Friday, December 09, 2011

Asda Planning Application #john4ag

Just up on the Birmingham City Council website are the details for the proposed Asda development on the Eaton site in Tyseley. In the first phase are relocated buildings for MEM and Eaton, 70 new homes, lots of highway works (including what looks suspiciously like shared space - an innovation in the ward!) and an Asda superstore. Phase two - scheduled for whenever the market picks up - includes further 'employment opportunity' space and another section of retail park. This is the outline planning application, with a detailed one due to follow in the middle of 2012, with construction of the first phase planned in for 2013.

Have a look and let me know what you think.

Application 2011/08182/PA. Planning Application search page here.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Yardley Constituency Committee - 24 Nov 2011

A rather belated report....

For years, the Liberal Democrats in Yardley have run a one-party state and they still aren't used to the presence of two Labour councillors on the constituency committee - hopefully that number will at least double next May. They particularly aren't used to Cllr Stewart Stacey, a man who has the experience to understand the mechanics of how the process of democratic accountability should work and the shortcomings of how that is applied in Yardley at the moment. But we'll come to that in a bit.

The first query actually came from me. At the end of each ward or constituency committee meeting, it is moved that the chair is empowered to take decisions pending the next meeting, when any such decisions should be reported back. I can't recall the last time that the chair mentioned any decisions that had been taken in the interim, even though these meetings are two months apart. When queried, Cllr Mike Ward, the Liberal Democrat chair, didn't seem to recall taking any decisions that he needed to report back on since the last meeting, although he was rather vague about it.

Then the meeting moved on to the financial report - the revenue budget report for the second quarter of 2011-2, the main item of the meeting. The problem is that the Liberal Democrats have managed to overspend quite dramatically this year and there is currently a budget hole of £423,000 in this financial year with no identified solutions identified. In fact, it is worse than that. Previous years overspends have been carried forward and there is an additional debt of £394,000 which is supposed to be repaid over a period of three years with an initial repayment of £137,000 this year. Bear in mind that although the total budget this year is £9,138,000, £5.6 million of that is already assigned as fixed costs as part of specific service level agreements for Highways, Pest Control, Street Cleaning, Refuse Collection and Parks and Allotments, so the locally managed aspects only account for £3.5 million. That means that we have an in-year overspend of 12% and a total liability of 23% of effective annual budget - and no plans to deal with any of it.

At the start of this item, Cllr Stacey reminded Cllr Ward that as the supporting documents for this item hadn't been available until after midday on the day of the meeting, the chair needed to agree that the items could be considered as urgent business and explain that decision. Again, Cllr Ward seemed unwilling to do this and tried to put it to a committee vote, which is not procedurally correct, but we finally moved on to the meat of the subject. Procedures matter - they ensure that the council is transacting business in accordance with the law and working outside them is dangerous for all concerned.

Delays in providing information is a serious problem. The committee did not get to see the Q1 reports until September - almost at the end of Q2 - and were asked to consider the Q2 reports with about six hours notice, rather than the usual five working days.

Cllr Stacey queried the service impacts of some of the changes proposed (although mostly already implemented) which amounted to the deletion of posts where officers had already taken redundancy in constituency management, administration, libraries, community development and the environmental wardens.

From the floor, I queried the repayment programme for the previous years' overspend and was informed that the repayment has been deferred until next year and the three year process will then restart, so the Liberal Democrats will leave a nasty legacy to the next Constituency Committee to manage in 2012-3.

We had an update on the Tesco development, which is moving on apace and looks likely to open in February 2012. It was confirmed that as a result of the first round of local recruiting, 138 Birmingham people who are currently either unemployed or are young people not in education, employment or training are about to start a 4 week training programme, which promises them a job upon successful completion. Of those 138,  55 are from Yardley and 27 from Hodge Hill and the total is slightly up on the 130 originally promised by Tesco, which will comprise about a third of the staff at the store. The remaining jobs will be advertised online shortly.

Cllr Neil Eustace (LD) sang the praises of the committee which has backed the Tesco development from the beginning, dropping in a comment about Labour fussing over "5s and 6d." Actually, Cllr Eustace rather underestimated the value - it was rather closer to £300,000 or about 50 minutes of Tesco's profits.

Moving on, there was some discussion about changing the hours of the Acocks Green Neighbourhood Office, which will be open 3.5 days a week. It is clear that there will be different channels by which people will choose to access the Council's services - telephone and internet will be key - but there is still a need for face-to-face support and we have problems with allocating that at the moment. Responsibility for that part of the service falls within Cllr Paul Tilsley's (LD) purview at the moment and all is clearly not well on the happy ship of the Cabinet:

Coun Rudge continued: “An elderly person finding that they have got an appointment on the other side of the city would be horrified. The idea is to improve services, we must bear that in mind. I hope we can build improvements in as quickly as possible. This needs to be sorted out. There has to be enough understanding by those taking the calls not to send people to the other side of the city, unless they don’t mind.”
Responding to a claim by Labour councillor Peter Kane that elderly people in Kingstanding were being offered appointments “in three weeks time in Yardley”, Rudge replied: “The call centre doesn’t come under my portfolio. If it was my portfolio we wouldn’t be in that position.”
And just to make sure we understood where he was coming from, Coun Rudge added that he had expressed his views “quite strongly”
There was a brief report on the new Community First programme, which will bring in funding over a four year period - £84,775 to Acocks Green, £67,820 to Stechford & Yardley North, £33,910 to Sheldon and £152,595 to South Yardley (figures are for the full four years, not per year) which will be allocated to a 'Community First Panel' in each ward. These panels will have 4 to 8 members and come from the local community and have representation from the public, private and voluntary sectors (that seems a lot to get into just 8 people), allied to a 'panel partner' like a charity. An interesting idea, although just over £8000 a year in Sheldon seems rather limited, especially as the disbursement will range from £250 to £2500 and will have to be match funded (by money, time or resources) by the applicants. 
We also had a briefing on the Shopping and Local Centres Draft Supplemental Planning Policy (a catchy title for an important document). This will set a course for centres like the Villlage or Fox Hollies in terms of the development that will be allowed and encouraged. For example, the proposal is that centres will be restricted to no more than 10% of the units being occupied by fast food outlets and changes of use that would increase that presence would be refused by the planning committee. Have a look and add your views here
Then we came to the Community Chest allocations for the wards not blessed with Ward Committees. The Liberal Democrats have resisted spreading localised democracy and accountability to the other three wards in Yardley for some unfathomable reason, so decisions about community chest spending that Acocks Green is able - quite competently - to take locally have to be decided by the constituency committee. Oddly, now that their dominance in Yardley may be threatened - next year may bring enough Labour councillors to the committee, enough to threaten a constituency committee majority if a couple of Lib Dems are absent - they have decided that Fortress Sheldon can be entrusted with local decisions. Stechford and South Yardley are still excluded from this. They hold consultative meetings with local residents - meetings that do not have the legal power to take decisions. 
While I happen to back the ward committee model, I'm happy to see some local engagement and to have those views represented to the constituency committee, but not to have those meetings take decisions. Clearly this is happening as only the bids approved by this consultative body are brought to the constituency committee for decision. Quite how councillors from outside the wards concerned can be expected to properly decide on these bids is a key point. That isn't to say that the bids brought forward are bad ones, nor that they would not be the successful ones in any case, but there is an important element of accountability here. The consultative meetings are not accountable and not allowed to make decisions. The constituency committee is, but is not being provided with full details of all the bids raised. I struggle to see how the councillors can possibly reasonably exercise their duties in terms of handing out public funds. Indeed, in relation to another matter, Cllr Eustace made a similar point about councillors being accountable for spending. 
For a party that prides itself on open government, the mechanism in Yardley is heavily obscured. 
Finally, there was a discussion on the boundary changes, which caused widespread concern amongst the councillors at the loss of Sheldon to Solihull (effectively wiping out whatever majority John Hemming thinks he might have in 2015). Still, this was their idea as part of the coalition government. 

Police Ops in Acocks Green

More from the officers on the ground in Acocks Green. The start of the month saw   traffic stops being carried out in the ward, with 31 vehicles stopped. 7 were seized for not having insurance and/or tax; 2 persons were arrested - one on warrant and one for drugs offences; 11 drivers were issued 'producers'; 5 received fixed penalties for illegal window tints; 1 for an illegal numberplate and 6 for using a mobile phone while driving. In addition, a small amount of cannabis and Class A drugs were seized.

Amazing what a bit of traffic work can deliver, isn't it? It has been known for some while that if a vehicle is stopped for no insurance or tax, there is a good chance that other offences will materialise.
Remember that accidents involving uninsured drivers hike the costs of insurance for everyone else, so the news that one day in Acocks Green took 7 cars off the road has to be good news for all drivers who pay their way. If the cars are not collected by an insured driver with proof that the tax has been paid, then they will be removed from the road permanently and delivered to the crusher. The police promise that this will happen across the winter, so the message to those who want to break the law and put others at risk has to be - the boys and girls in blue will be pulling you over for a quiet word.