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.
The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) issued a Technical Consultation on Planning in July this year. The consultation seeks views on proposals to amend the process for Neighbourhood Planning, further extend Permitted Development Rights, changes to the way Planning Conditions are made, changes to engagement with Statutory Consultees, raise the environmental impact assessment screening thresholds and amendments to Development Consent Orders.
I and my colleagues at Sutton have spoken out on a number of occasions against the extension of permitted development rights, both because it erodes the ability of local people to have their say on how development affects them, and because in practice it does not succeed in delivering its intended aspirations.
The letter accompanying our formal response to the consultation sets our position out clearly:
Date: 26 September 2014
The Rt Hon Mr Eric Pickles MP
Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
Department of Communities and Local Government
Dear Mr Pickles
RE: TECHNICAL CONSULTATION ON PLANNING (July-September 2014)
The London Borough of Sutton has submitted a schedule of responses to the above consultation from a technical standpoint but I would like to register the London Borough of Sutton’s and my disappointment at the overall policy direction of these proposed changes.
First, many of the proposed changes appear to run contrary to the Government’s own Core Planning Principles as set out in Paragraph 17 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). For example, the proposed changes to make prior approvals for larger extensions permanent and for larger arrays of solar panels will not “secure high quality design”, as stated in the fourth bullet point of Paragraph 17. The proposed permitted development rights for various commercial and retail uses to convert to residential uses will neither be “promoting the vitality of our main urban areas”, as stated in the fifth bullet point, nor will “promote mixed use development”, as stated in the ninth bullet point.
The London Borough of Sutton is concerned that these proposed changes to national planning policy, read in conjunction with the NPPF, are failing give a clear indication of the Government’s overall planning strategy. As a result, these mixed messages are producing uncertainty within the development industry and, consequently, hindering economic development.
Second, the council is concerned that the prior approval/permitted development right process is not producing the right sort of development for the borough and further prior approval/permitted development rights will have a similarly detrimental effect. In common with other south-western London boroughs, the permitted development right for offices to convert to residential uses is having a ruinous effect on the local economy. As of 1 August 2014, the council had granted prior approval for 52 conversions (a potential 64,096sq m loss of office floorspace) and 29 of the conversions were occupied or part-occupied offices.
Furthermore, approximately 70% of the housing units being created, many of which are sub-standard in terms of size and design, are one-bedroom market units when the greatest need locally is for one-bedroom affordable rented housing (starter houses) and 2-bed and 4-bed market housing. As I am sure our neighbouring boroughs (Richmond, Kingston, Merton and Croydon) will also attest, the policy may be suitable for some areas of the country but not for this part of outer London.
Third, the technical changes make no effort to deal with the housing affordability crisis. There are no incentives to provide affordable housing, which is so badly needed in London. Indeed, the proposed expansion of the prior approval/permitted development right regime will result in fewer affordable housing units being delivered than at present. Given the constraints of large existing housing estates and Green Belt, there is little available land in the borough for the Government to build its way out of the housing affordability crisis and so interventions in the housing market, rather than construction, are the most effective solutions.
However, the council does not wish to be totally negative and suggests that the Government could easily solve the issues outlined above with a greater devolution of powers to local authorities and allowing local issues to be solved at a local level. The council already has a pro-growth agenda but would like more powers to implement its agenda fully. Through the council’s economic renewal and regeneration programme, Opportunity Sutton, the council is providing an unambiguous signal that the borough is a place to start and grow businesses. The council’s Development Plan, adopted in 2009-2012, identifies the vacant offices as site allocations for mixed-use development and promotes the modernisation of other offices so that local companies can remain competitive and recruit staff. The council is also establishing a development company to provide affordable family housing – a product the free market seems unable to deliver. These actions show that local problems are better solved by local authorities and that local authorities, such as Sutton, could be more pro-active with even more powers.
Therefore, the council would like to suggest that the Government should stay true to its word regarding localism: stop issuing top-down diktats about planning minutiae, give local authorities the powers to address local issues and return powers to local residents so they have a say about how their area should develop. As we have seen with the office to residential conversion situation, what suits one part of the England may not suit another. What is suitable for Sunderland or Suffolk may not necessarily be successful in Sutton.
Cllr Jayne McCoy
Chair of Housing, Economy and Business Committee
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.
Today MPs will vote on the proposals to relax planning rules to allow people to significantly extend their homes without need for planning permission. The effect of this will be to remove the opportunity for neighbours to object to extensions that impact on their light; that impinge on their privacy, or otherwise negatively affect their amenity.
Councils have been united in their opposition to these proposals. Councillors of all political colours have voiced their concerns about the potential for dispute between neighbours, and the lack of evidence that the proposals will do anything to benefit the construction industry as claimed by ministers.
In Sutton we were one of the first councils to speak out about the proposals, and I put the case against at the last Lib Dem Party Conference.
This united opposition of Local Authorities, expressed through the response of the Local Government Association (LGA), and the concerns of local councillors is significant, as they are the people and the authorities who deal with and implement planning policies on a day to day basis. They are the front line who experience and therefore understand what the impacts of these proposals will be.
This vote will be a test of whether our Ministers and politicians are willing to listen to their councillors, to take on board the knowledge and experience of the councils that have to implement Government policy. Our Parliamentarians are lobbied by big business, by special interest groups, by organisations with vested interested, but this only presents one side of the story, often quite a selfish side. There is always another angle, and local authorities are the other side of the story, with less of a vested interest, as their role is to act across a range of interests for the greater good of their residents. But local government is a body that is often the last one to be listened to by ministers. It is a good cash cow for cuts and scapegoat for the pain delivered by those cuts, but rarely is it seen as a source of good advice or feedback.
The planning relaxation proposals went out to consultation. I know that very many councils and the LGA responded stating why the proposals would be harmful. In Sutton we submitted a very strong case as to why the proposals would not work and evidence of how they could escalate some of the existing difficulties faced by planning authorities. The fact that the Planning Minister Nick Boles is still pressing his own Conservative MPs to vote through his proposals in the face of backbenchers’ own concerns about them proves that the consultation was a sham, that Ministers will pick and choose who to listen to, and dismiss reams of good advice purely to save face and not be seen to do an about-turn.
Today will be a test of whether MPs really do understand the principle of localism they claim to have bestowed upon us. For the sake of Sutton’s residents I hope that practical common sense prevails amongst the MPs that vote today, and they vote for local decision-making over centralised dogma.
I made my debut at the Lib Dem conference on Wednesday to support the emergency motion calling for the withdrawal of the proposals to relax planning laws.
The arguments against the proposals are:
- Councils already have discretion to negotiate the affordable housing part of s106 agreements, and will take account of any viability arguments from developers. But removing the requirement altogether flies in the face of commitments from Government to address the housing shortage and undermines our negotiating position.
- What you can build without planning permission is already significant and can and does lead to falling out between neighbours who find it hard to understand why they have no powers of objection, and why the council has no powers to intervene despite the impact on their light and privacy.
- Seeking planning permission for larger extensions is not onerous or expensive. In Sutton it costs £150 and you can expect a decision within eight weeks. Local councillors see hundreds of extensions built and approved in this way each year. Therefore it is not the planning process that is holding back growth.
However the thrust of my speech was that if the Government had consulted with local councils before they floated these proposals, this cross-party rebellion against them would have been averted, because it was obvious to local councillors what the flaws in the plans were. And this is a perfect example of how the communication between central and local government is one way – top down only, despite the lofty commitments to Localism.
The full text of my speech is included below.
The motion against the relaxation of the planning laws was overwhelmingly supported by members, and I was interested to hear that extracts from my speech had featured on ‘Today at Conference’ on BBC2 to illustrate grassroot concerns about the relationship between local and central government.
However most importantly was the statement by Don Foster MP that he was listening.
CALL FOR WITHDRAWAL OF PROPOSALS FOR RELAXATION OF PLANNING REGULATIONS
This Government talks about Localism, whilst in Local Government we put it into practice. Localism means devolving power to those closest to the impacts of decisions. This is what we are trying to do in Local Government, but it is against a constant giving of powers with one hand, and taking away with the other. The communication between central and local government is one way – top down only. As a result we councillors have been forced to implement poorly thought out policies, make ruthless cuts, and defend regulations that can’t be defended. We know that ministers are lobbied by groups with vested interests, and they take on board these groups concerns, as they should. However there are always two sides to every story, and local councils are in a very good place to give the other side of the tale. Local councils should also get a hearing. Councillors are at the coalface of the changes Government want to implement. We are the ones charged with delivering change and implementing policy. It would be nice if Government consulted with local councils for once. We have a huge amount of experience and expertise. These planning proposals are the perfect example of why central Government needs to consult with us. We know that it is not the planning system that is holding back growth. For local councillors it was obvious what the flaws in this plan were. We already have to deal with residents shocked by what their neighbours can build without planning permission, that impacts significantly on their quality of life. Permitted development rights are already very broad and have loopholes that are frequently exploited. Expanding the size of developments that can be erected without the neighbours having any say in the matter was never going to go down well with residents already feeling disempowered. And how are we to protect and help our high streets when businesses can expand significantly without care for the consequences that may have on traffic and parking, or on other businesses and development in the area? Fortunately these are just proposals, out for consultation. They are not yet a law that Eric Pickles can slam our faces in. So we say listen to the expertise of local government: these proposals will not help drive economic growth. It is working with businesses and residents to deliver good quality development that works well for an area that will deliver the employment opportunities we desperately need. Planning applications will not meet obstacles in the planning process if they are proposing well designed buildings that enhance not harm an area. Local councils understand this, and are already working hard to deliver jobs and business opportunities in this way. Please listen to our experiences. I ask that Conference supports the motion.