Thursday, 26 May 2011

LCC commit to the future of Pennine Reach and Accrington Bus Station

At Lancashire County Councils Full Council meeting today cabinet member Tim Ashton confirmed LCCs commitment to Pennine Reach and to the Todmorden Curve.

Pennine Reach is controversial in Blackburn and Hyndburn, the two areas the scheme focuses on due to the planned bus lanes affecting car users, home owners without drives on main roads and shop keepers reliant on passing trade.

In October the Government approved Pennine Reach funding in the secondary pot pending a resubmission.

A rather local matter. Democracy, accountability and working together.

The Hyndburn Labour Party has been disastisfied with the style of leadership and the acrimony that has been introduced for no productive reason. It is our wish to be transparent, open and honest.

County Councillors and the MP have been for too long disconnected from the 35 District Councillors yet there are a number of significant issues that a often neglected but affect all elected representatives. The Green Deal, HMR, Localism Bill, HMO's are all issues which have passed through Parliament and which directly affect Hyndburn Council and residents locally.

The County Council are resubmitting Pennine Reach, they a introducing the controversial 20mph zones, have cut bus services, have located hundreds of staff in the Globe and have introduced service cuts for the vulnerable such as Hargreaves House.

It is our view that over the course of the 7 Council meetings this financial year, that alternate slots should be made for County Councillors and the MP so wider Hyndburn issues can be discussed and that the public can ask questions in a 'Hyndburn debate'.

As MP I welcome this as I will be able to attend 2 or 3 meetings during recess or on an occasional Thursday following the end of essential parliamentary business.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Council loses court case over Landlord Licensing

Today the Council lost its case brought by private landlords opposing the introduction of licensing of private landlords across much of Accrington. Early guesstimates suggest this may cost local people over £100,000 in legal costs and developing a new scheme from scratch.

It would appear that there were several failings. Poor scheme development by Council officers. A Conservative administration that appeared 'not to be interested' and looking like they were 'going through the motions' to simply negate Labour attracting electoral support.

Early this year I met with the landlords who had had discussions with the previous Conservative Council Leader Peter Britcliffe, now leader of the Opposition. That discussion involved a view by the landlords that in their discussions the former leader had made it clear to them he was only pursuing the scheme to 'stop the Labour Party' politically.

Today's result is indicative of the shambles the last administration left. Last week Labour Councilors were left having to deal with extravagant uncosted promises and a huge black hole in future finances. The cabinet action fund emptied in two weeks and expenditure exceeding income in the current year. This week there has been the car parking fines fiasco and today selective licensing with the costs involved in both potentially running in to £hundreds of thousands.

Today I met with Grant Shapps (Housing Minsiter) PPS, Jake Berry MP for a walk around Woodnook. It was clear that the Governments strategy following the axing of Housing Market Renewal funding is Landlord Licensing and the author have been encouraged to begin rolling out a new scheme.

I believe local Labour councilors are intending to begin a new schemes which will be a bigger, bolder, stronger scheme with much tighter conditions covering a wider area. The Government have made it clear they want rogue landlords stamped out and selective licensing is the preferred tool. That they will not get involved and it is the sole responsibility and discretion of local councils how and where they introduce licensing.

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Government announces Housing Market Renewal u-turn - An extra £1m expected for Woodnook

Much of my time in Parliament recently has been concentrated in campaigning for Housing Market Renewal (8) money to complete the 15 year programme which was axed (3) midway through in it's 8th year in the recent budget cuts. A decision which was condemned (7) by the Audit Commission.

Woodnook should have received around £35m and as contingency plans were drawn up for the area for £35m, £25m and £15m scheme's. The government axed the whole scheme leaving Woodnook with a residual £2m and a promised further £2.6m which the outgoing Conservative Council cruely offered (1) then withdrew (2) funding.

In Parliament I have asked all the affected MP's to come together to highlight the plight of people trapped in axed HMR areas. There has been an effective campaign at all levels, media, Parliament, NGO's and has put The Department for Communities and Local Government under pressure to deal with this issue with an problem that will not recede with time but will probably deteriorate. It has been important through the media to counter the Governments argument (5) that the New Homes Bonus is a replacement.

The government has come under increasing pressure. Of the ten HMR areas, East Lancashire requires some £20m to simply discharge it's current liabilities. In Hull, a developed has filed a 'Blight Compensation Notice' on the Council.

The Housing Minister's annoucement of a u-turn (6) and that he will now provide a further £30m to the five worst affected pathfinders is derisory. It should result in Woodnook getting an extra £1.5m, though details have to be confirmed, and there are strings. The Council must match fund this amount and with the Council being left in a dire financial state and money wasted on ill considered schemes it will be a challenge.

The campaign for justice for Council's with partial HMR programmes goes on. Without resources, Hyndburns New Homes Bonus being a paltry £63,000 - the11th lowets in the country - leaves the Council unable to find gap funding to leverage in private sector funding and return the area to a stable community where there is confidence in investment.

As the constituency MP I am proud to have led this campaign for the people of East Accrington and elsewhere. That as part of the campaign Caroline Flint MP, shadow DCLG minister came to Woodnook to see for herself the problems and through the media channels, BBC and Channel 4 particularly, and national media exposure, the Government have had to partially back down.

The campaign must continue. The Governments argument that Council's have the money, that they have the enforcement powers is innacurate, that the private sector will simply step in to abandoned areas as though they are investment opportunities. That argument must be shown to be wrong.

Today I will be touring Woodnook again as I have done with many guests, this time with the PPS to the Housing Minister (Grant Shapps), Jake Berry MP for neighbouring Rossendale.


Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Supporting equal access to telecoms for Deaf people and Deaf people in Hyndburn

Deafness has been an issue that has come up in the constituency last week both with constituents asking me to attend the VRS Today event in Parliament and calls locally for a 'Deaf Forum' for Hyndburn where deaf people can have greater access to Council services and engage in the debates on local issues. I will be discussing this with the Council when we meet next.

Yesterday I joined the campaign for equal access to telecommunications for Deaf people, at a Parliamentary event in support of the VRS Today! campaign. The campaign is calling for British Sign Language users to have universal access to Video Relay Services (VRS) – a technology which allows them to place calls to hearing people via a sign language interpreter.

I met members of the Deaf community and providers of VRS technology in the House of Commons to learn more about the impact the technology could have on Deaf people’s lives and to show his support.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Council Finances - Labour inherits financial woes

Back in 2002 Labour came to power for one year inheriting around £41 million of debts and a hidden report from city financial analysts Deloite Touche which said after 3 years of Conservative power, the Council would not be in a the position to pay the wages. Within weeks a taking power office Labour was forced to bring in a VR programme.

Labour got the Council back on track with a large emergency reduncancy programme and cuts across the board. Labour Councillors were unable to get on top fully of the poor financial management systems that we inherited.

In 2006 the Tories sold Council Housing for £32m which paid off some debts

Roll forward to 2011 and it's deja-vu. Capital expenditire election promises of £5.2million and only £2.6 available.

A revenue budget where spending is outstripping income by £300,000 and which the Conservatives balanced last year only by raiding reserves. A situation that cannot go on. £300,000 of savings that should have been found last year but now need to found this year.

Next years savings - starting from now -  are a huge £2.5million and Labour have been left no forward plan as to how this may be done. Clearly if you cannot balance this years budget, you will not have have begun balancing next years budget.

A one off paymet of £300,000 needs to go in reserve for this years budget and £300,000 of extra cuts added to the £2.5million next year.

The emergency Cabinet Action Fund has been been emptied as has the Big Society Fund in month one, April leaving 11 months with no contingency funding.

Given that the Government has funded the Council to the tune of over £100m in extra funding one can only wonder how the Conservatives created not one, but two financial messes.

Localism Bill - A damp squib for Councils - more powers for Whitehall

Yesterday the Localism Bill passed through Parliament. After all the high rhetoric, the trumpet blowing of Secretary of State, the policy flagship statements - what we are left with is a damp squib that will have little effect on Local Government and hand the Secretary of State further powers.

The issue of mayors is one that affects 12 cities and is still in the balance. The Government rowing back saying local people must decide. So if all 12 decide not to have mayor then that’s the end of that.

David Cameron’s crime policy is becoming a disaster

Ken Clarke should not be Justice Secretary

Sadiq Khan MP, Labour’s Shadow Justice Secretary, said in response to Tory proposals on sentencing and Ken Clarke’s comments on rape:

“These proposals are an outrage and show how out of touch David Cameron’s Government is on crime. The idea that someone can get their sentence halved for something as serious as rape just because they plead guilty early is repugnant. It could mean a convicted rapist spending just 15 months in prison.

“Ken Clarke has heard first hand today the effects of the Tory-led Government’s flippant and complacent attitudes towards sentencing on victims of crime. He should not be Justice Secretary.

“You cannot have a Justice Secretary who has made no effort to meet with victims to discuss his proposals, who doesn’t understand the law on sentencing, and who seems to think that some rapes are inherently more serious than others.

“David Cameron must put victims and the public first. He should abandon his reckless sentencing policies and sack Ken Clarke.”

Monday, 16 May 2011

Letter to Grant Shapps - Housing Minister

Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP
Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government
Eland House, Bressenden Place, London SW1E 5DU

10 May 2011

Dear Grant

I write to you briefly asking for Treasury relief to Council’s with large numbers of empty properties. Currently Council’s with large numbers of empty long term voids face a disincentive and are therefore reluctant to remove the empty homes discount on long term voids due to Treasury calculations.

As you may be aware my Council, Hyndburn has historically around 2,200 empties, some 1,300 long term. It provides a 50% discount on long term voids. Some 171 Council’s have now removed the 50% Council tax discount on empty houses. However this discount recalculates the Council Tax Base but any increased Council Tax is lost in Treasury recalculations of the rate support grant of the new CTB.

Constituency mailbag: A well argued case for MoD change on the JSF and new Aircraft carriers

Dear Graham,

It would now seem that with the possibility of India deciding between the Typhoon and the French Rafale, fighters for a contract for 126 aircraft worth £7-£10 billion for the Indian military, the short sightedness of the last government and the military “experts” in not developing the Typhoon with an arrestor hook capability could cost us dear. There is now talk of offering the Indian government a maritime version of the Typhoon with an arrestor that could be designed in conjunction with them, this would be good for the country but not all that beneficial for the work force at Samlesbury and Warton as the planes would be built in India, although Britain would benefit in the supply chain.

As for Peter Luifs assessment of the programme, in his letter to you of the 9"’ October and 21 November 2010. He goes on to say that I am unclear of the Joint StrikeFighter that we require for the now “Phantom Carriers” that may not t for a decade. This statement may be correct but it also goes to show that the government and perhaps Some; military personnel are not quite sure themselves what the military capabilities are for the next decade or so.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Government hands landlords another big favour - Legal aid cuts for housing issues

Upcoming legal aid reforms will mean that Hyndburn constituents experiencing housing and benefits problems are far less likely to be any legal support available for them.

I am deeply concerned about this and that Landlords will be able to bully tenants who now will be unable to access legal advice and protection. A frightening proposition for familes and vulnerable children who need stability and security.

The government is proposing to remove all housing benefits cases and a third of other housing cases from the scope of legal aid. The charity Shelter is alarmed that this is happening at the same time that huge changes are taking place within homelessness legislation, social housing tenure and the housing benefit system.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Outgoing Council leaves a financial mess

Over the weekend the Labour Group have become aware of the full financial horror story left by the outgoing Conservatives.

They racked up an incredible £5.2m worth of promises in just 12 weeks. That would mean Labour would have to increase Council Tax by over 50% to fulfil those obligations. This is set against deep successive cuts in each of the next 3 years and council debts of £10million.

Yesterday, new Labour leader Miles Parkinson took the easy decision to suspend and review all £5m of those grants, many of which were reckless election gimmicks.

The Tories had allocated £15k to drain a football pitch that hadn’t been played on in years because a sizeable piece in one half of the pitch had seen a multi-use games area built over it. At my advice surgery and on the doorstep, community activists told me they were encouraged by the council to turn up at the town hall, just say how much they wanted and they were granted it. There was no criteria and no application form.

The reality is twofold. The Tories knew they had lost so wanted to spend, spend and spend to leave nothing but empty promises Labour could not fulfil whilst winning votes.

One Labour voter in the key seat of Immanuel told me he was voting Tory because in their dying days, the council had promised to build a brand new pavilion at Immanuel CC.

Whilst housing is a key policy for Labour, there is to be a review of the £millions wasted under the previous administration. Under Labour, housing investment is unlikely to be cash handouts or benefit to private landlords as under the Tories. Schemes such as any in Woodnook must provide the council with a return.

I understand council officers will be presented with a number of much lower cost options involving both the public and private sector with whom talks began last month. The only sensible option now for the council is a full review of each application on a case by case basis with those seeking funding submitting detailed proposals.

The days of reckless Tory spending are over. Peter Britcliffe came in with broken promises, has presided over Hyndburn tumbling down the poverty league table and has now left with £2.6m of broken promises.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

REGENERATION in Lancashire will be focused on Preston, a county council boss has admitted.

From Lancashire Telegraph

Surveyor Ian Hassall made the comments in a “round table discussion” with property developers.  He said “efforts, resources and funding” would be concentrated on Preston.

All parts of the county have signed to a local enterprise partnership (LEP) after months of wrangling. LEPs are set to succeed regional development agencies, such as the North West Development Agency. But East Lancashire chiefs have argued that the area will be neglected under the new regeneration model.

More Stories from LT on LEP's