Posted by: westlancashirerecord | March 3, 2019

Soapboxes, Diatribes And Missed Opportunities

Another evening in the Council Chamber

WLBC OWL Cllr Adrian Owens has written a full account of the recent Council Meeting. It’s reproduced in full below, because it should be seen by all our council tax payers.

After prayers and apologies (the councillor with the worst recent attendance record was absent yet again), the evening started with Declarations of Interest so lengthy that they will take up two pages of the meeting minutes. Such are the number of councillors who “double hat” on both Borough and County councils or have fingers in pies that the conflicts are numerous. Not a healthy state of affairs.

Our West Lancashire posed questions on the scaling back of the local plan proposals reported in the Champion from a Labour press release. I wasn’t surprised to not receive answers and when the answers are eventually forthcoming it will be interesting to see if the Labour PR was anything more than spin.

Councillors voting for their own allowances

Before the budget setting items, councillors have to vote on their own councillor allowances. Yes, we have an Independent Remuneration Panel, but it’s all a little too cosy. All the panel members are routinely re-appointed and receive a good allowance themselves from the council for attending one or two meetings a year.

I moved an amendment to reduce our councillor allowances [£4,842 basic] which are the highest in Lancashire to the Lancashire average of £3,924.20. This would have saved more than £62,000 a year. It was seconded by my OWL colleague, Cllr Davis. It was my call for a named vote that really upset particularly the Labour members. For 20 minutes or so I was roundly lambasted – all for proposing a measure that has the support of more than 80% of residents in our surveys; would put allowances on a sustainable and justifiable long-term footing; and provide some financial relief in these austere times. Needless to say, my amendment was voted down.

Poor quality debate

The debate on the budget items was of poor quality. The Conservative Finance Spokesman, in proposing an amendment to freeze council tax said “we can afford it” while at the same time proposing a budget where expenditure exceeded income by more than £1 million! Neither of the main parties had identified the additional income from HMO licensing that we utilised, and because our budget involved reducing councillor allowances and this had already been voted down, we didn’t present it to the meeting but instead we will announce these costed proposals in the coming weeks.

On the capital side, we were concerned that proposals to improve Burscough Sports Centre were delayed, especially as these would generate extra income. The ruling group also refused to support our proposal to continue the popular Free Tree Scheme. This only costs £3,000 a year, but its future must now be in serious doubt, given the lack of support from Labour.

On the housing budget, there was more common ground and I was delighted to see Cllr Forshaw

reinstate the Environmental Improvement Budget. She had been a real ally in getting a scheme in Westhead completed at Holly Close and this budget will allow more such schemes to be taken forward. Of course, I didn’t have to wait long for someone to ruin the consensus when Cllr Furey launched into a rant implying that 2015 when Labour took control of the council was some sort of year zero for housing with no improvements before that date. Well Cllr Furey, there always was an Environmental budget and it was Labour who got rid of it only to now reinstate it and I was the Housing Finance Portfolio Holder that approved the largest improvement scheme to kitchens and bathrooms this council has ever undertaken.

It was concerning that we were the only group on the Council to allocate project funds to allow the third Skelmersdale Revival scheme to be identified so that works can commence next year. The suspicion must be that the ruling group are too interested in new builds on green field sites in the future to bother with the less glamorous task of improving the New Town Estates. There was a debate lasting well over an hour and a quarter on the Council Development Company and I’ll be blogging separately about that.

The best debate of the evening

The motions weren’t arrived at until after 10pm and we had 4 motions to debate. The first was on Fairtrade. I can always raise a half-cheer for Fairtrade, but neither is a panacea. One Labour councillor made the good point that it doesn’t cover many industries e.g. clothing where supply chain concerns are high and a Conservative councillor pointed out that he had personal experience where Fairtrade had worked well but also where it hadn’t. This was probably the best debate of the whole evening and I supported the motion.

The next motion was on Fracking. I don’t see any need for Fracking, yet the motion appeared to have been overtaken by events in that it wished the Council to write to the government to reaffirm that there should be no weakening of the traffic light system which governs fracking in relation to seismic activity. The government had, three weeks before the council meeting, given this reaffirmation. I pointed this out. Nevertheless, I was ready to support the motion until a closing contribution from Cllr Gail Hodson who launched a diatribe against gas – the cleanest of the fossil fuels and without which, at affordable prices, many elderly people would suffer premature death. Her extreme views led me to abstain. My opposition to fracking remains unchanged but the debate was probably the worst of the night, as there was no debate, just several councillors spending their full 5 minutes re-hashing old arguments.

So much time had now elapsed that a motion was carried to extend business to 11.30pm but even then the final motion of the evening calling on Lancashire County Council to advance the case with Government for funding for transport infrastructure fell through lack of time. Perhaps this was Labour’s plan as we had received a briefing note from officers pointing out some misunderstandings in the motion.

The motion on flooding was carried unanimously but not without speeches stating the bleeding obvious or petty disputes between the main parties.

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