“Welcome to our blog. The Lichfield Labour Group will be writing here to keep you up to date with the work of Labour’s District Councillors in Lichfield and Burntwood.”
Free show at Lichfield Garrick Theatre October 7th – Cllr Steve Norman
You won’t find that advertised on the theatre’s website or in their programme but members of the public could have attended a free Farce with a cast of 5 Cabinet members (out of 7) and 4 senior officers in a production that could have been called “The Illusion” to reflect the pretence that the Cabinet was going to make a decision after hearing new points from the audience.
I say “free” but the cost of hire of the theatre was £1,200 – excluding officer costs – and the Cabinet had to meet again the next day anyway as scheduled.
Our own Curborough Councillor, Dave Robertson, got applause for his rousing speech (from the stalls not the stage) and got the result our three Labour councillors in Lichfield City wanted – a U turn.
However, the idea that the Tories had not already decided to reverse their decision to close the Leisure Centre with the help of the County Council is, of course farcical. The fantastic campaign by residents and users ensured it would not close long before the stage show on the 7th of October even though the local Conservative County Councillors and our invisible Parliamentarian (Mr Fabricant) did nothing to support the campaigners.
What was appalling was that the relevant Scrutiny Committee could have met again following the new information, and possible misinformation, that it had looked at previously and invited witnesses from the clubs and users of Burntwood Leisure Centre where the Tories said they could go in future. That is the way to conduct council business – not on a stage the council subsidises by £1/4 million a year.
What about the finance?
A replacement Leisure Centre is estimated at £5 million and the extra cost of keeping the existing one open for five years in the meantime at almost another million so there was no point in discussing the now out of date budget at the Council meeting on the 15th of October! Even before this decision the Council will be £612,00 short next year and over £1 million short in 2023/24. Nationally the funding gap for local authorities is predicted to be £8 billion by 2025 – and our district MPs have supported these government cuts – as indeed do the Cabinet members themselves who complain on behalf of their residents.
Another success for Labour councillors
We wanted the council to give more support to our local businesses and proposed the following motion on the night:
This Council asks Scrutiny and Cabinet members to look into the possibility of developing a local procurement policy to support Small and Medium Enterprises based within the District Council’s boundary.
The current Economic Development Strategy and the Strategic Plan both have references to supporting local businesses and related matters. However, they do not include the direct help the Council could be to the district economy if it had a local procurement policy and we call upon the Council to investigate the merits of such a policy for our local businesses in Lichfield District.
This was supported by the whole Council and the Cabinet suggested they were already doing this anyway but the only reference in the Procurement Strategy is the statutory guidance all councils are supposed (I emphasise supposed) to follow. But Labour councils like Preston City Council go much further. Preston’s message to businesses is: “We share a collective vision to deliver more for our place and our communities! We believe institutions need to use public procurement as a tool to deliver wider economic, social and environmental benefits.”
Since 2013, over £70 million has been redirected back into the Preston economy – so worth investigating how we could do that here don’t you think?
Question tabled on the night
Brad Westwood, the youngest member of the Group, tabled his first question in the light of the Friary Grange £5 million asking about the £1 million the previous Leader, Sue Woodward had asked for before the election. The answer seemed to be “it will be in the Local Plan” – but we shall pursue that.
My question, to Councillor Janet Eagland, the new Chairman of the District Council’s relevant Scrutiny Committee was about the “temporary” (since 2008 and recently given temporary planning permission for third time) Burntwood Health and Wellbeing Centre. I wanted it raised at the County’s Health Select Committee but was told that I should send it to the County Council’s Chief Executive! I will do that – telling him why!
10 weeks is a looong time in local politics – Cllr Steve Norman
There’s a lot of training for new (and returning) councillors – five so far (excluding one I couldn’t attend) and six formal council meetings (excluding one I forgot!).The one of most interest to me was financial training – useful a couple of days before the Audit and Member Standards [of more later] Committee with its 332 page report including Treasury Management, Risk Management, Fraud and the external Auditors’ report from Grant Thornton who, incidentally, are also auditors for Sports Direct.The first three bullet points in the presentation entitled “Understanding the Financial Landscape” should be of interest to all those outside the Council Chamber:
- In my 30+ years, this is probably the most uncertain time in local government finance!
- Research by the Local Government Association has revealed one in three councils will run out of cash to provide their legal duties within three years.
- Almost a fifth of councils are not confident of realising all of their saving targets this year.
- Unsurprisingly, “Brexit” was included in the Risk Management section.
It’s déjà vu with the Tories
I learnt very early on in my council career, in North Warwickshire (Labour controlled) in 1984, that Leisure Services was not a “statutory service” unlike planning or environmental health. The Thatcher Government at that time was taking £9 from us for every £1 we went over the Government’s rate cap and these services were in danger. Incidentally 1984 was also the year the Tory Government banned the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives from speaking out against the Government’s cuts in council funding.
Which brings me to Friary Grange Leisure Centre.
It is still the case that Leisure Services, including Leisure facilities, do not have to be provided by councils. With the Central Government grant now at zero you can understand the pressure on LDC. Of course they will still try to get the district’s MPs re-elected even though they keep silent about their part in supporting the Government’s policy of cutting council finance by 60 pence in every £1 for the last 8 years!
There was a verbal report to the Leisure, Parks and Waste Management Committee in January – and a further report was due at the next meeting in March. It didn’t happen but I am sure the district council election in May was not a factor in the next (confidential) report being delayed until June.
At the Council meeting on the 16th of July Jamie Checkland, the new Tory councillor for Leomansley Ward in Lichfield, failed to declare his prejudicial interest during the debate of the receipt of the petition opposed to any closure of the Leisure Centre. He should not even have stayed in the Council Chamber. He was Chair of Governors at Friary Grange School that is working to become an Academy with the Leisure Centre – including the City’s only public swimming pool – as an asset for the school alone. Under public pressure he has now resigned as a School Governor but as he used his position to contact members of the school Parent Teachers Association there are questions over data protection and election law he still needs to explain.
As if that wasn’t enough.
Former City Council Sheriff, David Leytham, who ironically had been a member of the District Council’s Standards Committee, was found “guilty” of failing to register – or even declare – his wife’s business interests when she supplied silk flowers for Lichfield City Council.
Astonishingly, the new Leaders then replaced Cllr Leytham with Councillor Janet Eagland as Chairman of the Community, Housing and Health Scrutiny Committee. In 2011 I had written to the County Council Leader to remove her from the County’s Health Scrutiny Committee following her performance at the Mid Staffs Public Inquiry. (She was replaced a few weeks later.)
What a sorry start this is for the new council. I am willing to give the new Cabinet a chance – for the benefit of the district. After all, this Leader is not using his council email address to promote a holiday apartment in Menorca and this Deputy Leader has hopefully got a complete Register of Interests.
How they approach the Friary Grange issue and how they progress Friarsgate and the promised support for Burntwood and the rural areas will be an important test and the Labour Group will hold them to account.
- LDC AGM – Cllr Dave Robertson
Lichfield District Council’s Annual General Meeting was held on Tuesday and our newly strengthened Labour contingent was very happy to take their seats and give a voice to those communities we represent.
The agenda for the meeting had 14 items, but most of these were dealt with very quickly. I’ve covered all of the ones which involved serious debate below, but in reality the meeting focussed around electing Councillors to various roles, constructing all of the committees for the year and discussing two motions that were brought by the Conservative group.
Conservative majority ensured that Conservative Members were elected as Chairman (I agree, this is a very outdated name, but more on that later) and Vice-Chairman with very little discussion beyond being moved and seconded. The Labour Group abstained on both of these votes.
Following the acceptance of the accuracy of some minutes we moved to the election of the Leader and Deputy leader of the Council. Here the Conservatives moved their candidates, Doug Pullen and Iain Eadie.
The Labour Group leader, Steve Norman, took the chance here to speak against the appointments, not to attack and undermine the individuals, but to remind all those present that the Conservative Government has subjected the country to almost a decade of cruel and unnecessary austerity. The Labour Group opposed the election of a Conservative Leader, all other opposition Councillors abstained.
Following this we agreed the make-up of the various committees and scrutiny groups and raised the idea again that opposition Members should chair the overview and scrutiny committees to ensure their effectiveness, particularly in the wake of the Friarsgate fiasco. The Conservative members voted this down and so the committees will continue to be chaired by members of the controlling group.
The final two items of the agenda were debated and Labour members spoke on both. First was a request for enabling works for HS2 to be paused until the final scheme has the go-ahead. This item was vocally supported by Conservative members, and I was proud to make my maiden speech in the chamber to add my voice to those supporting the motion.
The entire project is coming under increased scrutiny and one Tory ex-MP was even on the radio last week suggesting that the plan could be scrapped north of Birmingham; the environmental cost of HS2 has been well documented and it is sensible that if the scheme is in doubt or may be cancelled then the associated loss of biodiversity and ecology should be postponed until the final go-ahead has been given. As I said in my speech “we are all here to represent our constituents and that is what this proposal does.”
Finally a motion was put by the controlling group which requested an end to the archaic practice of referring to Women Councillors in a different manner to those of us who are men.
This motion was seconded by our own deputy-leader, Di Evans, and I was really proud to see two women councillors driving the agenda and reverse the historic inequality around this issue. Amongst various supporters from the Conservatives were Labour Councillors Rob Birch and Darren Ennis who were both supportive of the motion to end this practice.