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

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.

Gallery

Thanks Again

So ends my third and final candidacy for the Banbury constituency.

In a way I’ve come full circle in that my result this time was almost identical to my first one in 2015.  I was only 79 votes short of that figure this time with a final result of  2607 votes, giving me 4.1% of the vote share.

In 2015, I received 4.6% with only a slightly higher number of votes, but the turnout was lower then. Sadly this left me about 500 votes short of keeping my deposit this time, which means the Green Party loses £500, but we did our best.

Screenshot_2019-12-13 Banbury (UK Parliament constituency) - Wikipedia

On a personal level I’m fairly happy with that result.  It was more than double the last time I stood and represented a 2.2% increase in my vote share.  That’s the best increase of all the Green Party candidates in Oxfordshire, so that’s nice to have.  You have to look for the positives in these things!

Unfortunately though, positives on a national level are thin on the ground.  With a massive swing to the Tories representing such a shift in our national political landscape, I’m far more concerned about that than I am about my own result.  This is something I’m still processing at the moment as I’m sure many others are.  I have to say I’ve avoided news coverage of the election today as it is just too painful!  Maybe sleep deprivation has played a big part in that as well!

Where we go from here is difficult to say.  I think it’s fairly certain that Brexit will now happen, which I think we will mostly live to regret.  The debate around the referendum has become so polarised now that I’m not sure anyone really knows how we got here.  It’s become an argument about ‘honouring’ a vote that many people no longer really know the point of.  From most of the coverage I’ve seen it’s become about who ‘won’ and who ‘lost’.  It should never have been boiled down to such a simplistic argument.  Especially as I think most of us will eventually be the losers from Brexit.

The “Get Brexit done” slogan is also an absurd reduction of the true impact of one of the most seismic shifts in our fortunes since the second world war.  I still don’t think it’s something we should be treating so lightly.  With so much new information available to us now compared to 2016, we should have had an opportunity to think again.  Just ‘getting it over with’ really isn’t a logical motivation for carrying on with something that I think will be hugely damaging to this country and our economy.  Especially as the poor and the disadvantaged will end up feeling the most pain, which makes it doubly frustrating when so many news reports seem to suggest it’s those very people who voted Tory in this election.

Those of us on the remain side obviously haven’t made a strong enough case to those who seem so eager to jump into the abyss.  Boris Johnson’s lies will, I believe, show themselves to be exactly that when we finally push the button on Brexit.  Sadly it will be too late then to say I told you so to all those who think this will be a positive move.

The climate debate was for me equally as important as Brexit and bound up in the same argument.  This also applies to the other burning issues in the UK at the moment, including the NHS and public services.  I believe we will spend the next 10 years wasting parliamentary time dealing with the intricacies of extricating ourselves from the EU and negotiating disadvantageous deals with countries like the USA, when we should be dealing with the existential threat of climate change and the collapse of our health services.

The other issue exposed by the result is the desperate need for electoral reform.  Westminster has still been carved up by the two main parties who need so few votes to get a seat in the big house.  Whereas parties like the Greens with over 800,000 votes nationally only get on MP.  That really doesn’t make sense and certainly explains why so many people think that voting is a pointless exercise.  Moreover we need to have greater co-operation between parties to achieve electoral reform.  I hope that the one positive that might come out of Labour’s terrible results might be that they will finally be open to talking to other parties about co-operating towards that end.

But I will do what I can to help deal with the worst damage that Brexit and climate change will inevitably do to our society both locally and globally, even though I fear that, with at least another 5 years of majority Conservative government ahead of us, that’s going to be a very difficult task.

It’s not one that I will shirk from though, and I will use my position as a local councillor  to bring as much influence as I can to bear on what will no doubt be many more Tory excesses and attacks on the weakest in our society.  With a Tory dominated District council in Cherwell it’s always an uphill struggle to ‘move the dial’ but that’s not a reason to give up and I won’t be doing that.

Finally, an enormous thank you everyone who helped in my campaign and to everyone who contacted my directly, and through social media, to give me encouragement and support, and of course thank you for giving me your precious vote.  I can assure you that I value it enormously and it was not wasted.

For reasons I’ve explained in another post, no vote you believe in is ever wasted, and in terms of the Green Party it will help us carry on campaigning and, most importantly now, hold the national and local government to account on the environment and climate change.

The fight continues!