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Our Green Spaces are Worth Fighting For!

I’ve spoken to hundreds of people during this short election campaign and probably the most important issue on most people’s minds right now is the threat to our local green belt.

I made a video about it last week which has received quite a bit of attention since it was released. You can watch it here.

Of course in Yarnton, Begbroke and Gosford (where I’m standing to become the new local County Councillor) it’s in the forefront of everyone’s minds because, if it goes ahead, we’ll be the ones living in the middle of a building site for possibly the next 10 years. We’ll also see our small rural communities destroyed and replaced with a single medium sized town, one that will probably also double up as a university campus for the Begbroke Science Park.

But even in Kidlington, (which comprises a large part of the County division) it’s going to have a huge impact. There may not be as many houses built in the area, but the additional strain on our local resources, such as health services, education and leisure facilities will be very detrimental. We’ll also see a noticeable reduction in air quality which is likely to have health impacts on the most vulnerable, as well as increased risks of flooding. The A44 will probably become a car park during busy times, giving us all the chance to sit and admire the 4 storey apartment blocks that will tower over the edge of the dual carriageway.

There’s also a good chance that Kidlington will finally lose the argument about hanging on to it’s status as a village. In 10 years time, when the population has possibly tripled, there’s likely to be a much greater push to establish the whole area as a suburb of a Greater Oxford City. Not a prospect I, or anyone else in the area, relishes but something we may have little choice over.

I for one won’t stop fighting for that until the last blade of grass has fallen under the bulldozer’s tracks.

All this might be acceptable to a greater degree if these houses were going to provide affordable accommodation for local families, many of whom are crammed into a single house with perhaps 3 generations under one roof. But these aren’t for the likes of them. These will be expensive luxury executive houses built for investment purposes, with the so-called ‘affordable’ houses reserved for people in Oxford City. The District Council saw to that when they handed control of those houses over to the City Council in a closed meeting at the beginning of the first lockdown. None of these houses will be within reach of local residents.

A lot of people have told me that all this is inevitable and that the 4400 houses are a ‘done deal’. Well that isn’t the case until we know the outcome of the legal challenge being brought to the high court next month. Until that’s over we have no idea if these proposals will stand up or collapse. There have been reports in other areas recently where challenges have been upheld, and if we get the same result Cherwell District Council will have to think again. In those circumstances we’ll need as much support on the District Council as possible which is why I’m supporting Fiona Mawson to become our second Green Party Councillor on CDC.

But even if we fail to stop these devastating plans though the courts, we can at least do our best to limit some of that devastation by having engaged and active councillors at all levels of local government. On the County Council fighting for infrastructure and other important considerations like flood protection, and of course at District and Parish level scrutinising the individual planning proposals themselves. We also have to be vigilant in opposing ‘infilling’ which may become more of an issue as the amount of development space in the area is snapped up by the bigger developers.

So I hope I and Fiona can count on the support of our local residents in the elections on Thursday. We’ve seen how our current crop of Conservative councillors have let us down on these issues, and let’s not forget that this whole idea was the brainchild of the Conservatives on Cherwell District Council in the first place, in cahoots with Oxford University, the City Council, the Oxfordshire Growth Board and the Local Enterprise Partnership. After Thursday we may have more leverage to defend our small rural communities against these faceless, unelected and anti-democratic quangos and take back control of our green heritage.

I for one won’t stop fighting for that until the last blade of grass has fallen under the bulldozer’s tracks. I hope you’ll all support me as your Green Councillor in that long battle.

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Let Them Eat Chicken!

Many people will have heard the absurd comments from Cherwell’s lead councillor for Financial Management and Governance, Tony Ilott, on BBC Oxford breakfast radio on Tuesday. I thought it was worth covering a few of the comments made by the Conservative representative in more detail.

The programme featured a running topic on the amount of back rent owed to several councils in Oxfordshire and you can hear it here. This is not a problem unique to this county as so many councils now rely on commercial investment to make ends meet since central government no longer provide enough funding for even the basic services that we all rely on.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that legislation requires local authorities to balance their budgets every year and prevents them from borrowing to cover any shortfalls. This leaves them in the position of trying to operate like private investors without having the same financial flexibility.

With many local authorities now heavily invested in commercial property they have all faced a huge shortfall in income from rents that have not been paid throughout the pandemic. To add insult to this injury, even though the Chancellor said he would provide “whatever it takes” to help local government, central government has excluded losses from commercial investments from it’s support payments to councils.

The need to balance the books each year results in councils being left with only 2 options when they have a shortfall in rents. Either they increase council tax (which can only be done up to certain limits without a costly referendum) or they cut services.

that’s going to be a pretty expensive chicken dinner for the residents of Cherwell!

This is what Cherwell District Council did in 2021 when they reported losses in the region of £1.6m against the Castle Quay shopping centre in Banbury. With similar losses predicted for the next financial year, this is likely to put the same pressures on the budget for the following year which will inevitably mean yet more cuts, along with additional charges like we’ve seen this year for things like garden waste collections.

Commercial landlords would usually carry these sorts of shortfalls over a period of years, often borrowing to cover the gaps, and recover as much of the rent as they could over that time with deferral agreements with tenants. Ultimately some of the losses may have to be written off. But as explained above, councils can’t do this. So as long as these shortfalls are on the books, more cuts or tax increases are the only way to deal with the problem each year.

It was clear though from the interview Cllr Ilott really didn’t understand any of the mechanics of this, which is quite staggering considering his role on the council. When he was asked if he thought there should be a change in legislation that would allow councils to deal with these problems, he said he didn’t think so. Instead he chose to make childish personal comments about me and avoided answering the interviewer’s questions about how the council will recover these losses.

it’s clear that they have no real vision for how to revitalise the development other than the idea that making it bigger will somehow make it better.

He did make mention of ‘working with tenants’ which of course is a good plan. As a retail consultant myself I’d always advocate such a move, but due to the limitations imposed on councils, this can only be done on a year by year basis. Any outstanding debts at the end of each year will need to be accounted for and action taken on increased taxation or services cuts.

Cllr Illot suggested that we look at things “in the round” and I agree we should do that. Unfortunately, time restraints on the programme prevented me from laying out the full details, but I’m happy to do so here :

  • Losses in the last financial year attributable to Castle Quay – £1.6m
  • Losses predicted in the next financial year due to Castle Quay – approx £1.6m
  • Rent owed to Cherwell District Council at this point – nearly £2m
  • Loss in value of Castle Quay shopping centre since the council took full ownership – over £30m (it’s now worth less than half what they paid for it 4 years ago)
  • Additional investment being ploughed into expanding the centre – £73m (underwritten by council tax payers)
  • Interest on the loans to finance all this (so far) – £2m+ per year
  • Cuts required to the entire council budget this year – £4.4m

Yes some of this can be blamed on the pandemic, but retail was already on the decline when the council took the frankly bizarre decision to buy the scheme, especially as it’s clear that they have no real vision for how to revitalise the development other than the idea that making it bigger will somehow make it better. That and Cllr Ilott’s head in the sand optimism seems to be the main strategy from our Conservative councillors.

I don’t see that as good value for the council tax payers of Cherwell. Judging by Cllr Illott’s flippancy and lack of concern he seems to regard massive financial losses along with the associated financial impact on resident’s pockets as fine as long as he can get some chicken.

I’d say that taking all that into account that’s going to be a pretty expensive chicken dinner for the residents of Cherwell!

And let’s not forget that all this money is going into one town in Cherwell – Banbury. Meanwhile Bicester town centre’s retail area is being hollowed out due to the council’s planning decisions elsewhere, and the whole of the district – every single tax payer – is footing the bill for all this incompetence. As is often the case with Cherwell Council , the south of the district is left to fend for itself and pick up the tab. If I were a cynical soul I might suggest that this is because the majority of support for the councillors who agreed to this whole adventure comes from the north of the district.

But I think we should all be able to rely on decent fiscal management from our local councillors, no matter where we live. Sadly it seems clear to me that we can’t expect this as long as the Conservatives are in charge.

It’s about time the Tories got a proper grip on council finances and stopped playing chicken with all our money!

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What Makes a Green Councillor Different?

Green Councillors are different to most other council members. Greens come from all backgrounds and bring a wealth of experience to the job. Many run their own businesses or have done so in the past, so realise the pressures that are put on to small and medium sized enterprises. I co-founded and ran a large retail operation with branches all over the country, so I have a good insight into the problems now facing our post-Covid high streets.

Many other councillors have come from academia or the various public sectors or just from the same background as the people they represent. I was born to a working family in East London and grew up in South East London/Kent where I attended a secondary modern school in the 70s.

But the one thing that has driven us all to take on the job of a councillor is a desire to make the world a better place for everyone and a willingness to fully represent and work for the people who have put their faith in us by giving us their vote.

The Green Party doesn’t operate a party whip.  We always remember we are there to represent the people who voted for us, and we will always put people before party.

As a District Councillor, I’ve seen first hand how local government can work against the interests of our communities rather than for them.

Party dogma is the main reason for this with councillors being fiercely whipped, especially by the Conservative leadership.  This has resulted in some frankly bizarre outcomes with residents and council tax payers bearing the brunt.

The Green Party doesn’t operate a party whip. We always remember we are there to represent the people who voted for us, and we will always put people before party. Green councillors are free to vote how they see fit, which has resulted in far better outcomes for residents.

For example it only took one Green County Councillor, working across party lines, to secure 20MPH powers for local councils as part of the ’20 is plenty’ initiative. Of course other parties now claim credit for that great achievement, but we don’t mind, as long as our communities benefit.

The Green Party were one of the first instigators of the 20 is Plenty Campaign

But it’s on climate change that Greens really lead the way. While we’ve welcomed other parties into the climate awareness fold, they often still don’t get it. They don’t see environmentalism as literally a global issue, preferring to compartmentalise and focus only on their own operations. 

Of course that’s important, but in the midst of an emergency we have to tackle the problem at all levels, not just those that conveniently and comfortably coincide with other priorities such as exponential growth.

For all these reasons and many more, voting Green brings positive change for our communities and our planet. Change that’s needed now, before it’s too late.