- Lichfield City Council Meeting 22/09/20
By Dave Robertson, Lichfield City Council Labour Group Leader
Not surprisingly, the main items for discussion at this meeting were about COVID19 and the climate emergency. There is clearly a growing consensus that the economic recovery after the pandemic will need to go hand in hand with efforts to tackle the climate emergency. This dual focus can be a real strength to the recovery though and doesn’t need to be case of prioritising one aim over the other. It will need careful planning and support from all levels of government, from Whitehall to Parish Councils, but will be possible to rebuild the economy so that it can help rebuild our planet.
The discussion on the climate crisis was brought about by a member of the public who was attending the meeting to ask a question of the Council. Local climate activist and Labour Party member Robin Taylor asked the Council about how it is currently meeting its obligations to the climate crisis and how it will innovate to address climate change as we rebuild from COVID. The Conservative leader of the Council said that a written response would be given later. Both Labour and Lib Dem Councillors thanked Robin for bringing the debate forward and another Tory spoke about a County Council reshuffle.
The only concrete suggestion about how the Council can help tackle the crisis was put forward by a Labour Councillor. This suggestion was that the City Council can play a significant role in capturing carbon from the atmosphere. Given the Council owns significant open spaces in the City, LCC can plant trees and other plants to encourage biodiversity. This will not only help defeat climate change but will also further improve the appearance of the City.
A discussion on the financial impact of the pandemic on Council finances followed this. Again, Labour Councillors were the only ones offering concrete suggestions about how to improve the situation. The City Council is currently forecasting that it will lose in the region of £118,000 this year, almost £10,000 per month. The pandemic is the reason for most of this overspend and many of the reasons were beyond the control of the Council. However, that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done.
Labour Councillors have consistently called for a proper investment strategy to go alongside the over £1million capital reserve. By intelligently investing this reserve the Council can raise funds which will help keep Council tax down, and still make sure that the reserve isn’t put at unreasonable risk. The District Council already invests its reserves in exactly this way and raises significant sums of money by doing so. Unfortunately, the Conservative group suggested that they would not support this move, despite it all but guaranteeing a bigger Council Tax increase next year.
Secondly Labour Councillors suggested that the City Council might look to install solar panels at some of its buildings across the city which would, over time, raise money and would also help us meet our obligations to the climate emergency. This suggestion was much better received and we do hope that the Council is able to look into this and find a way to make our spending work for the good of the environment and the people of the City.
- Lichfield City Council Meeting 28/07/20
By Dave Robertson, Lichfield City Council Labour Group Leader
The July meeting of the Council was again held by Zoom due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. There were two real items up for discussion in addition to the regular reports and accounts: the ongoing reductions to market rents and a proposal to combine two meetings. Another item on a consultation to the LGA code of conduct was agreed with no need to discuss.
The market rents were also agreed without discussion as they had come from the market working group where we had discussed them in detail. The Council will continue to reduce rents by 50% in the week but change the reduction to 25% on Saturdays to support the traders through the crisis. The working group had also requested that it be given powers to make changes to rent reductions in advance of future council meetings, which was agreed. We also agreed to review the new Sunday Producers Market in January so that it has the chance to succeed over the busy December period.
The other item for discussion was a proposal to combine the September and October meetings of the Council in order to free up our staff at what is the council’s busiest time. To put this in context Lichfield City Council currently meets 9 times per year whereas the District Council, which is more than 30 times the size of the City Council, meets only 6 times. There was a significant discussion on this point as the Liberal Democrats did not support the idea, saying that the Council should meet in case there was a local lockdown and that the extra meeting would improve accountability.
Neither of these arguments were convincing: It would not be the City Council which had to administer a local lockdown. Any work that needed to be done would be carried out by staff immediately, rather than waiting for a meeting to give the go ahead. We have also previously agreed to delegate powers to staff to use if needed. Secondly, on accountability, the Lib Dem leader as part of his seconding speech even admitted that we could do all the work we needed to in 8 meetings rather than 9. Added to this point is the fact that City Councillors can call extra meetings of the council at any point if they need to. So, there is little argument to hold a meeting when one isn’t really required. We also reminded the Liberal Democrats that their attendance at full council meetings was the worst of all the groups, with Lib Dem Councillors missing a quarter of all their meetings in the last civic year.
Finally, there were confidential items relating to staffing which were discussed and voted on before the Mayor closed the meeting after just under an hour.
- Lichfield City Council Report 15/06/20
Dave Robertson, Lichfield City Council Labour Leader
Our second meeting of the Council during the coronavirus epidemic was again conducted virtually by ‘zoom.’ Much more on the agenda to debate at this meeting however, almost all of it exploring how the City Council will be able to support the economic recovery in Lichfield.
The first item for debate was a motion brought by the Labour group, moved by me, and seconded by Colin Ball:“Given the difficulties facing local businesses due to Covid-19 and, in order to support the recovery of the local economy, this Council resolves to sign the “Pay in 30 Days” pledge, as supported by the Lichfield and Tamworth Chamber of Commerce, and similarly resolves to develop a local procurement policy to support, where possible, the business recovery in the City.“We are really pleased that this motion was passed with the support of all Councillors and will provide a real way for the City Council to support local businesses and jobs for people in the City.
For more information on the Pay in 30 Days campaign please click here. Signing this pledge means that the City Council supports the idea that suppliers should be paid in good time, which will help ensure the liquidity of local businesses and we hope will encourage other local businesses to do so. We also hope that this will have a real positive impact on the wellbeing of local business owners who are the worst affected group when payments are made late.The idea of a local procurement policy doesn’t bind the Council’s hands to buy local if it isn’t it the best choice. But it is to make a commitment to find ways to reinvest public money in the people who paid for it in Council tax. Studies have shown that money spent in this way is better able to lift people out of poverty and increases the life chances of people in the local area.
We then moved to the request from the Lichfield Place Board to relocate the markets to allow the market square to be used for seating. This has been subject to significant consultation with the local businesses, market traders and the public and it was very quickly apparent that the there wasn’t support from any group to do this. Again, all parties agreed that this was not the way to go and to keep the market in its rightful place.
The next piece of business was agreeing incentives for market traders so that they are able to rebuild their business in the ‘new normal.’ These incentives have been in place informally since the beginning of lockdown and there was no argument against keeping them in place for the next month and a half.
Our final piece of business was relating to a community governance review. This is a process which allows the District Council to make changes to the boundaries and wards of the City Council. This had originally been planned to finish before the elections last year, but we have now been informed that this will be delayed until after the 2023 elections. The Conservatives were proposing that the Council formally write to LDC asking for a light touch ‘quick fix’ to be carried out as soon as possible. Whilst the review is overdue and is needed Labour Councillors felt that it is the wrong time to be demanding things from a Council working to support the community through COVID 19. Both the Conservatives and Lib Dems supported the proposal.
- Lichfield City Council Report 11/05/20
So apparently Zoom can be used for more than just pub quizzes! We used the platform to host the first ‘virtual’ meeting in the Council’s history this week due to social distancing requirements.Much of the meeting was spent making sure that the Council could continue to work given the restrictions; delegating planning decisions to ward Councillors; extending the period of office for the Mayor, Sherriff, etc.; and making sure that we can alter the meeting calendar as needed. If you’d like to see the full agenda, it can be accessed here: https://www.lichfield.gov.uk/Full_Council_837.aspxThe real business of the evening came down to two points, both related to the pandemic. The first was a motion brought by the Liberal Democrats which was to set up a working party with the aim of supporting the economic recovery after the virus. This took a long time to reach a resolution on as there were two amendments to make the proposal more competent, both of which were carried. The first was, rather than create another talking shop, to commit the council to work with the Lichfield Place Board which is almost a working group of different organisations, including Lichfield BID, LDC and SCC and is already working to do this. The second amendment was our own, moved by me and seconded by Cllr Anketell to specifically mention third sector organisations in the motion, rather than just ‘residents and businesses.’ Given the huge work being done by Lichfield Foodbank, Live at Home, Helping Each other and dozens of other groups at the moment, we felt it was essential that these groups receive support even after the crisis.Second was passing a dispensation for member absence. Usually we’d never agree to a blank cheque for Councillors to miss meetings, but in this situation we agreed the dispensation. The reasoning here is that we can’t hold a by-election before May 2021 even if a Councillor did miss 6 months of meetings and get removed from Council, and so we wouldn’t be able to elect a replacement anyway. Having said that I did make sure to raise a point about Councillor attendance, particularly given that one Leomansley Councillor has a City Council attendance of just 27%, a Chadsmead Councillor is currently at 42% and 11 others are below 80%. All of our Labour Councillors have attendance above 90%.
- Lichfield City Council Report 02/03/20
Dave Robertson, Lichfield City Council Labour Group Leader
Spending, Grants and OpennessA much smaller City Council agenda for the March meeting as there was no budget to be set and few significant items of business outside of the work done by committees.The first reason we had to speak at this meeting though, was to challenge the accuracy of the minutes which had been kept from the previous meeting. Anyone who knows me will know that arguments about meeting minutes are one of my real bug-bears and personally I’ll avoid this wherever possible. However, given that the minutes completely omitted two votes that were held in the previous meeting we thought it was important to raise this.There was no mention of the proposal, moved by myself and seconded by Cllr Ball, to increase Guildhall booking charges by a modest amount, a proposal which even some Tory Councillors voted with the opposition. Similarly, there was no mention of the idea, moved by Cllr Ball and seconded by me, to ensure that £1million of the windfall monies be kept in a separate reserve. However, Conservative Councillors voted down our comments here and the minutes were not amended. So much for openness and transparency!We then, as ever, approved the minutes of different committees and discussed any recommendations from these. This meeting had two to consider, one regarding the Johnson Birthplace Museum, which the Council owns. The recommendation here was to authorise a significant, but necessary, spend on improvements which will safeguard the museum and its contents. This was subject to a very long discussion at our group meeting but we did draw the same conclusion as the committee and so we were happy to support.
The other committee to report to this Council meeting was the Grants Advisory committee. For anyone who doesn’t know, the City Council does provide Grants for organisations in the City to help them undertake good works. We received 31 applications, of which 29 were accepted, meaning that over £29,000 will be given to these good causes. However, there is still some unused budget available, as there was last year and so if you are aware of any community group in the City which would benefit from this type of funding, please do put them in touch!We then moved on to other matters, such as electing the Mayor, Deputy Mayor and Sheriff elect for each of which only one name was put forwards and approved the calendar for next years’ meetings with a couple of minor changes.Finally we discussed leasing some land in St Johns to the canal trust so that they can continue their project. There had been some concerns raised by local residents which had been discussed at length by the ward Councillors and some amendments were made to the lease based on this, meaning we could support the proposal.
- Lichfield City Council Report 27/01/20
Dave Robertson, Lichfield City Council Labour Group Leader
Budgets, Budgets, BudgetsThe best way to start a new calendar year at Council – dive feet first in to Council finances!It was a really important agenda at Council this month as we look at next year’s budget, including Council spending and the increase to Council Tax for 2020/21, but there were several other important decisions to make too.
Before we arrived at the financials a member of the public had approached the Council to ask a question about fly-posting. This related specifically to some Brexit-themed stickers which had been stuck to lampposts owned by the City. There then proceeded some point scoring and arguments between Lib Dem and Conservative Councillors which got nowhere close to a resolution. Whilst this was pretty much a waste of everyone’s time, it is a good example of the public question though. Anyone who lives in the city can ask questions of the City Council in this manner. If you’d like to take advantage of this in the future please get in touch with Dave Robertson via
email@example.comWe then moved on to considering the recommendation of working groups that had been set up to look at the Neighbourhood Plan, Markets and Sheriff’s Ride. The groups had all made recommendations to Council that needed to be passed by a vote before being acted on. Many of these recommendations made good sense and we were pleased to support, particularly around installing new LED street lighting, helping to pay for new doors at Curborough Community Centre and moving the Farmers Market from a Thursday to a Sunday.We did disagree with the Sheriff’s Ride group recommendations though. The Sheriff’s Ride is an ancient tradition in the City and is a pretty much unique event across the country. However, costs this year have spiralled as certain security and road closure costs, which were previously provided by Staffs police for free, are now costing over £7000 per year. This has more than doubled the cost of the event which is now costing more than £13,000. Whilst we recognise that this tradition is part of the history of the City, we didn’t feel that we could justify 1.5% of the total City Council budget being spent on a single event which is attended by so few people from Lichfield. On this point we abstained as we don’t want to see the end of a City tradition but could not accept the additional cost to public finances.After this we did move on to a long discussion about various financial points which were either related to-, or parts of the Council budget.
The first point we raised here was to look again at the very modest proposed increases in charges for room hire at the Guildhall. Our group made the case that bookings remained strong and there is already very limited weekend availability for the whole of 2020, and that the building as a whole costs almost £90,000 (an average of over £6.50 per household in Lichfield) more to run than we receive in income from it. We proposed a 5% increase to charges rather than the Conservative proposal of 3%. This would not have raised £90,000 in a year but we made the case that the additional revenue would have decreased the burden on our finances without a significant drop in bookings. The amendment was narrowly lost but there was some cross party support from the Liberal Democrats and from some Conservative members. We’re quite hopeful that a more financially sound proposal will be on the cards for next year’s budget.
We then raised two points about our current spending, namely that our grants budget was underspent by almost £2,500 this year which means that local good causes, not-for-profits and community groups will; not have benefited from this additional support. We made the point that the Council could do more to ensure that this money is allocated in future and that we, as Councillors could do more to advertise the grant applications. We similarly raised our concerns about the spiralling costs of Civic functions, which are likely to overspend by £9,000 this year. Much of this is due to the Sheriff’s Ride, but other events have cost almost £2,000 more than expected this year. One event was 127% over budget!Our final points to make on the budget were the lack of oversight around an enormous windfall that the City Council benefited from recently and about the use of reserves to cover up financial loses. In December the City Council agreed to sell a plot of land for a significant sum of money. This huge capital contribution has been temporarily placed in to general reserves until the audit committee meets later in the year, but our group feels strongly that £1million should be placed in an identified reserve so that it is not frittered away without the benefits being felt by the people of the City. The City Council budget sees the precept increase by a whopping 7% but still predicts that we will run a shortfall of £130,000. This shortfall will have to be made up by reserves which we could not accept the budget in this form and voted against it.The final discussion point of the meeting was around the City Centre Masterplan Consultation and the City Council’s formal response. On this point we had all been invited to email our thoughts to the Town Clerk before the meeting. Apparently this had escaped the Liberal Democrats who wanted to raise their thoughts in a meeting rather than in writing where it is most easily done. The proposals were to undermine a central plank of the masterplan and obstruct sightlines with an overpass over Birmingham Road and to increase car parking where there is already over capacity. Unsurprisingly the proposals were not approved by Council. Finally we were able to change the response to support the idea of a circular Minster Pool walk.