This blog has been quiet for a few weeks over the summer purely because like most normal people, it’s good to take a break. People are not generally politically engaged in August and instead are more concerned with sun, sand or in my case, cricket.
But the Council programme in Surrey Heath has kicked back into action and tonight was the first Executive of this school term with some interesting local issues.
The first item was a lengthy discussion reviewing the Council’s scrutiny function and what the scrutiny committees had actually done over the last year. According to the meeting papers, the answer appeared to be “not much” although the chairs and a vice-chair were very keen to tell us otherwise. The main point of these committees is to review Council services and then come up with ideas and suggestions as to what could be improved.
Unfortunately while this sounds good and lots of chats do indeed take place in meetings, this does not appear to filter into any kind of meaningful changes or actual improvements around the Council – just some occasional nice ideas that end up going nowhere in particular. Personally, I can’t think of any scrutiny discussions which have gone on to “make a difference to the Council” but perhaps other cllrs who read this blog can come up with some suggestions….
After that came a report on the Council finances and it appears that the Council have £455k of outstanding debts due to “overpaid benefits”. Most of this debt (£356k) is over 12 months old and according to officers “historic”. Now benefit overpayment can be for a range of reasons such as failure to advise of changed circumstances or admin error by agencies but this is a very high figure that suits neither the taxpayer or the benefit claimant that then has to worry how they will pay it back. A lot of this will have to be eventually completely written off due to people absconding, having no assets, moving abroad or even dying with no estate so this doesn’t help either.
It also doesn’t cover the issue of underpaid benefits namely when people entitled to claim either do not realise or have some other barrier that means they do not get the money they are properly entitled. This is an area rarely discussed and difficult to get figures on but important all the same.
On a more positive note, it was great to see £26k being allocated (from monies given to the Council by Sainsburys) to the Crabtree Rec skate park for improvements. This is an area that many local youth people have campaigned on for some time and is really well used. A good example of the positive role young people play in society and a very good campaign.
Turning next to a consultation response on the neighbourhood plan for Sunningdale and strangely, Surrey Heath wishing to oppose future plans for additional car parking at Sunningdale Station. This seems a poor decision to me – many of our Surrey Heath residents will use Sunningdale rather than the poor commuting links from Camberley and the station car park is regularly full along with the alternative at Brookwood. We surely need to be encouraging people to use the trains to London rather than adding to private vehicle numbers on the M3 and further up the A30? Whilst some vehicles do park along the A30 to avoid parking charges, that is a completely different issue to that of parking capacity which is insufficient. I therefore hope that our colleagues at Windsor and Maidenhead decide to ignore that aspect of the Surrey Heath response and increased car parking is built.
On a similar consultation and Surrey Heath’s response to the Airports Commission which is looking at the country’s airport capacity. There are a few ideas knocking around here with one being “Boris Island” – an airport built in the Thames Estuary to which the Mayor of London appears to be the only supporter. Under this idea, Heathrow Airport would be completely closed and replaced with housing for 250 000 people. This idea has little else going for it and would have a major impact on Surrey Heath due to the large numbers of people who currently work at the airport.
However, I am yet to be personally convinced that we do actually need more runways covering London. We already have 2 runways at Heathrow plus Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, London City and London Southend for commercial flights plus London Ashford (Lydd), Manston and even Farnborough for business flights leaving aside Eurotunnel for Paris. I can’t think of any other city in the world with so many airports within 90 mins of the centre but aviation experts are welcome to tell me otherwise…
Whilst the take-off and landing slots at Heathrow are heavily in demand, that does not mean that the future hub proposals have been fully thought through and in particular which flights go from which London airport and also the UK connections which are then available at different airports.
Even if it passes that test, Heathrow only becomes particularly attractive if the High Speed Train Link (HS2) extends by 17 miles to start from there. Whilst I support the HS2 project, it does appear to be in some doubt at this time and could become unviable if costs escalate.
On the other hand, enhancing Gatwick would have less issue with noise or traffic affecting Surrey Heath and has much less residential surround than Heathrow. A 2nd runway there would still be controversial but would be cheaper to build (around half the price albeit both would be privately funded) and quicker to implement. It would then mean London having 4 dual-runway airports thus giving greater overall capacity and flexible options surrounding London in a similar way to other international airports such as New York, Moscow and even Tokyo.
Sadly my offer of a cross-party joint letter suggesting the above was rejected so the official Council response in Surrey Heath encouraging the 3rd runway at Heathrow (only supported by the Conservatives) will now be cancelled out by a joint cross-party letter to the Commission to be written by myself and the Independent cllrs.
Perhaps Boris will get his airport after all…..