Woking Borough Council

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.

 

Interview in Public Affairs Networking

 

I’ve been interviewed by Public Affairs Networking, a website for those who work in public affairs and the policy and communications sector.

 

You can read my interview in two parts. In the first part I talk about my position as Associate Director of The Whitehouse Consultancy and how my role as a lobbyist helps me deliver a better service as a councillor, and in the second part I give advice to students and recent graduates who are interested in pursuing a career in politics or government relations.

 

Victoria Square

 

During this week’s meeting of the Town Centre Oversight Panel councillors were given a preview of the next round of display materials that will be used to inform residents about the progress of the Victoria Square project. The exhibition stands should be available for viewing in Wolsey Place next weekend. The Victoria Square proposals entail a drastic change to the town centre, stretching from Victoria Arch to Bandstand Square and incorporating the former Post Office and Woking Fire Station, which is to be relocated.

 

The proposals for the site have been evolving for a number of years and have developed to combine retail, hotel and leisure use with almost 400 new one and two bedroom flats and expanded town centre parking provision. The project will deliver a major new Marks & Spencer store, including a foodhall and cafe; seven additional retail units including a bigger Boots store; a 190-bedroom four star hotel including a spa, gym, conference facilities; several restaurants, an additional 380 new parking spaces; and a medical centre.

 

A planning application is due to be submitted by the council and will be considered later in spring. I am fully supportive of this project and am keen to see it come to fruition. My only hesitation is in the size of the new buildings. At 34 storeys, one of the four towers will be the tallest building in Woking and around a third bigger than New Central. I have raised concerns about height during the oversight process and will make representations when this comes to planning committee. At the same time, I hope residents will agree that this is an exciting project that has the potential to take Woking to the next level by redeveloping the current rather tired marketplace and providing us with more job opportunities and a much great variety of retail, housing and leisure options.

 

Cobblestones on Albion Square

 

Several residents have asked when the cobblestones underneath the station canopy will be repaired. The council has temporary laid down black tarmac to cover areas where there has been cracking and dislodging of the cobblestones, apparently as a result of a chemical reaction to the materials that were used to lay the surface. I agree that the tarmac is unsightly and detracts from what is supposed to be a modernised and improved entrance to the town from Albion Square.

 

At a meeting of the Town Centre Oversight Panel last night I was able to quiz council officers on the reasons for the delay in making the necessary repairs. I am told there are currently contractual issues between the suppliers and the maintenance company which need to be resolved, and the intention is to carry out the work as part of the wider redevelopment of the town centre that will be carried out through construction of the Victoria Square project. This means that the cobblestones are not likely to be replaced for some time yet, and probably not for several years.

 

While this is a disappointing reply, I appreciate that there is merit in waiting until the repairs can be carried alongside the much bigger development work planned for the town centre. At last night’s meeting we were given a preview of the latest display materials which will be used as part of the public consultation and engagement campaign to inform residents about plans for Victoria Square. This project has the potential to substantially transform the town centre for the better and increase the quality and diversity of shops, restaurants and public services in the borough.

 

Flooding in Byfleet and Old Woking

 

My thoughts are with everyone who has been a victim of the severe weather and flooding over Christmas holidays. Unfortunately many homes in Byfleet and Old Woking are still without electricity. The forecast is for more heavy rain tonight and over the weekend, and flood warnings remain in place for the River Wey and Hoe Stream.

 

Surrey County Council and Surrey Police were out over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day clearing fallen and uprooted trees from the roads, while Woking Borough Council’s emergency planning team has been working with Serco to provide sandbags to those in urgent need. If your property is at immediate risk of flooding you should move valuables upstairs or to the highest point in the house, and be aware of the need to switch off your electricity if there is the danger of water rising to the electrical sockets. You can call the council’s out of hours team on 01483 730872 if you need to request sandbags.

 

We have been informed that while many homes are flooded and some people have had to move out, it has not been necessary to open an evacuation centre. However, the council will continue to monitor the situation and respond where necessary. If you are having difficulty getting the help you need from the council or its contractors, you can find the contact details for your local councillors here.

 

Grants for the voluntary sector

 

This evening Woking Borough Council held its yearly meeting of the Executive where financial awards to volunteer and community organisations are decided. The council has sought to protect the grants budget over the past few years even as it has taken steps to cut costs elsewhere through reductions in headcount, investing in revenue generating assets and outsourcing services to provide better value for money to taxpayers.

 

The council has awarded some £930,000 in revenue and community funding to voluntary groups this year, which is a reduction compared to last year but still a good achievement considering that we are likely to see a further 10% cut in Woking’s central government grant.

 

Awards were made to replace the Lakeview Community Hall and to refurbish Goldwater Lodge, both in Goldsworth Park. The council will also provide the Old Woking Community Centre with £15,000 to employ a part-time IT worker. Grants were awarded to the Pyrford and Wisley Flower Show and to Friends of Woking Palace to continue their good work. Repeat funding was made available to Woking Shopmobility and the Woking Community Transport Fund to help meet the needs of those with disabilities and attending appointments at St Peter’s and Ashford Hospitals.

 

There appears to be consensus from both parties that this year’s  awards have been effectively targeted. As well as money provided through grants, the council provides assistance to the voluntary sector through support in kind, such as car park passes and use of the council premises.

 

A list of grants made to the voluntary sector can be found on the council’s website.

 

Marta Andreasen MEP speaks at South Woking Conservatives’ fundraising event

 

It was a pleasure to welcome Marta Andreasen MEP to the winter lunch party hosted by the South Woking branch of Woking Conservatives this afternoon. Marta is one of the Conservative Party’s Members of the European Parliament and is ranked fourth on our list for South East England in next year’s European elections. She has made a name for herself as an anti-corruption campaigner, famously being sacked from the European Commission for refusing to sign off its accounts, and regularly appears in the press highlighting examples of EU waste.

 

Many people will know that Marta defected from UKIP to the Conservatives this year after a public falling out with Nigel Farage. She has since expressed concerns about the way UKIP is run and the views of some of its candidates. However, I was pleased that during her talk she avoided personal attacks, and concentrated on her own work in the European Parliament, noting that the Conservatives are the only party pledged to hold an in or out referendum on our membership of the European Union.

 

I found Marta honest and engaging. She made an effort to speak with everyone and took lots of time to answer questions. I look forward to campaigning for her and hope that the people of Woking will return her to the European Parliament as she is undoubtedly a principled advocate of our national interests in Brussels.

 

Traffic calming measures on Maybury Hill, Old Woking Road and Park Road

 

I’m pleased to report that County Councillor Liz Bowes and I have been successful in persuading Surrey County Council to introduce traffic calming measures in areas of Mount Hermon where residents have complained about problems with speeding.

 

After a number of accidents at the junction of Old Woking Road and Maybury Hill, the County Council agreed at a recent meeting of the Local Committee to introduce traffic islands on the approach to Maybury Hill to narrow the lanes and encourage drivers to reduce their speed. The pedestrian island on Maybury Hill will also be moved closer to Old Woking Road to make the junction more visible to traffic approaching from Old Woking and coming into the town through Byfleet. The County Council will also put down coloured anti-skid material to highlight the junction and make it easier for drivers to brake at short notice should the need arise.

 

The improvements at the junction have been on the County Council’s work programme for some time and the area was also independently highlighted as a collision cluster site at the most recent Road Safety Working Group, so I am pleased that the changes will be delivered before the end of the financial year.

 

Following representations from residents, the County Council has also agreed to introduce and fund a build-out feature on Park Road to encourage motorists to watch their speed. I went out with the local SpeedWatch patrol last year and saw for myself how bad the traffic is along this road, so it is good that the need for effective traffic calming measures at this location has finally been recognised.