Report back on January's Council Meeting

The January Council meeting felt a lot like the calm before the storm as the proposed Council budget is bought before members in the next month (or so, as the date keeps being shifted).  There were serious items on the agenda and some which were relatively uncontroversial. 

 

Among the more important and controversial was the settling of the Housing Revenue Account Budget for 2011/12 which includes the budget and rent setting.  Last year the Conservative opposed Labour’s rent increase as the formula suggested that there should actually have been a rent cut; however, with inflation running high this year a 5.1% increase was suggested.  In order to be consistent, Conservatives voted for this rent increase, while noting the overall level of rent would be lower if last year’s formula had been followed.  However, Conservatives opposed plans to introduce substantial cuts to the system which were simply not provided in enough detail to justify £3.6m amount attached to them.  Similarly the introduction of a service charge which the Labour Cabinet Member appeared to think would have to be at least £2 per week to make it worthwhile seemed to have been assumed before any consultation with residents had taken place and without any details of what residents could expect in return for this sum of money. 

 

A separate item was the Council Tax Base, which informs Councillors how much should be raised in the next year.  It is important in a borough like Greenwich which is growing as it provides more revenue – this year an extra £1.2m.  Conservatives asked if the extra revenue could be forecast and it seemed that it could not be shown for future years. 

 

Another important item which is technical and so often passed over by the journalists who turn up to watch was the Council’s Licensing Policy.  This laid out the policy for the whole borough and in particular saturation areas, where new licensees have to show that their new bar/restaurant/pub will not cause more trouble.  There are currently five of these around the borough, including Eltham, Trafalgar Road and Greenwich, however the report looked in depth at the O2 too as it has the highest proportion of alcohol related crime at 24% of all crime in the area.  The report on the O2 contained the interesting comment that as a percentage it looked like alcohol related crime had fallen; however, this was because the total amount of crime at the O2 had risen significantly over the period.  Conservative Leader Cllr Spencer Drury raised this issue and asked why it was that the O2 was not being added to the list of saturation areas given that its crime rates were so high but in Eltham and the Trafalgar Road area they were below the borough average.  As far as we could tell there was no clear answer to this.  Spencer also mentioned the closure of pubs around the borough and requested that the borough take some steps to look into how it could support pubs in Greenwich and ensure that they were not lost to communities if they closed.  This suggestion was not taken up by the Labour Cabinet Member. 

 

Lastly, the item which caused the most debate was in some ways the least important, except it reflected two things about the attitude of this Council to finding savings and democracy.  The Conservative view was described by Cllr Geoff Brighty from Blackheath Westcombe ward.  Geoff outlined two core failings with the proposals, which were:-

 

  • It was undemocratic
  • It would not work.

 

Geoff’s argument was that the plan to save £27,000 by reducing the number of planning meetings was undemocratic as it raised the minimum number of objections to require a planning application to be heard by a committee of Councillors from two to eight.  Geoff felt this would disenfranchise residents where applications were made for next door residential properties.  Labour argued fiercely that this argument was wrong, suggesting that eight objections was still around the middle range for London and that as a ward Councillor could still request an item go to committee then there was no loss of democracy.  Other Conservative Councillors felt this argument was circular, because if there was no reduction in democracy then the same number of items would be heard at committee and so there would be no saving.

 

Geoff’s second point was that the Council, by law, had to hear planning applications within 8 weeks, but the proposal meant there would only be an area planning committee each 4 months.  This meant the Council would be breaking the law with this proposal as it stood unless there was a change in the structure of the planning committees.  In reply the Labour Deputy Leader did suggest that the structure may have to be looked at in addition to the basic proposal before Council.  Labour then voted this item through regardless of the debate.

 

In addition, Conservative Councillors asked 20 formal questions of Labour Cabinet members, including:-

 

  • Cllr Hills asked what the Council was doing to assist local businesses at the Mound on the Coldharbour Estate.
  • Cllr Brinkhurst asked about the transfer of police from relatively low crime areas like Coldharbour and New Eltham to the north of the borough.
  • Cllr Wilson asked for updates on the Council’s redevelopments at the John Roan School and the East Greenwich Centre.
  • Cllr Dickinson asked about the borough’s plans for the Royal Wedding.
  • Cllr Drury asked about the refilling and theft of grit bins around the borough and whether the Council actually enforced its skip policy.
  • Cllr Thomas asked in the Council was going to support the Mayor of London in encouraging cycle usage in the Avery Hill Park area.