Holding Labour Cabinet to account in Newcastle - meeting 24th September 2014
By Greg Stone
1. Forbes's broken promise on affordable housing
Opposition Lib Dems pressed officers at Cabinet about the council's proposed affordable housing policy quota in its forthcoming Local Development Framework, and were told by officers that a 15% target was envisaged on new greenfield development.
The leader, Cllr Forbes, reacted angrily when Lib Dems pointed out that this figure is significantly lower than that pursued by the previous Lib Dem administration, and threatened to have Opposition councillors thrown out of the meeting.
Cllr Anita Lower, Leader of the Opposition commented
"Affordable housing quotas are inevitably determined by economic viability of housing developments, and putting too high a target quota without available housing grant funding can put the viability of developments at risk.
However, Cllr Forbes's new policy is a matter of public interest and concern, given that he has previously bitterly attacked the then Lib Dem administration for pursuing a 30% affordable housing policy and called in full council for a 50% poliicy to be adopted.
The news that under his administration the council is now asking for a mere 15% contribution is shocking. There is a clear need for more affordable housing provision in the city, but Cllr Forbes is unwilling or unable to deliver an increase in developer-built affordable housing numbers from 30% target set by the Lib Dems. Instead, he is proposing to cut this target in half, meaning there will be far, far less new affordable homes and lots and lots of ful-price market developments on greenfield sites in his masterplan. It is a quite staggering U-turn and utterly hypocritical. It's shameful that when Opposition councillors pointed this out, he threatened to have them removed,
2. Fix My Street? Fix It Yourself!
Opposition Lib Dem councillors have expressed concern at news that Newcastle City Council has no plans to integrate complaints from the national FIx My Street website for reporting local neighbourhood issues into its own Envirocall reporting system.
Lib Dem councillors expressed widespread dissatisfaction from residents at last month's council meeting, when it emerged that Envirocall users were experiencing delays and voicing frustration at the council;s lack of responsiveness and poor performance on street cleaning.
It has now been confirmed that the council has "no plans" to act on comments and complaints from the popular FIx My Strreet website, which has seen a big increase in Newcastle reports in recent months, with the services' manager stating that
"We want Envirocall on line to be the on line system of choice to ensure that the customer feeds directly into the environmental service work queues so jobs are responded to quickly and efficiently without the complication of using a 3rd party supplier."
Lib Dem councillor Greg Stone said "Residents of Newcastle are rightly unhappy with the council's poor performance on street cleaning and the delays involved in using Envirocall. Many people are using FixMyStreet instead as a quicker way of raising issues. Sadly, the council seems unwilling to make use of this user friendly web-based technology. We call upon the under-fire Labour cabinet member responsible for neighbourhoods, Cllr Hazel Stephenson, to justify and reconsider this decision, which only reinforces the impression that the council's current performance is not customer friendly and not fit for purpose." Roa
3. Holes in the road but no hole in the budget
Lib Dem councillors have demanded answers from the city council's Labour administration after it emerged in the council's Cabinet report that there is a forecast £200,000 underspend in the year's budget for roads maintenance.
The news will come as a surprise to motorists caught up in widespread delays due to major roadworks around the city at present, including Jesmond Road, Sandyford Rd, Byker, Gt North Road and the city centre. However, the shortfall may be explained by lack of progress on allocating funding to the council's 26 wards for local repairs and resurfacing of roads and pavements.
Usually, the council provides an annual allocation to each ward for local road and pavement maintenance, which in previous years under Lib Dem council control has amounted to around £200,000, or enough for around 5 or 6 streets to be improved.
This year, no money at all has been provided, and no news has been forthcoming on whether any allocation is planned. Usually, the Labour council's stock response to criticism is to blame "Government cuts", but the revelation that the council is sitting on unspent funds this year means that this clearly is not the case.
Lib Dem councillor Greg Stone said "Residents of Heaton are often asking me when the council plans to improve their street. We still have a considerable backlog of streets promised repairs in previous years, and in several areas like Farnley Road and in streets off Rothbury Terrace the road surface is worn away to expose the Victorian era cobbles beneath.
We have asked official questions in council about the council's road maintenance programme and what is included, but have been fobbed off and told no plans exist. Yet at the same time the Cabinet member, Cllr Bell, is boasting in meetings about a major improvement plan. Instead of planning expensive, unnecessary, and unpopular schemes in the city centre and Gosforth High Street, he should get on and hand any unspent money to wards so that urgently needed local repair schemes can finally go ahead. It is a scandal that at a time of scarce resources, the council is sitting on a pile of cash and not using it for its intended purpose."