Gallery

My response to Cherwell District Council’s 2021/22 Budget

At the full meeting of 22nd February Cherwell District Council passed their budget for the forthcoming financial year. I spoke in the debate criticising a further lack of response to the climate emergency and highlighting the pressures that the council’s reliance on commercial investments have placed on its finances, in particular its ownership of the Castle Quay shopping centre in Banbury.

I’ve long been a critic of the decision to risk council tax payers money by investing in a shopping centre that was already starting to show signs of distress. It was a quite ludicrous decision at the worst possible time, just as the retail economy was collapsing. As a retail analyst myself I’m acutely aware of the pitfalls of investment into retail space with provincial shopping centres being some of the most challenging developments to achieve a viable return on now.

I and fellow members of the council have been excluded from the so-called cross party advisory group on the management of Castle Quay which is entirely composed of Conservative and Labour councillors. Labour supported the purchase of Castle Quay in 2018 for £63m with a further commitment of a similar sum to build a canal-side extension, including a cinema and a hotel.

Looking at the figures in this budget we can see that around a third of the financial pressures are a result of losses attributed to Castle Quay. Even if the council’s own optimistic predictions are correct, by the end of next year Castle Quay will have returned a loss of around £1.9m since the council took full ownership.

The value of the centre is now around half what was paid for it, amounting to a whopping £30m loss of equity in an investment backed by council-tax payers money!

Of course all this is now being blamed on the pandemic, but that’s only part of the story. This was always a reckless investment, and that recklessness has now translated into service cuts for everyone in Cherwell.

Whilst I agree that councils should be the drivers of town centre regeneration, that needs to be evenly distributed. Ownership of Castle Quay is likely to produce only dubious benefit to the people of Banbury with a potentially massive financial burden that will be felt by every Cherwell resident for years to come”

As a retail analyst and adviser, I made my misgivings about the public purchase of a struggling shopping centre clear to the council, even before I was a councillor, but was ignored.

I knew there were already signs of problems on the horizon with several of the major tenants of the scheme, not least Debenhams which recently collapsed into administration.  That failure is yet another problem that is about to hit the beleaguered development when lockdown is lifted.

The much vaunted opening of Lock 29 indoor market in the space previously occupied by one of the other failed anchor tenants – BHS – is yet to prove itself viable.  While I support the inclusion and encouragement of many of the smaller enterprises that were invited to trade there, it’s notable that the major occupier, Happerley, pulled out last year after only 3 months. 

I have asked several questions of the council about Happerley’s involvement with the scheme and the due diligence that went into licencing that company to trade there in the first place.  Those questions remain unanswered.

I originally supported the extension of the scheme with more canal-side restaurant and leisure uses, but as time has gone on it’s becoming apparent that even that is a dubious move. One of the major parts of the development is a cinema, and we are already seeing a market shift there with several of the large cinema operators closing venues and some going into administration

Little focus on climate change

We’ve just had a taste of the pressures a global catastrophe can place on our finances.  In the coming years, ecological threats will make the pandemic look like a mini-break.  Yet 2 years into our declaration of a climate emergency, we have another budget with very little progress towards tackling that threat.

The last budget had a tiny percentage of spending dedicated to the ecological emergency and even that wasn’t fully honoured.  This one has just 5 short paragraphs – less than a page of vague aspirations with no real commitment to anything.  Added to that we’ve increased charges for making homes more energy efficient, the very thing we should be encouraging!

Last year’s budget was billed as Cherwell’s “greenest budget ever” yet many of the pledges made then remain unfulfilled, not least the promise to convert lighting at Bodicote House to LED which would have saved the council money as well as helping to save the environment.

On top of that we also have increased building regulations charges for thermal upgrades to buildings and for the installation of solar panels. These are the very things we should be encouraging residents and businesses to do. Many councils don’t charge at all for Solar Panel installations

It’s becoming clear that Cherwell’s ruling Conservative members simply don’t understand the meaning of the word ’emergency’.  We need to be taking bold steps towards tackling climate change, but the Conservatives would rather simply box tick and greenwash with projects that are either not of their making or are never completed. 

The huge financial commitment that is now being poured into the new waterside development in Banbury could have gone towards renewable energy schemes that would have both helped with climate change and returned a regular profit for the council instead of the losses we see from Castle Quay now. 

Unfortunately due to the short-sightedness and fiscal incompetence of the council’s political  leadership we are now committed to a path that I think will just bring further financial misery to the residents we should be working to protect.”

Gallery

Greens Call for Credible Response to Flooding Threat in Oxfordshire

Flooding across the county is now a perennial and repeated problem, the North Oxfordshire Green Party are calling for a credible multi-agency response to flooding problems in Cherwell and beyond.

Flooding is now a regular occurrence across the district and in areas like, Banbury, Bicester, Kidlington, Yarnton and Begbroke district and parish councillors have been trying to deal with both the aftermath and the immediate threat posed by these challenging and distressing events.

Much of this is due to the impact of climate change, but there are also problems created by lack of proper maintenance of flood defences, culverts and swales.  Increased development on surrounding areas has also exacerbated the problem, and with huge amounts of additional houses planned for the green fields around villages in South Cherwell, there are now serious concerns amongst residents about what the future holds.

Run-off from areas like Spring Hill are sources of flood water which now regularly hit the villages of Yarnton and Begbroke below. These are areas due to be built on as part of Cherwell’s recently adopted partial plan review (site PR9).

I’m regularly being contacted, both as a district and parish councillor, by residents watching flood water approaching their homes, yet there are very few options open to me to help them. 

Flooding in Garden city Kidlington

These incidents often occur out of office hours. As a district councillor I have an emergency response number to call, but the last time I used that when I was trying to help residents facing flooding in Garden City Kidlington, I was told I should call the police and ask them to deal with it.  When I did so, the police operator seemed bemused that I was given that advice

Other agencies such as the fire service are quite understandably reluctant to tie up vital fire and rescue resources unless property has actually been inundated.  This is quite a distressing situation to have to explain to residents who are trying to prevent that from happening in the first place.

Thames water are usually difficult to reach and often do very little when they are finally contacted.  I hear regular complaints about blocked drains and flood channels as well as pumping stations either not working at all or being unable to cope with the level of flood water.  Again, the only emergency contact I have for Thames Water is the same number that any member of the public can call

The county council will deliver sandbags, but usually by that point the situation has reached crisis level and residents have to hope that they will hold back water which may already be at their thresholds

This just isn’t good enough.  We need to stop treating these incidents as one-off events and put together a credible, structured, multi-agency response that can swing into action when councillors and other local agencies need it. It’s very frustrating as a local councillor not being able to help when residents expect you to have levers to pull that just aren’t available to us

Advancing climate change means that we will now have to live with the escalating threat of flooding on a year-round basis.  Increased development on what are now relatively permeable green spaces, such as Spring Hill in Begbroke will only make matters worse.

This is not a criticism of individual agencies.  There just seems to be no credible protocol about what can and should be done and who should be doing it. We need a central control point that can co-ordinate a response to all levels of flooding whenever and wherever it happens, as well as a local flood task force to ensure flood defences are mapped and regularly maintained.

Advancing climate change means that we will now have to live with the escalating threat of flooding on a year-round basis.  Increased development on what are now relatively permeable green spaces, such as Spring Hill in Begbroke will only make matters worse.

Site promoters promise that they will put flood defences in place, but with the frequency and intensity of flooding increasing every year, most defences will eventually be overwhelmed. Developers are also usually more concerned with ensuring new properties don’t flood, with less consideration for the impact of new developments on existing residents.  Areas that may in the past have been flood free will soon find themselves in the firing line with little hope of holding those responsible to account. I made a video about this last year that you can see below

Gallery

Cherwell’s Conservatives Conflicted on Green Issues Yet Again

During Monday’s full council meeting, Cherwell District Council voted unanimously to support a motion calling on the doubling of tree cover in the district by 2045.

I introduced an amendment to the motion calling on the council to be more ambitious in its proposals and to achieve the doubling of tree numbers by 2030 in line with the council’s declaration of a climate emergency.

Speaking during the debate, I disagreed with Conservative claims that the 2045 target was the only one that was achievable and that the council should only aim to double tree cover “as far as possible”.

We have declared a climate change emergency.  Emergency measures call for committed and ambitious actions, not vague aspirations and get-out clauses.  The climate takes no prisoners.  It doesn’t care what we think is possible, it only responds to what is needed.  We need to move faster and be more ambitious in our climate change mitigation measures and take into account the impact of all council policies on climate change

My amendment was supported by Labour and Independent members, but was blocked by the Conservatives (as usual).

As if to prove the point, in a later debate on the main modifications to the local plan partial review, campaigners from North Oxford Golf Club pleaded with the council to protect their 103-year-old club grounds from proposed development.  This would include the destruction of a large number of trees.  The Council’s proposals also call for the release of yet more green belt land and the virtual erasure of the previously sacrosanct ‘Kidlington Gap’.

Labour and Libdem councillors opposed the motion along with me for the Greens.  The proposals were agreed with all but one Conservative voting them through.

Yet again we see Cherwell’s Conservatives talking the talk on climate change, but when it comes to positive action they default to business as usual

It makes no sense to anyone other than Cherwell’s Tories to propose a measure to increase tree numbers in the district in one motion and then vote in the very same meeting to destroy hundreds of mature trees in the face of massive opposition from local residents and environmental campaigners.

It’s clear from this, and from the lack of any solid progress on the climate emergency proposals 6 months on from passing them, that Cherwell’s Conservatives simply want to box-tick the climate change issue, whilst pursuing broader policies on unnecessary growth that will be hugely damaging to the environment.