Tuesday, 29 January 2008

The future of allotments in Morpeth

An interesting letter from John Langman in the Morpeth Herald about the problems the Borough Council has in administering allotments. Thinking about it – the situation will be even worse if the allotments are passed up to the new unitary authority! Of course, traditionally, allotments are owned and managed by parish councils – but, as with much in Morpeth, the delay in creating the Town Council after 1974 local government re-organisation meant that the allotments went to the Borough. We must try not to make the same mistake this time!

Of course, the Town Council wouldn’t want to take on a heavy burden of administration. On the other hand, Tommy’s Field Allotments are run very effectively by an association of the allotment-holders who pay an annual rent to the Borough. It seems to me that a similar arrangement, with allotment-holders managing all Morpeth’s allotments would enable to Town Council to take them on without too much trouble.

We’d need to sort out permanent status for Tommy’s Field Allotments first – but that shouldn’t be a problem, seeing that they been cultivated continuously since 1941! And of course the transitional authority would have to agree to the transfer – but why would they want to hang onto allotments?

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Ashington-Blyth-Tyne Rail - Petition to No 10 Update

SENRUG's (SE Northumberland Rail User Group) petition to No 10 to re-introduce passenger services onto the Ashington-Blyth-Tyne line launched in April 2007 has over 850 signatures - but just two months to run.

It'd be great if we could reach 1,000 signatures before it closes!

Sign the petition here

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Sainsbury's Exhibition

As of Saturday afternoon, Sainsbury's exhibition on their proposal to build a new store south of Stobhill had pulled in quite a lot of visitors. The organisers said that they reckoned some 60-70% of people were in favour - though from wyhat I saw the (?) 30-40% people opposing the scheme were far more vehement in their views.

I should point out that the proposal is against Council planning policy as I understand it - being on a greenfield site and outside the town boundary. The scheme also includes proposals for housing and an extension of the Coopies Lane industrial estate on the south side of the A189 - again both against Council planning policy (as I understand it)

I spoke the exhibition organisers about their local food sourcing commitments. I gather they have distribution depots in East Kilbride and Haydock supplying the North East - but the wagons take local produce back to these depots rather than running empty (so that's OK). They were publicisng 'Moorland' branded lamb rather than Northumberland lamb too - which was interesting. I've been promised details of their local supply network - which I'll post here when I get it.

They are still holding to their intention to get the planning application submitted in March - which will make it a topic for the Unitary Transitional Authority election on May 1st. Interesting - but maybe a distraction from other issues?

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Flood Prevention & Protection in Morpeth

Next month (February), the Environment Agency (EA) will start consultation on flood prevention and protection schemes for Morpeth with a view to carrying out works in 2010. The last two proposed schemes were purely about flood protection – the proposal to build a 3m earth mound on High Stanners was rejected by local residents who preferred to accept the risk of flooding, while the concrete walls protecting Low Stanners look ugly and reportedly cause more problems than they solve by merely redirecting water.

This time, however, it sounds as though, the EA will be proposing more integrated plans – so I thought I’d just run over the causes of flooding as I understand them:
i) a sudden release of water – we’re going to get more ‘cloudburst’ style storms as climate change kicks in, but fewer heavy falls of snow with sudden thaws. Not much we can do about that either way – though if we reduce CO2 emissions drastically now, it won’t carry on getting worse for our great-grandchildren
ii) rapid run-off of water: if the ground is impervious – could be waterlogged or could be bone dry or could be covered by tarmac or concrete, then the water will run off rapidly rather than being soaked up and draining slowly. Several things we could do here:
a) don’t build huge areas of concrete or tarmac (like the new Dark Lane car park) without adequate soakaway (not just run-off drainage)
b) create ponds, watermeadows, marshland to absorb the water and slow the drain off. The Northumbrian Water works on Wellway include installation of huge tanks to hold back water when the Cotting Burn can’t cope with the water flowing into it.
c) plant water-loving trees like willows and alders along the river to soak up water (and absorb CO2) – though manage them to avoid branches etc causing blockages (see below)
iii) blockages in the drainage system, streams and rivers. Regular maintenance of storm drains and culverts is a must – any council that tries to save money by skimping on this sort of maintenance is penny-wise, pound-foolish. Litter – especially plastic bags – can be a major cause of blockages. Last year’s floods in Gloucester and Sheffield were made worse by plastic bags clogging the drains.
Debris from trees etc regularly cause blockages in streams and rivers – with the narrow Oldgate Bridge arches are a significant contributor to the High Stanners flood risk. Previous EA responses have involved drastic cutting back of trees along the river bank, but this can lead to erosion. Richard Cansdale is proposing a grid of ramps upstream which will strand tree debris as water levels rise, at a location where they could be regularly cleared.

So let’s see what the Environment Agency propose…

Saturday, 19 January 2008

A Delivery Service in Morpeth?

Well, the Co-Op Store went out with a whimper rather than a bang – people were wandering round a half-empty store commiserating over its closure and then moving on to Lidls and Morrisons with bafflement. I’ve written elsewhere about the loss of the Co-Op to Morpeth’s Fairtrade Town status – but the biggest loss seems likely to be the disappearance of a delivery service.

Which got me to thinking – why couldn’t someone run a delivery scheme serving customers of our local shops – for example the three butchers, two greengrocers, bakers, delis – and maybe even the Weds market?
You’d have thought the Chamber of Trade would have an interest in seeing something like this work – and certainly it’d be in keeping with the Greater Morpeth Development Trust’s remit for supporting Morpeth as a market town.

And if buying a van is too big a risk initially – there are several take-away delivery service vans that are hardly used during the day.

Just an idea….

Friday, 11 January 2008

Town Council and Council Tax

On Weds (16th) the Town Council will consider a recommendation from its Finance Committee to raise its share of the Council Tax by 3.0% next year. That represents an increase from £83.14 to around £84.60 on Band D – that’s around £2.50 per year.

The story isn’t quite a simple as that though. The Finance Committee and Town Council staff have been working on next year’s budget since October and on Thurs 3rd January, the Finance Committee unanimously agreed to recommend a Council Tax increase of 5.0% - round about £4.10 per year on Band D.
Unfortunately – on the Monday – NCC decided to go with a council tax rise of 1.8% (see previous post), and the indications are that CMBC will also be going for a council tax rise under 2%. So, the Finance Committee’s recommendation was discussed informally with other town councillors.
(I won’t say it was a party group meeting, because (fortunately) Morpeth Town Council doesn’t operate formal party groups – but 13 of the 15 town councillors are LibDems, and neither I nor Derek Thompson were party to these informal discussions.)
Anyway – the upshot was that it was considered a bad thing for the reputation of the Town Council to be seen to increase council tax by 5% when other councils were proposing increases of under 2%, so the Chair of the Finance Committee was asked informally to reconsider the recommendation and come up with a lower percentage increase. (After all – we wouldn’t want the embarrassment of having an argument out in the open at Full Council, with the possibility of the Finance Committee recommendation being voted down would we.)

So – an emergency Finance Committee meeting was called on Weds 9th (so quick, there was no time to notify the press or public) to look at budget cuts that could reduce the council tax rise to 3%. This represents all of £1.60 a year on Band D, total £4,100 off the Town Council budget – but consider these cuts in those image-sensitive percentage terms:

Repairs & Renewals 5.6% (£1,000) cut
Town Plan 20% (£1,000) cut
Grant to Greater Morpeth Development Trust 20% (£1,000) cut
Tree Planting 48.5% (£500) cut
Training & Conferences 48.8% (£600) cut
And since the Town Council’s share of the council tax bill is under 6% - the difference between a 5.0% increase and a 3.0% increase will be just 0.12% on the overall council tax bill.

As far as I’m concerned the Town Council does a brilliant job in supporting the character and vitality of Morpeth and its well worth an extra £1.60 a year – and the feedback I around town get generally supports this. This whole episode suggests to me a lack of confidence and political leadership, and an over-concern for spin and image.

This coming year, the Town Council will need to be staking a claim on Morpeth assets during the local government re-organisation. This debacle over budget-setting does not fill me with confidence!

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

County Council and Council Tax

The County Council – or rather than new Unitary Transitional Authority – received a very generous settlement grant from Government for next year. In fact, that’s one of the good things about the new unitary authority – the Government are going to be pumping resources into the county to make sure their decision proves right.

Of course, it all depends on how you spend the extra money – which is why the County Council’s announcement that they’d be limiting their Council Tax rise to 1.8% - and how they’d do that, is so interesting.

In giving us a unitary authority – which will allegedly and eventually save us £17M a year – the Government has already decided that we would prefer low taxes to democratic accountability. Now the County Council are backing this up with an implicit decision that we would prefer low taxes to decent services – or services free at the point of delivery. It’s the sort of thing I’d expect from a Conservative government and council – but not from a Labour government and council. Though – these days it’s very hard to tell the parties apart.

It certainly doesn’t make sense to put the burden of the cost of home care and day care for the elderly and disabled on the most deprived people rather than share it out more amongst those who can afford it.
And it doesn’t make sense to penalise A-level students on travel costs when you’re trying to raise educational aspirations in the county.

I don’t have a huge income (no! honest!) but I’d be prepared to pay more than a 1.8% increase in council tax if I knew the money was being well used.
Now, I may be out on my own here – maybe people do prefer lower taxes and poorer services (or ‘small government’ as the Republicans put it). But for me, the sign of civilisation is that the strong protect the vulnerable – and taxation is just a way of institutionalising this.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Sainsbury’s are coming?

You have to admire Sainsbury’s PR: lead story in the Morpeth Herald in Christmas week, with echoes of all the Christmas food advertising – nicely raising expectations well ahead of any formal consultation, let alone a planning application – and leaving any opposition sounding like whinging killjoys.

And yes – if you’re a fan of supermarket shopping, then it’d be good have an alternative to Morrison’s (given that the Co-Op is closing and
overlooking Lidl) – although part of the rationale for allowing the expansion of Morrison’s as part of the Town Centre redevelopment was that it would reduce the need for an out of town supermarket.

There are three main threads of argument against the Sainsbury’s proposal:

First – the eco-warrior arguments: we should be supporting local shops and local producers, reducing foodmiles, buying only in-season produce and giving food producers a better deal.

On this argument, supermarkets - in general - transport food further, drain money out of the local economy and bully farmers through their purchasing power. And they’ve little real notion of ‘local food’.

Did you hear about the supermarket – let’s call it ‘Safeways’ for legal reasons that decided to sell Northumbrian Hill lamb in Alnwick. They bought the lamb from the Cheviots, had it slaughtered in Sunderland – then shipped it down to Hampshire for butchering and packing – before bringing it back to the Alnwick shop marked as ‘local produce’. And the launch was in July – an unseasonal time of year for Hill lamb. Anyway…

Second – that an edge of town supermarket would ‘kill off’ the town centre shops. This is the Chamber of Trade argument – and would be stronger if they hadn't used this argument against every proposed change in the last 20 years.

Morpeth does have a better range of locally owned shops than most market towns (and a good farmers’ market) – and it is these that make Morpeth different, and should be a major attraction for shoppers. This is covered by the Market Town ‘healthcheck’ carried out a couple of years ago which is now in the hands of the Greater Morpeth Development Trust. I hope we hear from them on this.
At the moment then, we have one side asserting that an out of town Sainsbury’s will pull shoppers away from the town centre and the other side asserting that a Sainsbury’s will attract more people to Morpeth. No real weight of evidence on either side.

And third – planning issues – which in the absence of aTown Plan, are probably the only real grounds for rejecting the scheme. Government planning policy still retains the requirement to demonstrate a ‘need’ for out of town shops, that there is no suitable site in the town centre – and that’ll be interesting. Then there are all the site-specific issues: greenfield land, settlement boundary, traffic implications etc – but Sainsbury’s have the money to outlast the Borough Council.

In fact – if there are any problems - they can hold out till the unitary authority comes along, they’ll probably get the thing through while the new council’s planning committees are ‘bedding in’.

I’ll be doing my best to resist the development. Anyone else?

Friday, 4 January 2008

Characteristic Communities and all that...

Following the Morpeth Herald report on the kerfuffle at Full Council over 'characteristic communities' and 'belonging communities' - here's a quick rundown of what is being suggested...

Basically, Northumberland is just too large. Some council functions need to be more local, so current proposals are that the unitary authority will be subdivided into three 'characteristic communities' [horrible term] which will have their own Development Control, Licensing and Area Committees - drawn from the 20-25 councillors representing that area.

These are likely to be i) North Northumberland (Alnwick & Berwick districts) ii) SE Northumberland (Blyth Valley, Wansbeck and the coast up to Amble) and iii) West Northumberland (Tynedale and the rest of Castle Morpeth). The main points of contention are a) several but not all of the coastal villages want to be linked to Morpeth (or Alnwick) not SE Northumberland b) whether Morpeth fits better with Tynedale or Alnwick & Berwick. I'm afraid this latter point has dwindled into a political argument with the LibDems wanting Morpeth in their northern stronghold and the Tories wanting Morpeth as part of their Tynedale stronghold.

Personally - I think Morpeth and parts of Tynedale look more to the Tyne & Wear city-region for employment, shopping, housing market and leisure and should be in a separate characteristic community reflecting this. Failing this - I guess the West Northumberland community is next nearest.

Then, there'll also be around 26 'belonging communities' [even more horrible term] - generally a cluster of 4-7 parishes, with a community forum including the 2-3 councillors representing that area, possibly representatives from the parish councils, and unelected 'community & voluntary sector' reps. These will mainly be advisory 'sounding boards' for the local councils - at least at first.

Overall - I think the new unitary will be hardpushed just to deliver its statutory functions for the first 4-5 years - and it'll be a chance for those who argue that we'd be better off without 'continual council interference' to test their argument.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Latest on Local Government Restructure

Just for clarification - the current situation (as I understand it) is:
There will be elections to a transitional unitary authority for Northumberland on May 1st this year.

There will be 67 councillors elected on the existing County Council divisions - and the Council will have a conventional leader and cabinet from the majority party group or a coalition. There'll be no directly elected leader or cabinet as was suggested earlier.
On the current County Council - Labour has a majority of just three over Tories & LibDems combined - but then the Tories & LibDems don't combine very well. If - just supposing - Labour lose some seats and both Tories & LibDems gain some, there'll be no overall control - and there'll be a need to build a coalition. A scenario that holds opportunities should one or two Greens get elected - especially if they have a track record of working well with all parties concerned?


The County Council will be abolished immediately - so the new transitional authority will take on the County Council powers immediately. In fact, it'll be hard to lose the impression that the county council will just turn into the unitary authority - though strictly speaking that isn't the case.

Then over the course of the coming year, the transitional authority will steadily take over the responsibilities of the district councils (including CMBC) - and in April 2009, the district councils will be abolished.

The transitional authority councillors will become unitary authority councillors without a further election - and will hold office till May 2013. The town and parish councils will remain in existence - but they won't hold elections till May 2013 either - so the Morpeth Town councillors you elected last May will serve a six year term! Bet you didn't expect that when you elected them!

Sounds fun, huh?

And all this because Government has been convinced that it will be more cost-effective than the present set-up - and the assumption has been made that the voters and council tax payers would prefer lower taxes to accountability and transparency.