Susan van de Ven

Liberal Democrat County Councillor for Bassingbourn, Melbourn, Meldreth and Whaddon Learn more

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Melbourn report

Melbourn Parish Council District and County Councillors Report, March 2019

East West Rail – From Susan: The East West Rail Company is a private company set up by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling.  It will recommend a route option to Mr Grayling in early summer.   The County Council endorsed Route Option A in spite of serious questions and no compelling argument in favour.  I learned about the Council’s preferred option via a press release – I was never contacted.  I attended the Council’s Environment and Economy Committee meeting last week to raise my concerns.  Details in the appendix below.

Mental Health support evening at the Hub, March 13: A strong gathering.  The Mind CPSL presentation raised awareness of the NHS 111 Option 2 phone line for people in a mental health crisis, which has proven effective in providing a far better support route than A&E.

Ofsted of CCC’s Children’s Services:  Cambridgeshire County Council’s Children’s Services has recently been assessed by Ofsted. Sadly, Ofsted have downgraded the council’s children’s services from ‘good’ (in 2014), to ‘requires improvement’ less than five years later.  This is not a ‘vote of confidence’ in the quality of Children’s Services in Cambridgeshire, as described by the County’s own press release, but a clear sign that the quality of children’s services has moved in the wrong direction. Details in the appendix.

Empty Homes: South Cambs is planning to increase the council tax on houses that have been left empty for a significant amount of time. With the shortage of houses available in this area we should not let people just sit on empty properties for no good reason. The Council offers a lot of help to landlords and owners of empty homes to help them get them back into use, but now has the option to significantly increase council tax where there are no convincing reasons for them to remain empty.  Details in the appendix.

The number of council houses built by SCDC to double: On average, 70 new council homes a year will be built in the coming years, following the Lib Dem administration’s decision to prioritise providing affordable homes.  The administration will also insist that, from 2020, new homes are built to higher environmental standards, meaning reduced carbon emissions and lower energy bills for householders.

Solar Panels at Waterbeach Depot: SCDC has installed a large array of solar photo voltaic panels on the roof of the waste management depot at Waterbeach. The money to do this has come from a fund resulting from the business rates from the large number of solar farms in the district. This initiative will generate income for the council which it can invest in other green enterprises. The Solar panels which will generate around a quarter of all the electricity the building uses.   This is the latest stage in the Council’s efforts to be “green to the core” and will deliver clean, renewable energy, reduce costs and cut carbon emissions. It follows on from a recent Council commitment to work towards the ambitious target of making South Cambridgeshire carbon-neutral by 2050, and a purge on single-use plastics at the authority.

Local Plan: You may recall that the current Local Plan (which identifies where development is to go in future years) was finally adopted in October after being in inspection for over 4 years. During this time about 4000 houses were consented in unplanned-for locations including of course many in Melbourn. The government inspector requires us to now embark on a new joint Local Plan with Cambridge City and this is now getting underway. The first piece of work is to ask landowners to come forward and tell us about any land they are prepared to offer up for future development.

The consultation is to identify potential sites that can be technically assessed for housing and economic development, to meet the needs identified for the District, for inclusion in our next local plan. Anyone can put forward sites, but it is usually landowners, developers, land promoters, businesses, local interest groups, parish councils, local property agents, neighbourhood forums (prepared or preparing neighbourhood plans).

Not all the sites that are submitted will be included in the plan – It will depend on the spatial strategy the council decides on, and the assessment of the sites based on several factors including whether they are suitable, available, achievable, and viable. The selected sites will then go through the local plan process and become part of the adopted policy when the plan is found sound and adopted.

Removal of computer charge in libraries: A report proposing the withdrawal of charges for computer access in libraries will be discussed shortly by the County Council. The £1 charge for computer access, introduced in May last year 2018, was part of a package of measures based on public feedback and trialled to ensure computers are available for those who most need them and to generate more income for the library service to ensure they remain financially sustainable for the future. In September, Members reviewed progress on these measures, including the charge for computer access. The recommendation to withdraw the computer charge comes in response to this review, as well as feedback collected in a customer survey and a detailed analysis of the anticipated income – all of which was entirely predictable.

Manor Farm, Girton: We would not normally write about individuals. However, we have been asked about this matter quite a lot, especially given its recent appearance in Private Eye. The Deputy Leader of the County Council was granted the tenancy of a county council owned farm, and currently enjoys a rent abatement on that tenancy. Councillors had recommended an investment of £183,000 in an extension to the property (which the tenant will repay over time), without initially knowing that the tenant was a senior councillor. Thecouncillor concerned chaired the council’s former Assets sub-committee that had had responsibility for the Farms estate, and was the lead member for the council’s ‘Outcome Focused Review’ of the County Farms Estate and member champion for the council’s Farms Estate.

Community RePaint:  A partnership with CCC, Cambridgeshire Community Reuse and Recycling Network (CCORRN) and Amey has collected and treated over 500,000 litres of paint in the last 8 years. The scheme collects used paint from Household Recycling Centres where it is sorted, tested and re-manufactured so that it can be resold or donated into the community.   The scheme has a range of re-manufactured emulsion paint and chalky furniture paint in a host of great colours for great prices. So if you are thinking of redecorating, upcycling or know of a community or school project that needs paint, why not visit CCORRN (located in March) or follow them on Facebook.

Appendix:

County Council’s Endorsement of East West Rail Route A (from Susan):

The officer who had prepared the report stated that none of the five options met value for money tests and emphasized that the report was a narrow appraisal of a railway track only, without any consideration of development issues. The potential closure of multiple rights of way was acknowledged with concern. Some councillors indicated they would support Route A but gave no reasons.

It seemed possible from their discussion that the committee might decide that it was not appropriate to endorse any of the options, given the argument that a private railway company is taking the lead on what is in fact a planning matter – the creation of a new town, to justify a railway alongside it. Absence of infrastructure planning, lack of flood risk and environmental assessments, and the adherence to planning processes that exist precisely to protect the integrity of new development, were all discussed in some detail.

As for Bassingbourn Barracks, perhaps the East West Rail Company was not aware that this is an active MOD site with ambitious plans for redevelopment as a training base for British troops heading for deployment overseas.

The committee voted 5-3, with one abstention, in favour of endorsing Option A. This was difficult to understand given the debate that had just taken place.

Prior to the meeting, a parish councillor had raised a query as to whether the chairman of the Economy and Environment Committee, Cllr Bates, had a conflict of interest, as he had been Chairman of East West Rail for many years until recently, and is still a member of the East West Rail Consortium.  The County Council Monitoring Officer’s advice was that technically the Chairman was allowed to participate in the meeting so long as he made it clear that he did not come to the meeting with any bias or predetermination. Those of us who attended the meeting felt very keenly that for the sake of transparency and avoidance of doubt, not participating and certainly not voting would have been helpful.

Ofsted report, CCC Children’s Services:

It is not surprising that cuts to early help services across Cambridgeshire, the massive reduction in the number of children’s centres by almost half, and the removal of almost all the locality teams who used to provide early help services to families of older children the number of children coming into care in Cambridgeshire has continued to rise. This figure is now significantly above the national average, whereas a few years ago it was significantly below.    Social care services are under huge pressure and the Ofsted report makes clear social worker caseloads are far too high. Quotes from the Ofsted report that did not make it into the County Council press release:

“The quality and the timeliness of services remain less than good for too many children. For these children, the local authority is not making the positive difference it could and should.”

“The most significant challenge to the local authority’s ability to provide consistently good services to children, young people and their families has been, and continues to be, the size of caseloads. These are too high for most social workers and unsustainable in some teams. The impact of this is that, too often, social workers and frontline managers have had to focus on the most urgent and important work to secure children’s immediate safety, without sufficient capacity for the follow-up work needed to sustain change within families or to ensure that children in care have permanent homes as soon as possible.”

“The help and protection that children, young people and their families receive in Cambridgeshire requires improvement. A significant minority of children do not get the help and support they need quickly enough. Too many assessments take longer than they should and do not fully explore underlying problems or the wishes and feelings of children. Significant workload pressures in teams across the county mean that there is much variability in who gets what help and support as well as in its effectiveness.”

SCDC Empty homes policy:

Currently the owners of homes that are left empty and substantially unfurnished for more than two years must pay an extra 50% on top of the regular bill. Following the full Council meeting, the 50% premium will be replaced by the following arrangements:

  • Homes that are empty for two years or more will be charged double their regular Council Tax (i.e. an additional premium of 100%). This will come into effect from 1 April 2019
  • Homes that are empty for five years or more will be charged a 200% premium on top of their regular Council Tax. This will come into effect from 1 April 2020
  • Homes that are empty for ten years or more will be charged a 300% premium on top of their regular Council Tax. This will come into effect from 1 April 2021

Right now across South Cambridgeshire, there are 100 properties that have been empty for between two years and five years. There are 41 homes that have been empty for between five and ten years. There are 39 properties that have been empty for more than ten years.