Thursday, 2 February 2012

Responsibility is at the heart of rising allotment charges

The last fortnight has seen the issue of rising allotment charges enter public debate.

District Council matters are not within an MP’s remit and it a matter for District Councillors to determine. Normally I would leave such matters to those responsible to consult and decide.

In this instance and as your MP I have taken the time to speak with both the cabinet member Ciaran Wells and Council Leader Miles Parkinson about this decision and questioned whether these rises may be too much. Ciaran Wells and Miles Parkinson are two of the most pleasant and honest representatives you will find. They will not make rash or ill-informed decisions.

I understand allotment holder’s grievances. Large rises, and in the case of 19 allotments (out of the 21), poor management and no investment for over a decade have left allotment holders perplexed at best, angry in the main.

I read with interest the thoughtful case put forward by allotment holders in the Accrington Observer this weekend, a report from the Council meeting and of course direct concerns.

It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that a Labour Council is choosing to do this. Easy to wish one could return the old days (pre-Labour May 2011) when the Council’s allotments were badly managed and allotment holder’s kept in the dark. That this past was somehow better or right. It wasn’t. It was awful.

A number of factors, principally funding cuts from central Government mean that some rises are inevitable, a point well made my allotment holders. However the Council have to make some very tough decisions about services.

They are facing huge Government cuts in the grant they receive as part of the new Government’s deficit reduction programme. The Council's total revenue budget will drop from some £17m to £11m over the next 4 years. The Council’s total budget including capital last was year £30m with £25m coming from central government. The Council has lost other Government funding; Capital Grant; Worklessness Fund, HMR and Private Sector Housing Grant most notably.

However the Council’s forward finances are significantly poorer than even those figures suggest.

The Government’s announcement that it will introduce further unannounced cuts in 2016 and 2017 due to the unexpected increased borrowing of £158bn (OBR latest figures) and further, deeper cuts beyond 2015 are very worrying.

The Government is also making Council’s responsible for all Council Tax Benefits going forward (with a 10% reduction but statutory responsibilities); and secondly business rates by localising them to Hyndburn Council.

It is clear in both cases; Hyndburn will not receive what it currently does when the localisation begins in 2013. More significantly, if the fragile economy takes a turn for the worse, and Hyndburn is economically vulnerable, the Council will lose further income (from business rates) but will still have to meet statutory or increased legal commitments on Council Tax discounts.

The £11m Council budget for 2015 is clearly set to shrink further. The Council as a result has to build up larger reserves to weather the variations in business rates and Council Tax discounts. A double whammy but something any responsible Council and Council Leader should do.

I am reminded of the story of the feeding the 5000 but in this case there is just no way the Council can make £11m spread to £17m; no way to avoid the deepest and most painful cuts I can ever remember.

The new Labour Council is also determined to set a 0% Council Tax to help residents in these tough economic times. A challenging target given the huge cuts.

I am sure looking at these horendous figures, you share my deep concerns about the predicament Hyndburn faces. That any future Hyndburn Council leader will have to consider further tough measures, a greater concentration on core services with more pressure to raise/save even more money from what is deemed non-core.

A badly run Council – one that promises everything to day – given the dire financial future, may have to consider more dire options for allotments in the future. That's the reality of any mismanagement now. A future badly run Council that would have to;

· raise further monies by charging a market rent – where prices are raised even higher until the waiting list is eliminated;

· Worse, to run allotments on the basis of profit maximisation – rather than fill every allotment, charge a fee that brings in the maximum amount of receipts;

· Even worse still – raise money by selling off unprotected allotments for housing.

It is Councillor Wells and Labour Councillors intentions that none of these will happen but only by putting the Council’s finances in order now will ensure that Hyndburn Council is able to balance its future budgets.

It is in this context that The Council Leader has taken the right decisions. Tough decisions that will balance Hyndburn’s budget in future years. He has my full support. At the moment Labour (in Hyndburn) are the only party committed to balancing the budget over the next decade and keeping Council Tax down.

No-one served by the Council is exempt. Every week the Council is having to disappoint charities and community groups, service users in order to balance the budget.

These are not easy decisions and no-one came into politics to make these cuts. The last general election was fought on pain now rather than pain spread out. As a community we are having to come to terms with just what that pain now means.

Allotment holders have expressed a desire to be part of the answer to the rising costs. To look at putting right a decade or more of mismanagement and hidden expenditure.

As a consequence, Councillor Ciaran Wells has placed the process on stop and is embarking on a 6 month review of the proposals in consultation with allotment holders.

There has been, partly because of costs, mainly because of political beliefs in giving people ownership, an intention (by Labour) to encourage co-operative ownership, mutual ownership or devolved management. Ciaran is clear that this is his preferred option. That people manage their own budgets and their own tenancy charges. That these costs can be managed down by self reliance and self management and agreed cuts to the current allotments.

The map above highlights the deep cuts in the north that Hyndburn is facing and the increases in Government funding for Council’s in the south.

These difficult decisions are being made by Councillors who do care and do understand, and who value the provision of allotments. Finding a way forward is made more difficult if Councillors have unfairly lost the confidence of allotment holders.

I fully support allotments. I have frequently given local grants to Baxenden Allotments Association, and along with Labour Councillors Clare Pritchard and June Harrison I have secured outside funding for the Heart Works allotment at Plantation Street. This excellent facility allows disabled people to maintain a raised bed in a community allotment.

Labour Councillors in Spring Hill introduced a disabled allotment and more recently Labour Councillors have been actively involved in Huncoat, Rishton and Great Harwood, just to name the ones I am aware of.

I understand that opposition Councillors have suggested the increased charges are as a result of Labour waste. Labour Councillors have only been running the Council since May so not only is that wrong, it also seeks to absolve those who were responsible previously. Quite frankly it smacks of cheap, irresponsible politics and being forthright, not by Labour Councillors.

I understand that the opposition leader stated that these charges can be avoided but conversely in the LT (22nd Feb 2011 ) stated that: “If the recession continues there will be pressure not to increase council tax to provide some relief to hard pressed family budgets.”

The question is where is the money coming from? What will be cut instead? You might wish to also consider the opposition Council Leader has opposed other increased charges. Recently he argued against increased burial charges, and staff redundancies and other savings. I hope allotment holders appreciate they are not the only people being made such promises.

If the Council was efficiently run up to last May under the former Council leader, and with a much reduced budget of £11m in the coming years, the question is simple, where are the savings coming from?

If there are possible savings, let’s have a serious debate. Those savings need to be identified and put on the table.

I have seen the allotments budget - which many of you have raised as an issue. Of serious concern to you and I is that the previous Council has been spending on average £240 to subsidise each plot, per year. I note the criticism over this size of this subsidy and that Councillors may have been presented with questionable figures.

Councillor Wells’ ambition in his first 6 months in charge has always been to improve significantly what went before. I am assured by Councillor Wells that he welcomes allotment holder’s views on this matter (as do Labour Councillors now in control) in order to seek out waste and reduce the per plot subsidy figure of £240. Waste or mismanagement of allotments needs to rooted out and I have asked Councillor Wells to take a cross party approach. This cross party approach should in my view include the former allotments cabinet member (till last May), Councillor Marlene Haworth.

In summary;

· Hyndburn's allotment charges have not risen in 10 years;

· The revised increases still result in charges in Hyndburn being lower than neighbouring authorities;

· That anecdotal evidence suggests that private sector allotments charge more;

· That Labour Councillors in Barnfield, Spring Hill, Central and Peel have acquired external funding for first class disabled allotments;

· That the 'rolling budget' of £240 per allotment was set by Conservatives and under Labour will be reviewed by allotment holders;

· That Hyndburn's allotments have been poorly managed for a decade and many allotments are abandoned whilst frustrated residents on long waiting lists are denied a plot.

I have a grave concern that these charges may have an adversely impact on cwertain individuals unable to pay. Councillor Wells has informed me it has always been his intention to see how vulnerable tenants can be protected.

With a 6 month review in process it is important the Council consider how they can achieve reduced increases; how they can hand the management and budgets over to the allotment holders; how the Council can run allotments in a more equitable way regarding capital investment; that allotment holders representatives can have some direct management over Council allotment budgets and therefore manage their fees.

I believe this will put right 10 years of mismanagement and seek the best possible means of coping with the Government’s austerity programme that was always going to be far more painful than the political messages sent out by politicians.