be spent to transform Sutton’s performance in tackling domestic violence and abuse.
But it was Cllr Abellan’s speech that I felt summed up the way things are done under a Liberal Democrat administration. It is so good that I have reproduced it in full:
We’ve heard many great speeches so far tonight and if there is one clear message that stands out it’s that we are delivering value for money, working hard for every resident and keeping our borough one of the best places to live, work and raise a family.
But don’t just take my word for it. Our Ipsos Mori surveys continue to show remarkable levels of satisfaction with our services, our recent peer review demonstrated that we’re already one of the best Councils and if this wasn’t enough, last summer, Carshalton Central residents put their trust in us once again by electing Councillor Chris Williams.
Mr Mayor, this last year has seen another assault on local Government from this Tory Government but despite the challenges, we are proud to present a balanced budget this evening.
And the challenges have been great but we have rolled up our sleeves, got on with the job and as we’ve heard tonight, found innovative ways to deliver good value for money for all our residents.
Innovative by sharing services with other boroughs when necessary and by developing an approach that delivers the best outcomes for our residents. By finding millions of pounds of savings with a new waste contract that will help us to significantly increase our recycling rates.
Transformative by improving our partnerships and leading on the Sutton Plan. Or by investing money to deliver a world-leading hub for cancer research and treatment right here in Sutton.
As Liberal Democrats we believe that no one should be left behind and that’s why despite these difficult financial times, our decision to spend over 1 million pounds to tackle domestic violence is something we are very proud of.
Mr Mayor, what have we learned from the opposition this evening?
We’ve learned that they continue to support damaging cuts from this Tory Government.
We’ve learned that they still have no vision for Sutton, no credible policies, no costed plan, no alternative budget, no leadership.
And as we’ve heard tonight from Cllr Crowley, they confirmed that they would only reveal their plans for Sutton the year of the election. So here is the Tory plan, we hibernate for 3 years and come out at election time.
How can Sutton residents trust them to spend their money wisely?
Mr Mayor, in these times when politics is being used to divide us – middle class and working class, young and old, immigrant, EU citizens, the values that unite this group of Cllrs are needed more than ever if we are to continue to keep a compassionate, tolerant and cohesive community here in Sutton.
We are not career politicians. We believe that our communities are stronger when decisions are made as close to our residents as possible. That no one should be left behind. We are immersed in our communities in many different shapes and forms and our engagement did not start and does not end with our position as Cllrs. We see this is a strength that keeps us in touch with our residents, help us stay grounded, not lose sight of what matters to residents and to understand that behind every policy, every decision, there are thousands of lives. These values have helped us build a healthy and trustworthy relationship with Sutton residents over the years.
So as we enter into the last year of this administration, let’s be proud of this budget, let’s congratulate the work of our officers and strengthen our partnerships but let’s continue to champion these values and not forget that we have a lot more work to do . I commend this budget.
This heartfelt speech was followed by the Conservatives’ second and final contribution from Cllr Garratt. I summed it up in my own speech as “A presentation of alternative facts, and a plea for more funding for cycling and bridges.” It aptly demonstrated the Conservatives complete failure to understand how the budget pressures we face require fundamental and substantive changes in the way councils operate, not just salami slicing or shuffling money around. Over the last three years, under the leadership of Cllr Crowley, the opposition has failed to offer any solutions or ideas, and seek only to oppose, insinuate and undermine our efforts. They offer no policies, and have no principles.
Independent Councillor Graham Whitham correctly predicted the fence-sitting of the Conservatives in abstaining from voting either for or against the budget, and reminded them curtly that the reason they had been elected was to make decisions, but by abstaining in this and the many other decisions they have the opportunity to participate in, they were abdicating that responsibility.
As Cllr Wales highlighted, here was an opportunity for the opposition to support the voices of their colleagues in Conservative-run councils, for even they are calling on their government to cease this onslaught on council budgets. But no, they clearly supported their Government’s policies whilst accepting no responsibility for the harsh cuts being imposed on their residents as a result. Shameful.
Monday’s Full Council saw me propose a motion to Council on the subject of Delivering Affordable Housing to Sutton Residents. The motion calls on Central Government to devolve more funding and powers to Local Authorities who show that they are willing to deliver the necessary housing growth. It also highlighted the work that Sutton is already doing to use its existing powers to deliver new homes. The full text of the motion can be read here.
The text of my speech is shown at the end of this post.
Cllr Richard Clifton seconded the motion and spoke powerfully about the increasing gap between rich and poor, the failure of the Conservative’s trickle down ideology, and the shame that in our Western world we are currently seeing reliance on food banks.
Other speakers also talked about the impacts of welfare reform, the basic right to a decent home and the health implications of poor housing. We heard powerful maiden speeches from Cllr Amy Haldane supporting the work to provide temporary accommodation in borough by converting Oakleigh, and from Cllr Manuel Abellan speaking about his experience as a member of ‘Generation Rent’.
I was pleased to hear both Cllrs Hanna Zuchowski and Graham Whitham highlight the failings of government initiatives as exemplified by the extended Permitted Development Rights: a particular bug-bear of mine.
Cllr Muhammad Sadiq provided more details of our ‘ask’ from central government.
I was very pleased to receive support for the motion and the principle from my opposition colleagues too, even if Cllr Crowley tried to divert the debate into being about the Life Centre! However I did understand their questions about a business case and was able to clarify that the new housing development company was in essence a vehicle to enable the council to take up opportunities that may arise and to work more flexibly in partnership with other housing providers, as well as provide housing directly itself. As each opportunity arises a full business case will be worked up which will be presented to the relevant committees for full scrutiny, including by the opposition.
I didn’t get chance in the debate but take the opportunity now to respond to the point about using our own sites before asking the Mayor to release land. The 140 new council houses we are building does just that. The sites are already identified and were noted in previous papers presented to the Strategy & Resources Committee. We also have a formal system to review all council sites that have the potential for disposal that balances the income potential against the benefits of alternative use such as for housing. Some of the sites identified for new council houses came about as a result of this process. Of course other needs and ambitions for the borough need to be taken into account such as maintaining or increasing employment land and stimulating the local economy. The development company also gives us the potential to purchase privately owned sites, should the business case stack up.
The formal questions submitted by Cllr Crowley for response during the debate gave me the opportunity to expand on the work that is embedded within council practices to engage positively with private sector landlords in Sutton to encourage them to offer affordable rents, and the ongoing work to bring empty properties back into use.
Of course it is all very well to talk about what we want to do, but the proof is in delivery, and that is my key concern. We are already on schedule to build around 140 new council homes in the next six years, and our current regeneration schemes are delivering 700 new or improved properties. The new development company gives us the power and the flexibility to seize on new opportunities, and the council is already being proactive in this, so I expect to see some exciting business cases to deliver new housing being prepared in the not too distant future.
My speech proposing the motion:
For many years housing hasn’t featured in any Governments’ manifesto. Whilst property prices were increasing steadily all was thought to be well with the world. Middle class people would sit at dinner parties discussing their increasing property values and houses were seen more as investments than homes. Owning property was a key aspiration and incentives such as right-to-buy encouraged this view.
But this blasé attitude when times were good is the reason we now face a housing crisis. When the bubble burst there was suddenly no incentive for private developers to build, but nor had public money been invested into providing new council housing.
Suddenly house prices are out of reach of the majority, our children look set to still be living with us well into their thirties, while unscrupulous private landlords are cashing in on the increased demand by hiking rents through the roof. The ridiculousness of this situation is that it adds to the budget deficit as more money has to be spent on housing benefit as even an average working family now needs help to pay their rent.
This is illustrated by the fact that 50% of the people on the waiting list for a council property are in work.
And now housing is on every party’s manifesto. Unfortunately the desperate measures taken to try to stimulate housebuilding have failed. They have failed because we have Conservative Ministers that believe that the private sector will provide the solution to everything. Reality shows that this is not the case. We need to have public investment in housing. And as central government is not prepared to do it, we as the local authority will.
This council is investing £30m in building around 140 new council homes over the next six years. We can do this thanks to the devolution of responsibility for managing the housing revenue account. A change that Liberal Democrats and tenants in this very borough campaigned for tirelessly. Ask Cllr Crossby about the Daylight Robbery campaign!
But we have gone further in our ambitions to address the imbalance in the housing market. We have seized on our new localism powers and are establishing a council owned development company. The aim of this company will be to provide new housing across all tenures – private for sale, private for rent and social housing, but all with the key principle that this housing will be at prices local people can afford!
This company gives us the freedom to act independently of government handouts, and to work flexibly with private sector providers to deliver new housing. It has already proved a popular idea as we have been approached by a number of housing providers looking for innovative ways to work together to increase the amount of housing in Sutton. And if we use this company to invest in the private rented sector it means that we can offer longer term tenancies and provide the security that many renters lack.
And by being involved in the development of this housing the council has more control over design and standards, so that we get quality affordable homes for local people, not luxury apartments that only the rich can afford, or substandard boxes in poorly converted buildings.
Interestingly it was Planning Departments that were the first to be blamed for the slow down in housebuilding. Interesting then that for every 2.5 houses with planning permission, only one house has actually been built. That is not due to the planners.
I don’t have time here to talk about all the work this council is doing to ensure we can adequately house Sutton residents. But I do want to mention another way we are seeking to ensure that in Sutton the housing that is built is of a standard that anyone of us would be pleased to live in, and makes a positive contribution to our suburban borough.
We are doing this by working on a new Local Plan. This will ensure that our planning policies encourage new housebuilding, but also places strong requirements that they are of a high quality in terms of design and sustainability, and that new housing is accompanied by the transport, education and health infrastructure it will require. We want our residents to live in pleasant environments that enhance the treasured sense of community we have in Sutton, that allows space for parks and open land, whilst contributing to thriving neighbourhoods and district centres.
And all this is happening because as a local council we are taking matters into own hands, making the most of the devolved powers we have been given to meet the needs and deliver the aspirations of Sutton residents. Central government can only offer one-size fits all, top down solutions. We call for the powers to shape our own destiny, and can show that we can deliver more efficiently and effectively when we have that power.
There were two motions put to Full Council on Monday night, one from the Lib Dems calling for more devolution of powers to local areas, and a Tory motion calling for the reinstatement of formal crossings in Hackbridge.
There was an interesting parallel here, as the Heart of Hackbridge scheme is a prime example of power actively being devolved to local people to make the changes they want to their area. However, as sometimes happens, there is disagreement within that community about the safety of some of those changes.
The Tory motion on Hackbridge represented Conservative councillors taking the side of one group of residents, and seeking to override the decisions of other groups.
Our amendment to their motion proposed a more balanced and conciliatory approach. Cllr Whitehead offered the Council’s Highways expertise to seek solutions that would satisfy the concerns of one group, without riding roughshod over the aims and ambitions of the local people leading the scheme. The local councillors have already brought representatives of the two groups together, and the council is willing to step in to help work up solutions to the concerns raised with those groups.
We feel that it is important that having given powers to local people, as has been done with this Outer London Fund scheme, and with Neighbourhood Planning, it is wrong for the council to suddenly step in and impose a different agenda, thereby making a mockery of Localism.
Interestingly comments from the Conservative members speaking on the devolution motion underlined just this point – that you can’t just talk about devolving power and see that as job done, it has to be put into practice. Whereas their own motion on Hackbridge was just such a contradiction!
In contrast, when things get tricky, I believe that you can trust local people to work the solutions out between themselves, as long as they have the right support.
The full text of my speech supporting the amendment is below.
I am speaking in support of the amended motion.
First I would like to welcome the Opposition’s support for the key Liberal Democrat values of empowerment, diversity and accessibility that in Sutton we have enshrined in Council policy.
I also appreciate that my Conservative colleagues may wish to distance themselves from some of the less inclusive statements made by their Parliamentary representatives recently.
So starting on the issue of empowerment, here we are in agreement with the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, to put the power to change the local environment into the hands of local people.
For the Heart of Hackbridge scheme is one of the Mayor’s Outer London Fund projects, one of the few schemes bid for and led by a third party organisation – in this case BioRegional.
BioRegional are managing the scheme, with the implementation overseen by the Hackbridge OLF Delivery Board made up of representatives from BioRegional, the Hackbridge Neighbourhood Development Group, local businesses, council officers, and developers of the Felnex site, as well as a local councillor.
Now I will be the first to point out that, whilst fully supporting local people finding local solutions, the experience for those involved is time consuming, and often difficult to achieve consensus across all issues. People engage at different times, and with different agendas, and often we are asking people to manage issues that professionals find difficult to navigate. That is not to say that we shouldn’t support locally-led schemes, just that the bodies devolving power in this way need to be aware that the people involved should be properly supported.
The aims of the Heart of Hackbridge scheme extend well beyond the traffic scheme, and the Delivery Board has been very successful in delivering a significant uplift to the local economy in Hackbridge, in the form of new business, employment, apprenticeships, and business grants as well as reducing carbon emissions from shops. Unfortunately these achievements have been overshadowed by concerns over the safety of the new road scheme.
I would therefore like to take this opportunity to thank BioRegional and the local people who sit on the delivery board both for taking on this task to improve their area and for those achievements that have received rather less publicity and criticism.
I would now like to turn to the issues of inclusivity and accessibility.
The traffic scheme was designed to address local residents’ existing concerns about safety at Hackbridge Junction particularly with regard to traffic speeds, and near misses at the zebra crossings. It is important to note here that these existing formal crossings were deemed so unsafe that many pedestrians didn’t use them and would weave in and out of stationary cars instead.
The scheme as it stands was designed by award winning architects and engineers following input from local residents and traders. The scheme was also approved by the GLA’s design team and Transport for London.
The Hackbridge Delivery Board did consult with Guide Dogs for the Blind who confirmed that the scheme complied with national design guidance.
So we must accept that the Delivery Board felt that the scheme they were implementing satisfied disability issues given the guidance they had received from various sources including the Mayor’s own departments.
However, we are aware that campaigners for people with visual disabilities do not agree that the national design guidance is adequate in respect of shared space schemes.
Therefore, as we do seek to be an inclusive borough and as Cllr Whitehead has confirmed, the council will be working to help find a solution to ensure that people with visual impairments feel that there are safe places to cross at the Hackbridge junction.
Our amendment seeks to show that rather than riding roughshod over the decisions originally devolved to and agreed by local people, instead the council is offering its expertise to help find a way to reconcile the aims and concerns of those people with an interest in the area.
It is on this issue of inclusivity that I especially welcome Cllr Crowley’s belated U-turn to upholding the rights of the visually impaired. For previously in this very chamber he took a completely opposite stance when we wanted to enable visually impaired residents to be able to navigate the renovated Wallington town centre, instead supporting a businessman who expressed no consideration for the mobility needs of the blind.
In contrast the Liberal Democrat group has demonstrated a consistent and continued commitment to listening to and working with our disability groups to find solutions that work across many council projects.
So in light of what appears to be a mutual aspiration to ensure that all people are able to feel safe navigating the Heart of Hackbridge, I trust my opposition colleagues will be able to fully support the motion as amended.
Last night Cllr Simon Wales, Sutton’s lead member for Resources, presented an historic 28th Liberal Democrat budget for approval by full council.
Even in difficult times we were able to present a balanced budget that focused on the key values of this council and its residents – being Safer, Fairer, Greener and Smarter.
Cllr Wales explained how we would achieve this by focusing on four key areas: prevention – protecting the most vulnerable before problems occur; supporting and growing the local economy through our Opportunity Sutton work; empowering residents to manage their own lives and reduce dependence on council services, and delivering those services at a more local level; and delivering changes to the council to find ways to reduce costs, manage demand for services, and get things right first time.
My speech aimed to explain how our Opportunity Sutton economic development work will help us continue to offer those services to residents that they most value, and also touched on the potential of our Life Sciences Cluster site:
Why is growing the local economy good for Sutton?
As our budget sets out, a key priority for this Liberal Democrat council, is to encourage economic growth and investment into the borough.
And in order to deliver this economic growth, we have set up an ambitious programme of work under the banner of Opportunity Sutton.
The name has now come to embrace all of the work undertaken by our Economic Renewal and Regeneration Unit, and for a short name, it actually represents a significant amount of work, and is already delivering millions of pounds worth of new investment, hundreds of jobs, improvements to our district centres, and a lot of excitement about the potential growth areas for our borough.
And I would like to talk briefly about one of those exciting potential growth areas, our Life Sciences Cluster.
In Sutton we have the unique co-location and partnership of two world class institutions: the Royal Marsden, and the Institute of Cancer Research. By working together these two cancer specialists have establishing an international reputation for excellence.
Our Opportunity Sutton Team, together with our Leader Ruth, has been working with these two organisations to understand their growth plans and ambitions. And as a result of that work we have all realised the potential to provide a cohesive, integrated world class life sciences cluster on this site.
Developing this vision has the potential to attract millions of pounds of investment, new homes and thousands of jobs. Not to mention the new cancer treatments that will significantly improve the lives of patients. An extended tram link could unlock that potential even further.
Thanks to the work of Opportunity Sutton this project has attracted the interest of the Treasury, and the London Mayor, and we have been encouraged to bid for LEP funding to unlock the potential of this world class vision.
We are also separately, but with an eye on this potential, making the case to the mayor to extend the Tram from Wimbledon to Sutton.
But it is all very well getting excited about the potential of these projects, and celebrating the successes Opportunity Sutton has already achieved – achievements like unlocking the North Sutton Gas Holder site; like the reinvigoration of North Cheam and Worcester Park district centres; like the investment secured to develop a decentralised Energy Network; like the establishment of the Successful Sutton Business Improvement District; and like our trend-bucking success in getting young people into employment or training.
And if Councillor Crowley can wait until the next Strategy & Resources Committee, he will hear more of the real and tangible achievements of Opportunity Sutton in the last year. Because his comment that Opportunity Sutton is just an empty phrase from me is an incredible insult to the enormous amount of work the small Opportunity Sutton Team have undertaken in the last eighteen months, and he owes those officers an apology.
But how does Opportunity Sutton benefit our residents, and why is it a priority for this council?
Well first of all bringing new businesses into the borough also brings new jobs. Growing our existing businesses also creates new jobs. That means more employment opportunities for our residents. And a key project under Opportunity Sutton is our Business-led Skills Match work, to ensure that local people have the skills necessary so that they can take advantage of those new jobs being created.
It will deliver additional housing, so that our children can afford to purchase their first home, so that overcrowded families can find a bigger house they can afford, so that there are the quality smaller homes available for people who want to downsize.
And new development also brings with it additional funding to invest in additional school places, improved parks and open spaces, and major highways schemes.
More housing also increases our council tax base, spreading the burden, but increasing revenues for the council.
Business growth brings an increase in business rates.
We have heard from Councillor Wales about the pressures our budget is under from the devastating cuts being imposed on us from central government. Growing our local economy will be a key source of future funding to mitigate those budget cuts and help us to continue to provide those universal services that our residents so value: well maintained highways and streets; beautiful parks and playgrounds; quality, resident-led public realm projects, as well as being reinvested into our preventative work to protect the most vulnerable members of our borough.
That is why we are being proactive and ambitious with our Opportunity Sutton programme, seizing control of our own future and funding, so that we can continue to be a borough that people want to live in, where people feel confident to bring up a family, and where all our residents can experience a high quality of life.
I ask you to support this responsible, and forward-looking budget.
Last night I moved a motion to Full Council: Stronger economy – Supporting Business, Creating Jobs; seconded by Cllr Richard Clifton.
The text of my speech was as follows:
We are ambitious for Sutton. We love Sutton. Like our fellow residents we know it is a great place to live, and to work, and we have worked hard to make it that way.
But the recession has meant that local businesses have had to work harder just to keep afloat, that people have stayed home and saved rather than take risks with their money and investments.
And during these lean times the council has worked to provide the support and environment necessary to help our businesses through the recession. Indeed our ten point plan was picked out as an example of good practice for local government.
This may be part of the explanation as to why Sutton has weathered the recession well, with our employment rates continuing to remain above the London average, and lower numbers of businesses going into administration.
But we also need to look forward, to seize the opportunities available to us so we don’t just stand still, but we are able to create more jobs and more prosperity for the future.
This is as important for the council to ensure it is able to continue to provide the services our residents’ value, as it is for individuals and businesses.
And that is because the future for local government is changing significantly, and we can no longer rely on government subsidy to fund our operations, that way lies uncertainty and a massively shrinking service offer. Instead we need to take control of our own destiny and secure our local funding base. In future we may be solely reliant on business rates & council tax income to fund our services.
But our ambitions are also bigger than that. Our innovative Opportunity Sutton economic strategy sets out our plan to bring new business and investment into the borough. New investment that will bring jobs, housing, funding for schools, healthcare, transport and public realm schemes. All things that local people will get direct benefit from.
I can’t underestimate the importance to us of bringing that job offer to Sutton.
With our poorest residents facing an ever increasing squeeze on their income with the welfare reforms, the only way out for them is through finding employment, quality, fairly paid employment. Telling people they cannot expect to be dependent on government handouts is not enough, in fact it amounts to cruelty if they are faced with no alternatives, so it is incumbent on us to make sure that the alternative is out there in the form of jobs and training. This is why we are working so hard with our key partners on our Sutton Skills Match programme, to ensure local people have the skills necessary to take up the new job opportunities we are helping to create.
The other big crisis that the country is facing is the lack of housing that people can afford. Opportunity Sutton also involves ensuring that our strategic planning together with our inward investment drive will deliver the new housing that we so desperately need.
Any type of additional housing will help reduce the pressure on the market, but we are also adamant that new development ensures the delivery of social housing too.
This is why we have railed hard against the government’s extension of permitted development rights allowing offices to be converted to flats without any requirement to provide an affordable element. Yes we are happy for unviable offices to convert to residential accommodation, but not for those flats to only be affordable for commuters and city slickers.
So we are ambitious for Sutton because we are ambitious for our residents. We do not see the council’s role as subsidising our residents’ lifestyles, or as doing everything for them, we see our role as empowering and enabling people so they can take advantage of the offers and opportunities available to them.
If you are ambitious for Sutton and ambitious for our residents, please support this motion.
Other Liberal Democrat councillors spoke about the various projects impacting on their area under the Opportunity Sutton banner where we are already working to make our ambitions reality, and Councillor Clifton spoke in more detail about our innovative Sutton Skills Match programme and the new jobs that our work has already secured for the borough.
The Tory opposition had tabled an amendment which simply added to the motion an acknowledgement that the Outer London Funding was thanks to the Conservative London Mayor. As this was correct for two of the Opportunity Sutton projects falling within the ‘Improving district centres’ programme and didn’t take anything away from the work the council was doing in making use of that funding to deliver welcome improvements in Hackbridge and North Cheam & Worcester Park I had no quibble with that. However when speaking in the debate the opposition councillors Tim Crowley, Tony Shields & Peter Geiringer spoke so vehemently against the work the council is doing under Opportunity Sutton, claiming that none of the jobs and investment we had already attracted to the borough was due to local efforts but entirely down to national and regional policy, a point totally disproved by our comparative economic & employment statistics, that we felt to accept their amendment also meant accepting this perverse perspective. Coupled with the opposition’s uncomplementary descriptions of Sutton, hardly the way to win over new investors, we agreed that it would not be right to accept the amendment.
Surprisingly, having not had a good word to say about it, the Tory opposition then voted in favour of our unamended motion, with the exception of Cllr Crowley who had flounced out of the meeting by that point.
A decision was agreed at the Strategy & Resources Committee on Monday to allow the payment of a relocation grant of £35,000 to Orlit Freeholders to assist them in purchasing an alternative property following the council’s buyback of their homes. The conditions of the payment were set out in a policy which had been circulated to the Orlit Freeholders Association in advance of the public distribution of the papers and we had received positive feedback on the plans.
At the Strategy & Resources Committee Conservative Councillor Stuart Gordon-Bullock raised non-specific concerns about the policy. In response I expressed my frustration that despite having had the papers for ten days he was only raising these concerns now. The time between Cllr Gordon-Bullock receiving the papers and the meeting would have been more than ample for any changes to the policy to have been proposed and agreed with myself and officers, enabling the grant to receive cross-party approval. However as the recommendation was agreed by a majority vote the grant was approved. I offered to liaise with Cllr Gordon-Bullock to make any improvements to the policy under my delegated powers to allay his concerns.
However I learnt today that the decision has been requisitioned to council by the Conservatives, which means no more work can be done on this matter until debated at the next full council meeting on 29th April.
The basis of the Tory’s concerns were that they thought the policy aimed to ‘get the council out of paying the grant’. This was deeply insulting both to myself and the officers who had worked so hard to find a way to improve the options available to the freeholders following feedback from our meetings with them. The proof would have been in the awarding of the grants, but now that cannot happen until after the 29th April.
The Conservatives claim in the requisition that they are responding to the concerns of the freeholders, but it seems strange that they are taking a route that halts all work on the grants, when they were given a route on Monday to address any concerns that wouldn’t cause any delay.
Last night Full Council approved its budget for 2013/14 which included a freeze to the council tax for the fourth consecutive year. Councillor Simon Wales, Lead member for Resources, set out in his speech how we had managed to achieve this against the background of cuts to local authority grant funding.
There were a number of contributions from fellow members setting out what we had managed to achieve over the year, and I was particularly impressed by Cllr Kirsty Jerome’s enthusiastic account of the work being done in North Cheam and Worcester Park through the Outer London Fund.
I used my speech to highlight the positive work we are doing to stimulate growth and investment in the borough. Full text is set out below.
A budget to support our economic growth strategy
The key issue the country is facing is the difficult economic climate. A lethal combination of factors has left the UK teetering on the edge of a triple dip recession, desperately seeking some green shoots of growth. In response to the situation Labour left the country in, the Coalition has made drastic cuts to government spending, many of which have fallen to local authorities to deliver.
These cuts have been painful, and whilst all authorities have been required to take their share of the cuts, they do not fall even-handedly: those councils that have been wasteful or built up large reserves have found it easier than those councils who have been efficient, or who never received a large proportion of government grant in the first place.
The two things that have assisted Sutton in dealing with the difficult times we face are preparation; and ensuring that the measures we implement are right for Sutton, right for our residents.
We anticipated stringent cuts, and implemented major programmes for change early on to ensure that we reviewed and adapted our operations with due consideration. Ensuring fairness and protecting the most vulnerable was at the heart of our approach.
And we have also understood that the way out of this recession is to stimulate growth. That is sustainable growth, not a boom and bust economy, but growth that brings employment for local people, new opportunities for developing and using the skills of local residents, growth that doesn’t just ensure profits for developers, but also secures additional trade for local businesses and service providers. We want growth that adds to and increases the vitality of our town and district centres, ensuring vibrant shopping and community hubs into the future. Here we recognised the need for ambition and investment in Sutton, and we also recognised that it was up to us to do it for ourselves.
All the economic growth funding for London has been placed in the hands of the London Mayor, so we have to fight hard to win a share for our quiet suburban borough.
But we recognised that we needed to fight for economic growth in Sutton, for the sake of our residents and our future, and we knew that there was ample opportunity within Sutton to make that growth happen. So last year we launched our economic growth strategy, called, of course, Opportunity Sutton, and declared Sutton Open for Business. Sustainable business!
But to deliver on that declaration, we have to have the resources in place to meet the challenge. And our budget makes a massive statement to that effect. It gives a commitment to supporting our economic strategy, and it does it in such a way to ensure that our delivery plans are robust and costed, in line with our overall council policies, and that they ensure a positive impact on our residents.
And our Opportunity Sutton approach is already delivering the stimulus required. We have seen unprecedented investment interest in Sutton, with key problem sites like Victoria House in North Cheam, and Sutton Point now with viable development plans and local support.
We have won funding from central and regional government to enable us to achieve our ambitions for our district centres in Wallington, Worcester Park and Beddington and Hackbridge. And we have attracted new and prestigious businesses to our town centres like Metro Bank and Patisserie Valerie.
This is a significant achievement when viewed against the background of national growth shrinkage, and means that our early preparations were sound. This budget seeks to consolidate that work, and flags up that directorates across the council need to work together to secure the benefits Opportunity Sutton can achieve.
I have already mentioned the jobs and business as benefits of this investment, but I need to highlight that it is also the way we will deliver the new homes that are so desperately needed, it will enable the regeneration of parts of Sutton as we continue with the Durand programme and Hackbridge projects, and it will help us make the case for Tramlink to come to Sutton.
And finally it will ease the burden on our council taxpayers, as the increase in income from new business rates directly benefits Sutton through the new local authority grant settlement.
This budget is a forward looking budget, one which is ambitious for Sutton, and for Sutton’s residents, and I commend it to Council.
At Monday’s Full Council a motion calling for a review of permitted development rights was passed with unanimous support from both Conservative and Lib Dem members.
Cllr Hall & I had prepared the motion to highlight current borough issues in the context of calling for the current planning policy reforms to be extended to look at permitted development rights.
In my speech I concentrated on the threat posed to backgarden land:
‘This council has a long history of seeking to protect the suburban character of this borough from the creep of backgarden development.
In true Liberal Democrat innovative tradition this council was one of the first to include specific policies with the aim of protecting backgardens from development, within its local planning policy framework.
In fact so new and unfamiliar was this idea to some planning inspectors that some very unsatisfactory decisions were made at appeal that didn’t fit well with our local policies.
However we have continued to update and strengthen our policies on backgarden development in our new Local Development Framework and the Government changes to remove garden land from the definition of brownfield, and therefore no longer seen as a priority area for development, means that national policy has finally caught up with us somewhat.
Now that our Core Strategy has been adopted and our Site Development Policies DPD currently at the submission stage, and therefore a significant document in terms of current planning applications, the full force of our revised and strengthened policies will start to take effect.
However, with strong and defensible policies protecting backgarden land we are unfortunately now facing some unintended consequences.
Having seen that backgarden development will not be accepted through normal planning processes, a new approach has become evident whereby developers are seeking to achieve their aims via the back door of permitted development.
These developers prepare plans that are very careful to meet the stipulations of permitted development, which gives them freedom to build without reference to the planning authority or the local community. The local authority can only intervene when there is a proven breach of permitted development rights.
With a full planning application the onus is on the developer to prove that the plans comply with planning policy. With a breach of permitted development the onus is on the local authority to prove that a development is not within national set guidance.
Planning experts across the country have raised concerns about the vaguaries of the guidance in respect of permitted development as amended in 2008, with too many opportunities for loopholes to be exploited.
In light of these recent developments and the government’s desire for review of planning policy we believe that now is the time to extend that review to permitted development rights, and this is the point of our amendment to add to the resolutions of the motion.
Our Planning Enforcement team takes a strong stance on breaches of permitted development and has a good track record of resolving issues at an early stage. However when our enforcement team finds it necessary to take legal action, we find that the courts are often unwilling to see planning cases as a priority. In my view there is no point having any planning policies in place if we do not have the support of the legal process to enforce breaches of planning law.
I attended a course recently looking at the built environment and design matters. On this course we were asked to think about what we meant when we talked about suburbia.
The answers were about well laid out streets, large houses set in spacious plots with generous gardens. Trees and greenery were seen as a key part, as well as good commuter links. A good quality of life was also mentioned, smaller shopping areas and distinct neighbourhoods.
Sutton is Suburban. We do not deny it, in fact our residents are proud of it and want to preserve it. People move to Sutton to enjoy the suburban lifestyle.
It is our duty as a council to listen to our residents and seek to preserve that suburban character through our local planning policies. That is what we have done and that is what we will continue to do. We know that housing is scarce and we are happy to encourage development in the right places which fit well within the area.
But backgardens are not the place for new developments.
We call upon the Government to reinforce the powers of local authorities to respond to the desire of local residents to protect the suburban character of Sutton.
For if we do not we will become just another part of the inner city urban sprawl.
Please support the motion and our amendment.’
The agreed resolutions were:
i) Write to the Secretary of State for CLG to express this Council’s view that permitted development rights should not be applicable to changes of use by commercial enterprises so that communities will continue to have a say in ensuring the vitality of their local areas, and
ii) request an overall review of permitted development rights and Certificates of Lawful Development to ensure that there is a suitable balance of a householder’s right to modify their property against the amenity needs of their neighbours and the local community.
iii)Encourage the Government to highlight the importance, and strengthen the enforcement of, breaches of Permitted Development when they reach the court system.