The first Surrey Heath Exec meeting of 2016 was an important one covering key local issues. It also showed the difference between Conservative and Labour priorities within Surrey Heath.
Starting on a positive, it was good to see that Surrey Heath agreed to support a number of grants to voluntary organisations including a slight increase in the overall budget. This meant £80k to Camberley CAB, £30k to Voluntary Action, £10k to Age Concern and £5k to Camberley Job Club who all do fantastic work. A further £15k was given to Tringhams (a day centre for Bisley/West End residents) although they only have 17 regulars at West End and 10 at Bisley and are not adhering to their Service Level Agreement. Whilst this is clearly valued by users, I personally felt that this money could be better used for example to support elderly lunch clubs throughout the whole borough rather than just one. I know of at least 2 Church groups for older people in other wards offering activities and refreshment and yet receive nothing from the Council. In my mind, it would be better to support many groups and hundreds of older people with a monthly local event rather than throwing £15k at one rural club meeting for 27 people twice a week.
I did express some concern that the grant for the Basingstoke Canal Authority was frozen at £10k for the umpteenth year and the potential impact of flooding that they address. However, we were advised that the Canal Authority would receive income this year via the Deepcut development and that this would help address long term flooding risks.
Annual monitoring report on development
Surrey Heath have not hit their housing targets and managed to build 710 instead of the 762 target in the four years between Apr 2011 to March 2015. The reason given for this is because of the planning restrictions in Surrey Heath due to the Special Protection Area (this protects three types of rare roosting birds on our commons)
However, during the same period, only 5% of these completed properties were affordable housing when the target was 35%. This is simply not good enough and means many people will be completely unable to afford living in Surrey Heath especially key workers. The excuse given by Surrey Heath was that office conversions to residential development legally do not require affordable housing and that developers claim that developments will not be feasible if affordable housing is included. They also claim that developers have additional costs in Surrey Heath due to the SPA. Whilst some of these may act as partial explanations, 5% is so low that it raises very serious questions as to whether the Council are doing everything they can. Sadly, when I asked exactly that as residents themselves would expect drawing attention to the plight of our nurses and key workers, the Conservative leader said that no-one mentions it to her! Perhaps she should have a wander round her own Council offices and speak with her own staff that do not receive around the £60k salary needed to afford to buy in this area.
Council Tax Support Scheme
Amongst a wider item on Council Tax background, the Council also annually review the Council Tax support scheme. In Surrey Heath, we have a system which I would describe as state sanctioned cruelty where working age claimants have to pay 30% of their council tax regardless of whether they are in full receipt of benefits. So for example, if someone had multiple disabilities and had no prospect of work receiving full disability benefit, their Council tax benefit would only pay for 70% rather than 100%. The Council do have a hardship fund of £10 000 where people can bid for the rest but it is ridiculously complicated involving 20 different criteria, many of which are subjective.
In the committee report, it stated, “the demand for hardship payments is low” so I said at the meeting that is very odd when over 200 food hampers were given by Besom and Rotary to Surrey Heath households in need over Christmas and the CAB helped over 50 households in the last 9 months with council tax repayments. Again, this sadly demonstrates the reality of poverty within our supposedly affluent area. This is particularly ironic as David Cameron claimed that addressing poverty was his number one priority this year! The finance portfolio holder said that he would discuss this all with officers… we will wait and see…
The next item was the Council’s financial position as of 30 Sept 2015. It was reported in the written report that the business portfolio had a budget of £564k but had spent £710k so was £146k under budget. I pointed out before the meeting that this was in fact an overspend not an underspend which apparently none of the officers or exec members had noticed and was excused at the meeting as a “typing error”. These can obviously happen but it does raise questions as to how closely they bother reading or checking these reports.
Outside the chamber, I had a useful induction meeting today with Bill Andrews who is the chair of Frimley Fuel Allotments. I have recently agreed to become a trustee at the charity which allocates grants to local people in need. My role will be to conduct home visits particularly around Old Dean and assess applications which should be really interesting.