Monthly Archives: February 2014

Budget debate

 

At the meeting of full council on Thursday, councillors debated the budget for the financial year 2014-15. The budget includes a modest but unavoidable increase in council tax of 1.9%, which is equivalent to an extra £4 per year or 8p a week for a Band D property and is under the current 2.1% CPI rate of inflation.

 

We should be under no illusions that we are likely to receive significant financial support from central government in the forthcoming years. Our grant has already been cut by 40% since 2010-11, and projections suggest that we can expect to see further reductions from £4m this year to £3.4m in 2014-15 and £3.2m in 2015-16. Our financial strategy is predicated on the view that local authorities will receive no central support by 2018 and hence it is up to us to become self-sufficient and identify our own income streams.

 

However, despite these pressures the council has achieved a great deal in difficult times. Hidden inside the budget papers are some impressive figures. The council has delivered efficiency savings, cost reductions and additional revenue of £2m for the next financial year. The council’s reserves have also been maintained at £3m. We run a balanced budget and our additional funding requirements are proportionally much lower than both Surrey County Council and Surrey Police – we should remember that Woking Borough Council only receives only around 12% of all council tax collected.

 

Some people have asked why Woking did not accept the Government’s offer of a grant this year to freeze council tax. The Executive has taken the view that it is not in the interests of residents for us to do so. The grant of £85,000 is only available for two years and will then cease, giving the council a further savings requirement on top of the funding that the Government has already signaled it will withdraw. A modest increase in council tax under the CPI rate of inflation generates some £156,000 of additional revenue per annum which is added to our base. The current model for incentivising council tax freezes is not sustainable and during the debate comparison was drawn with Runnymede Borough Council, which has accepted the grant for a number of years and is now seeking much larger, above inflation council tax increases to make up the lost revenue.

 

During his budget speech, the Leader of the Council set out how the Executive has maintained and improved services and kept the borough’s finances sound despite the ongoing economic challenges. In particular, he highlighted the 224 affordable homes and 163 family houses being delivered through the Moor Lane project, the sale of the Hoe Valley housing site for 150 new homes, and an anticipated further 75 affordable and 222 family homes through the sale of Brookwood Farm as progress in meeting our housing targets. He also pointed to the improvements in Jubilee Square, the beginning of the refurbishment works in Commercial Way, the opening of the Bedser Bridge, construction of New Central on Guildford Road, the opening of the WWF headquarters in Brewery Road, the new Asda in Sheerwater, the anticipated completion of the upgraded Woking market in July, the launch of the Victoria Square project, and the diverse range of new retailers in Wolsey Place and the Peacock Centre as highlights of the municipal year.

 

I was therefore pleased to support the budget and believe that Woking residents will show their support for the Executive’s record in this year’s local elections.

 

Pyrford Neighbourhood Forum

 

This week Woking Borough Council gave approval for the establishment of a Neighbourhood Forum in Pyrford. Under the Localism Act, communities have been given the power to have a greater say in the planning process by preparing a Neighbourhood Plan and specifying what kind of development they would like to see in their area. Once a Neighbourhood Plan has been adopted, it becomes part of the statutory development process and must be referred to and taken into account in all planning decisions taken within that community.

 

The first step in drawing up a Neighbourhood Plan is the establishment of a Neighbourhood Forum. An application for a Pyrford Neighbourhood Forum was submitted to the council in November. Following a public consultation and engagement with residents, the application was approved by councillors on Thursday after minimal debate and no objections. A Neighbourhood Forum was also approved for Byfleet at the same meeting.

 

This is a great opportunity for Pyrford residents to have a much bigger say in the planing decisions that affect their lives, and recognition must be given to the organisers and officers of the Neighbourhood Forum which is one of the first in the country to take advantage of the new powers devolved down to communities through the Localism Act. Special acknowledgement should also be given to Cllr Ashley Bowes, the council’s planning portfolio holder and ward councillor for Pyrford, who expertly took the proposal through Full Council and whose legal expertise and in depth knowledge of the minutiae of planning policy will no doubt be of immense value to the Neighbourhood Forum in drawing up their plan.

 

Once a Neighbourhood Plan has been drawn up by the forum it will be subjected to an examination to ensure that it complies with national planning policy as well as the development plan for the borough set out in the Core Strategy, before residents are given the final say in a referendum.

 

Review of Bed Bar premises license

 

On Wednesday evening I chaired a licensing sub-committee to review the premises license for the Bed Bar nightclub. The meeting was called by Surrey Police who have expressed concern for some time about the large number of criminal incidents and anti-social behaviour involving the club.

 

Some of the evidence presented to the committee was deeply troubling. In the period since the club’s license was last reviewed, there have been 47 recorded offences inside or just outside the club, including grievous bodily harm, actual bodily harm, drunk and disorderly conduct, drug offences, theft, criminal damage and sexual assault. Committee members were told that the real number of offences was likely to be higher as many are currently before the courts and are hence sub judice. We were shown a comparison with other pubs and clubs in Surrey which indicated that there were more incidents at Bed Bar than any other licensed premise in the county.

 

Ahead of the hering we were presented with a catalogue of police witness statements detailing the situation in the town centre in the early hours of the morning in the early hours of Saturday and Sunday mornings. In one incident police descibed seeing a young lady stagger out of Bed Bar and immediately throw up on the ground, while two other girls ran towards Albion Square and vomited into the flowerbeds.

 

As part of the police’s evidence we were shown CCTV footage of a brawl outside Bed Bar on the first weekend in October last year. This was disturbing to watch and showed two or three separate groups fighting with lots of punches being thrown. We were told that this was the closest the police had come to losing control of the town centre and it was nothing more than luck that no member of the public was seriously hurt. The police witnesses seemed unanimous in their view that much of the problems in Woking town centre emanated from Bed Bar and sought a reduction in the club’s operating hours and restrictions on the number of people allowed into the premises.

 

During the hearing, we heard that there had been a change of management at the end of last year, including a replacement designated premises supervisor. The club has adopted a new set of operating procedures and made improvements which includes the adoption of new technology such as ‘ClubScan’ which allows door staff to flag up people who have previously been involved in altercations at the club and refuse them entry. They have also appointed a consultant to advise them on how to lower tensions amongst guests, created a more visible security presence and given additional training to bar staff to help them identify inebriated customers. Their consultant spoke at the meeting and explained why he had been brought in and how he was recommending that the club move forward to address the police’s concerns. He was an impressive witness and gave the impression that Bed Bar was finally beginning to take its responsibilities more seriously.

 

My colleagues and I found it difficult to agree on a recommendation. We have tremendous sympathy for the police and for the work they have to do to maintain order in the town centre, and we gave serious consideration to completely revoking Bed Bar’s license. However, committee members felt the club deserved one final opportunity to put things right. We therefore agreed to reduce their opening hours from 3am to 2am, impose a requirement to stop serving alcohol half an hour before closing time, introduce a no admittance policy after midnight, and place a maximum restriction on 325 guests at any one time.

 

As councillors we cannot tolerate having the worst nightclub in Surrey right in the middle of our borough. We have made clear to Bed Bar’s management that we will no longer tolerate alcohol fueled crime and anti-social behaviour in the town centre at weekends and we expect to see real and immediate improvements.