Leader's question and answer session
The committee to hold a question and answer session with the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Council.
Cllr Burford invited the Leader of the Council, Cllr Molyneux, to present an update on current Cabinet issues before a question and answer session.
Cllr Molyneux began by saying that the forthcoming budget, which included car park management, was the main current topic. While he agreed that all councillors had the right to write in the local newspapers he asked them to ensure facts were correct, citing Cllr Whitburn, who he said had written that the cabinet alone had made the decision to charge for parking in certain car parks. Cllr Molyneux stated that all the cabinet had done was to endorse resolutions from the Strategic Overview and Scrutiny Committee and Full Council. There had been no alternatives put forward and no recommendations not to introduce charging. The cabinet had taken into consideration 12 of the 14 recommendations and the remaining two would happen as charging was implemented. It had been wrong to state that the cabinet had not listened.
The second issue highlighted related to a presentation given by Two Rivers Housing regarding its strategy. He hoped that the council would achieve a consensus view and a united approach after fully understanding the issues.
He invited questions.
Cllr Whitburn said that he believed the cabinet had not listened to and considered all the recommendations, giving as an example the initial period of free parking, which had been ignored.
Cllr Molyneux replied that the recommendation had been to reconsider the proposal, which the cabinet had duly done. The cabinet had not thought that there had been any good reason at this stage for Mitcheldean car park to be treated any differently from others. However the charging regime would be regularly reviewed after bedding in period and after one year the impact would be gauged and any changes made.
Cllr Winship asked for clarity on her understanding that Lydney Town Council had been approached by the council to pay for cycle racks.
Cllr Molyneux said that he was not aware of any such approach. Cllr Robinson, Deputy Leader of the Council, added that many parish councils had been offered free cycle racks by a third party. He confirmed that this council had made no such approach to Lydney Town Council.
Cllr Winship then referred to the possibility of a 'double dip' recession. She asked if the cabinet had plans for a change in direction, should the projected income from car park charging not be achieved.
Cllr Molyneux replied that the cabinet would always be flexible. The key principle for the budget had been to maintain services without imposing the burden of raising the council tax for all residents, but applying a modest charge for those actually using the car parks. He cited the Mary Portas report in stating that free car parking was not the saviour for town centres. The council could use some income to invest in the towns and implement some recommendations from the Portas report to revitalise them. He believed that when people had become used to paying a modest fee for parking, they would not be deterred from visiting the towns.
Cllr Robinson added that the Group Manager for Finance and Property had taken into consideration the risks involved in charging for car parks and garden waste collection. There were adequate reserves and working capital to ensure that the council would not be 'in a mess' if adequate income was not generated. However at that point the issue would need to be re-assessed.
Cllr Pugh said he believed that car park charging had been a cabinet decision. He asked if consideration had been given to medical centre parking.
Cllr Molyneux pointed out that not all medical centres in the district used council car parks and had to provide their own. The council would be in danger of subsidising some businesses and not others. It would also be difficult to oversee free medical centre spaces. However there were no specific plans and the council would talk with those concerned.
Cllr Bill Evans was concerned about the impact of this measure during the current climate of austerity. While accepting that Full Council did debate and vote on the issue, it remained a fact that currently five people were able to take decisions at the council and in this case they did. The cabinet had ignored the petition signed by 7000 people and it was sad that there had been no consultation with the public or the parish and town councils. The cabinet had decided that the time had not been right in 2008 and he urged the cabinet to reconsider now.
Cllr Molyneux replied that he had been the cabinet member responsible for the portfolio in 2008. However the situation was different in 2012, as councils were under far greater pressure and no one had answered the question 'what would you do instead?' A council tax increase would lead to a costly referendum. The council was obliged to set a balanced budget, so he asked what would members cut? The cabinet was committed to trying to freeze fees and council tax, so as not to burden residents or reduce services. He would be interested to see the proposals if the shadow cabinet proposed an alternative budget at the Full Council meeting in February.
Cllr Bill Evans said that he understood the difficulty of the current situation, but that it was disingenuous to suggest that freeze in council tax would reduce the burden on taxpayers. The cost would be borne by minor authorities picking up the parts dropped by this council. He cited the report that Coleford Town Council was raising its precept by 63 per cent to cover the cost of CCTV. The burden would still fall on the same taxpayers.
Cllr Molyneux replied that councils at all levels needed to ascertain those services valued by the community and find a balance. There was a move to give more power and control to the 'sharp end' to determine local priorities.
He said that the cabinet had looked at all recommendations. There had been an excellent scrutiny exercise and a full debate by the council. This council was a democracy and both at scrutiny and Full Council members had been effectively in favour of the proposal, so he hoped members were not suggesting that the cabinet ignore Full Council.
Cllr Burford said that Cllr Molyneux had suggested that the Strategic Overview and Scrutiny Committee had voted to support the introduction of car park charging, but he clarified that the committee had agreed its report, which was a balanced document.
Cllr Molyneux replied that there had been no specific recommendation from scrutiny not to proceed, adding that an amendment at the scrutiny meeting to defer the decision had not been successful.
Cllr Burford said that the report had concluded that the inquiry had received overwhelming evidence in favour of not charging and that the recommendations were relevant only if the cabinet decided to continue with the introduction of charging.
Cllr O'Neill stated that he had offered an alternative at a scrutiny meeting and at Full Council to defer the matter to allow full consultation to take place.
Cllr Molyneux said that to suggest deferral did not offer an alternative for balancing the budget.
Cllr O'Neill responded that scrutiny had been asked to consider the issue of car park charging, not the budget.
Cllr Martin, referring to the aims of the Localism Act and of local democracy, believed that the cabinet had not considered what the residents wanted. The evidence given at the full-day session was almost entirely against the proposal. She reminded members that their role was to listen to the community. She asked if the cabinet had begun to address the alternative governance options available under the Localism Act.
Cllr Molyneux replied that the cabinet had begun to consider the Act and that it had appointed Cllr Gethyn Davies as its Localism Champion to analyse the detail of the Act and disseminate to members. The issue of governance already had a waiting motion at Full Council. However the council had only recently moved to a cabinet and leader governance system, which had been consulted on and which had been initiated by the Labour group. He would not like the matter to be decided by just one debate at Full Council and suggested that scrutiny might want to look into it.
Cllr Martin said that an inquiry should be set up as soon as possible.
Cllr Molyneux said that he believed the Constitution Working Group and the Political Group Leader Group would consider the matter in the near future. The Head of Paid Service and Assistant Solicitor confirmed this to be the case.
Cllr Smart was concerned that the question and answer session was becoming a second car park charging scrutiny, which had already taken 24 hours of meeting time. She said that the current situation was different from 2008, because the council faced a massive cut in government grant. She said that to cut services such as some leisure centres or help to the CAB did not represent reasonable alternatives to car park charging. She had informed the parish councils in her ward about the scrutiny session so that they had been able to give their views. She said that scrutiny's role was advisory, but ultimately the cabinet made decisions. The challenges for the cabinet had been difficult over the past four years and she congratulated the cabinet and leaders over that time for their work in addressing the challenges. She asked Cllr Molyneux what he thought the challenges would be for the following two years.
Cllr Molyneux replied that the council did not know what the government grant settlement would be after 2012/13 and the national and European economic future was uncertain. Both would affect the council and its residents.
Cllr Robinson believed that implementing the Localism Act would affect many areas of the council's work. The council would need to unpack it and address individual elements to make it manageable. He invited members to get involved in the planned seminars and in any other way, as the council would need all the brainpower it could get to implement the Act effectively.
He also thought that big changes in the area of benefits, waste collection and the joint waste project would also be major challenges.
Cllr Molyneux saw a need for a fundamental review of how the council could help to revitalise the town centres.
Cllr Winship mentioned the importance of affordable housing in the district and asked how the council would respond to the Two Rivers Housing strategy.
Cllr Molyneux wanted closer working between the council and Two Rivers Housing, given the cost of housing and the provision of rural housing in particular. Cllr Robinson said that the council was already working to look at initiatives to help Two Rivers Housing deliver its strategy. The Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) was also evolving to consider economic growth alongside housing. It was important that the council, through detailed discussions, make the right decisions in how it supported its partners.
Cllr Whitburn asked if the council supported the proposed sale of 50 homes by Two Rivers Housing.
Cllr Molyneux replied that the council was involved in ongoing discussions with Two Rivers Housing and he knew that members had posed several interesting questions. The cabinet had never said it supported the sale of 'council houses' but had agreed with Two Rivers Housing's investment strategy. It would be important to retain a balance of properties, particularly in rural areas to achieve twice as many houses as sold within the district. The council still needed to look closely at the strategy and then set its position.
Cllr Whitburn asked for clarity, as it seemed that the new houses would not necessarily be built within the district.
Cllr Molyneux confirmed that the notion was to build them in the district.
Cllr Robinson said that Two Rivers Housing had been successful in getting financial support from the HCAand needed to find capital though the sale in order to implement its strategy of providing more social housing. The difficulty lay in whether the strategy might lead to a shift in the rural balance of housing. He informed members that the Localism Act made the allocation of exception sites easier, if that was what the local communities wanted.
Cllr Molyneux believed that councillors in their role as community leaders should help parish councils understand the options available.
Cllr Hogan said that he cared about democracy above all, and made reference to the fact that the budget would be set by Full Council with every member having an equal vote. The car park charging issue would be part of the budget debate and he was concerned about suggestions that the decision had already been made.
The Assistant Solicitor confirmed that the Solicitor to the Council would be sending detailed legal advice to all members in that respect.
Cllr Molyneux pointed out that the matter had been part of the previous year's budget report in the medium term financial plan.
Cllr Hogan was unhappy that it cut across his understanding of how he thought the cabinet system would operate. The matter would inform public opinion when alternative governance arrangements were considered.
Cllr McMahon said that he believed that the increase in council tax needed to cover the cost of maintaining car parks would be under the government's cap, contrary to what Cllr Molyneux had earlier suggested. He also pointed out that consultation had begun only after the decision was taken.
Cllr Molyneux explained that the council was in a statutory 30-day period of consultation following the publication of the order regarding car park charging.
Cllr Gardiner, the Cabinet Forest Champion, was concerned that while the Core Strategy had been well scrutinised there was still an issue over land exchange and what it meant. He suggested a scrutiny inquiry before the core strategy was finally agreed.
Cllr Burford said that the issue would need a scoping document before the committee could consider it.
Cllr Molyneux questioned whether there would be enough time to scrutinise the issue before the core strategy needed to be finally agreed. After many years of consultation there would soon be real action regarding the northern quarter. He thanked Cllr Gardiner for his detailed work in highlighting issues for the cabinet and urged him to continue.
Cllr Diana Edwards informed members that the government would be publishing details about governance aspects of the Localism Act at the earliest in April. She noted that there was already a completed scoping document for an inquiry. She would be attending a national conference during the following week with the Solicitor to the Council and there would be an all member event in March to update the council.
Cllr Burford thanked the Cllrs Molyneux and Robinson for their forthright and good answers. He said that there was a fine line between robust questioning as a critical friend and an inquisition, which he hoped the committee had not crossed.
Cllr Molyneux replied that it had been a valuable session as part of the governance of the council to receive concerns and clarify the cabinet's position on issues.