With 3 Cabinet members who are also Parish Councillors why are relations between Sefton and its 10 Parish Councils so poor these days?

Back in the 1990’s and early 2000’s the Parishes had a poor relationship with Sefton but when I became Borough Council Leader in 2003 I set out to put that right. A Parish Charter was created laying out the relationship between the Borough and its 10 Parishes and an annual event was created on the lines of a mini conference. Borough Council officers were also expected to treat the Parishes with respect, to help them and to jointly solve community issues with them.

It took a while but year by year the relationship changed to one that was far more positive. Indeed, the 10 Parish Councils worked hard at things from their perspective as well and credit must go to Cllr. Mike Coles of Formby Town Council for his efforts as chair of the 10 Parishes umbrella organisation. At last we had some joint working rather than joint hostility!

My time as Borough Leader came to an end in 2011 but there was hope that all would continue to be OK under the new Labour Leadership not least because the new Leader had also got himself elected as a Parish Councillor in Maghull. Not only that but two of his Labour Cabinet colleagues had also been successful in becoming Parish Councillors in Maghull. Sefton’s 7 person Cabinet now had 3 Parish Councillors on it whereas during my time as Borough Leader there was just me amongst a 10 person Cabinet who was also a Parish Councillor.

But the wheels came off very quickly under Labour when logically the opposite should have happened. Why?

• The 3 Parish Councillors on the Cabinet were and still are all Borough Councillors for Bootle wards where there are no Parish Councils. This may explain why they have seemingly been reluctant to champion the cause of the Parishes despite them wishing to be and succeeding in being Parish Councillors for Maghull Council.
• The Borough has had to make some harsh savings, which started in my last year as Leader, due to the Country’s dire financial situation. One of the savings the now Labour-run Borough has decided to make is to stop making yearly refunds of Council tax to the Parish Councils who maintained their own parks. This payment is fair and reasonable and I had made sure it was brought up to date with a sensible formula to calculate the payments. The effect of the decision to stop the payments is that from April 2014 Council tax payers in the 4 Parishes, where their Parish Council maintains the parks, is that they will end up paying twice! Once to the Parish Council which does the work and once to Sefton who don’t! You can imagine how this has gone down.
• Library closures came next as the Labour Council decided to shut a Library in Aintree Parish – one of 7 Labour wished to close across the Borough, but this was the only one where there was a Parish Council representing the community. A huge campaign led by Aintree Village Parish Council against their library closure sprang up but as it built it became clear that the recently elected Labour councillors in the Parished part of the Borough were hardly leading the community campaigns to save the libraries from from the front. But then Aintree Parish Council put together a bid with a group of community volunteers to take over Aintree Library and the Borough’s Labour Cabinet gave the plan the thumbs up. All seemed well until the Borough changed its mind and backed out. In December 2013 this led to an Aintree Parish Councillor ripping up a copy of the Parish Charter in front of the Borough’s Cabinet with its 3 members, who are also Parish Councillors, sat there watching.
• Another cost cutting idea of Labour was to disband the 3 Borough Council Area Committees in the middle of Sefton i.e. Formby, Crosby & the East Parishes for them to be replaced by one massive Area Committee. This has proved to be a complete disaster with the 10 Parish Councils, who had a strong voice, under the old system, being all but ignored.
• Resentment also simmers because Maghull Town Council, the largest of the 10 Parishes is reluctant to fight with the other 9 Parishes and sits back refusing to say anything about Labour’s cut in Council tax refunds even though it is the greatest loser of all the Parish Councils. But with 3 Borough Council Cabinet members sitting on Maghull Council (one of whom being the Borough Leader) and 2 additional back bench Labour members the Town Council does not know which way to turn so sits on the fence trying to say nothing.
• But two other seemingly unrelated matters are also impacting on the Parish/Borough relationship in a negative way. Firstly, the Borough is proposing to build houses on large areas of Green Belt within the part of Sefton that is Parished. Also, Labour proposed a green bin tax which would have impacted most negatively on the Parished part of the Borough where many of the largest gardens are. Fortunately, the loss of two seats to the Lib Dems in the Parished part of Sefton not so long ago has seemingly sobered the Labour-led Council up and they seem to be edging away from this most unpopular of taxes.

Is there any wonder, having taken all these factors into account, that relations between Sefton and its Parishes are poor? You can’t impose things from unparished Bootle on the rest of the Borough. You can’t get yourself elected as Parish Councillors and then back proposals that are against the interests of the Parish that has just elected you to represent their interests.

Why does Eric Pickles go on about bins all the time?

You may be wondering what on earth a Government Minister is doing issuing edicts and ‘Bin Bibles’ to Councils about waste collections. The link below refers to the most recent (inadvertent?) attack by Big Brother Pickles.

Lib Dem Cllr. Simon Shaw who exposed Labour-run Sefton Council's Green Bin tax plan

Lib Dem Cllr. Simon Shaw who exposed Labour-run Sefton Council’s Green Bin tax plan

www.lgcplus.com/news/pickles-bin-bible-withdrawn/5066707.article?blocktitle=Latest-Local-Government-News&contentID=2249

Surely how, when and what method is used by any council to collect the bins in its area is a matter between that council and the residents it serves subject to the council following environmental regulations etc.

Government does not need to micro-manage bin collections!

But here in the over-centralised UK we seem to have created a Bins Minister who just loves telling us all what we should do with our waste and how often we should do it.

In Sefton the collection of waste has always been pretty well managed and apart from Labour’s recent mad idea to charge us to have our bins emptied I have no reason to think I need Eric Pickles to worry himself to death about my waste bins. It would help though if he could put his mind to raising recycling rates in those council areas where the ‘green’ agenda seems to have stalled.

Sefton – A Review of 2013

Welcome to my review of 2013 for Sefton, a personal trawl through some of the things that made the headlines in a year when the Borough was ruled from Bootle by people who seemed quite out of touch with things to the north and east of Netherton.

Library closures – As 2013 draws to a close I must say that I can’t for the life of me understand what on earth Sefton Council is doing in its seeming mad dash to do all it can to stop volunteers taking over some of its closing libraries.

Will volunteers ever be allowed to stack these shelves with books again - Not if Labour-run Sefton has anything to do with it!

Will volunteers ever be allowed to stack these shelves with books again – Not if Labour-run Sefton has anything to do with it!

Many of my posts during 2013 have been about the closure of 7 out of Sefton’s 13 libraries. The closure programme has now concluded and the Borough has lost more than half the libraries it once had, but the remarkable side story to this has been the obstacles that volunteers have faced in their attempts to take over some of the closing libraries.

One would have thought that with ‘localism’ being on the lips of virtually every politician across the land volunteers would be embraced and encouraged yet in socialist Sefton we seem to be in a parallel universe where volunteers are seen to be challenging and unwelcome! Indeed, it is remarkable to see what lengths Sefton will seemingly go to keep the volunteers at a distance.

Maghull Town Council – Well what can you say, 6 of the ruling Labour Party’s councillors resigned in 2013 and 2 more were all but disqualified from office but saved themselves by turning out at the last possible meeting to stop by-elections 8 & 9 of the year!

Aintree & Maghull Champion 12th June 2013

Aintree & Maghull Champion 12th June 2013

The Council also said it had set a precept for 2013/14 when it had done no such thing and, when it finally did set a budget and precept, it took money out of the 2013/14 budget for the Town’s annual fireworks display, voted against an amendment to put the money back in but then held a fireworks display anyway!

What an odd world Maghull Town Council has been since Labour took over in May 2011 and, for the record, I still await responses to the two Freedom of Information requests that I made to the Council months and months ago. Maghull must be the only Council in the UK to have a special dispensation from the Information Commissioner enabling it to ignore FoI requests.

Green Belt and Sefton Local Plan – This one will run well into 2014 and flow over into 2015 but 2013 has seen environmental campaigners (such as FRAGOFF) give Sefton Council a torrid time. Who would have expected a Labour-run Council to propose, for example, that vast areas of Maghull and Lydiate’s Green Belt and high quality agricultural land be concreted over to create massive urban extensions for these communities? Lydiate’s housing could now increase by 35% and Maghull’s by 25% if Labour carries through what it has consulted on in 2013.

Lib Dem Deputy Leader Simon Hughes MP with Sudell Ward Sefton Cllr. Bruce Hubbard at the site in Maghull where Labour run Sefton Council wants to built 1,600 houses on high grade agricultural land. Bruce's Lib Dem team opposes Labour's plans.

Lib Dem Deputy Leader Simon Hughes MP with Sudell Ward Sefton Cllr. Bruce Hubbard, Lydiate Parish Councillor Wyn Maher, Cllr. Jen Robertson and myself at the site to the east of Maghull where Labour-run Sefton Council wants to build 1,600 houses on high grade agricultural land. Bruce’s Lib Dem team opposes Labour’s plans.

In Formby the whole community seemingly rose up to oppose a Green Belt grab there, and with some success too, as the developer ducked out just as the planning application was to go before Sefton’s Planning Committee. Will they be back? Don’t doubt it, developers are not going to give up in their quest to concrete over areas of Sefton’s land which future generations will need to grow food upon.

And don’t forget that the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) has been accused of not fighting for the Green Belt and high grade agricultural land in the Borough.

The best of the rest –

The Hawthorne’s Free School – will it be given the chance to try to make a step change in educational attainment in Bootle? Sadly, Sefton Labour just won’t take a positive step and back it. Having been there I am sure it is taking a welcome risk to improve education in Bootle; that’s a risk we should all be backing. And will St Mary’s in Crosby in Crosby follow suit and convert to a Free School? It seems so and as the aim is quality education that has to be a good thing.

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Maghull’s Mad March – Usually quiet leafy Maghull had a bizarre few weeks when gun crime visited the community. Police say it was drug related gang members shooting at each other but what chaos it created in one of Merseyside’s lowest crime areas. It went as quickly as it came but Maghull residents for a short period had the opportunity to see the madness of guns so loved by Americans. The right to bear arms? More like the right to create fear and mistrust in a community/society.

Here I am at Maghull Police Station where the Neighbourhood Policing Team must have had a tough time during Mad March.

Here I am at Maghull Police Station where the Neighbourhood Policing Team must have had a tough time during Mad March.

Southport Pier – It was quite a fright when we leaned that it needed urgent repairs. A landmark like no other in the locality; fortunately it does seem to have a good long-term future.

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The Liverpool Pigeon, A Micro-Pub for Crosby – Now here was an innovative development in 2013 that could herald a new type of pub not joined at the hip to those pub management companies who are strangling the life out of British pubs everywhere.

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HALT – This environmental campaign group sprung up in opposition to the idea of building land-based wind turbines as tall as Blackpool Town on high grade agricultural land between Ince Blundell and Lydiate. I have been happy to support this group.

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Closure of Public Toilets – Sefton tried to shut them but campaigners fought them off. Maghull’s public toilets survive but for how long? Frankly it was a huge disappointment to me that the Town’s own Council refused to invest in them. They were once award winners and could be that again but Maghull TC seems sadly disinterested in them.

Maghull's Lib Dem  toilet campaigners fighting Labour's axe.

Maghull’s Lib Dem toilet campaigners fighting Labour’s axe.

Sefton’s Bin Tax – This has to have been a really mad moment in Sefton’s bid to save money – a proposal to charge residents to have their green bins emptied! Surely anyone with the slightest understanding of the Borough would have known this was a tax too far but the Labour-led Council had to be hit between the eyes (and in the ballot box) with the anger of residents before that Penny dropped. This and the Green Belt land grab were the major reasons why Labour lost two Council by-elections in Maghull during July to the Lib Dems.

A green bin mountain, Cllr. Bruce Hubbard, and a huge pile of petitions opposing Labours Green Bill tax for Sefton.

A green bin mountain, Cllr. Bruce Hubbard, and a huge pile of petitions opposing Labours Green Bill tax for Sefton.

All years are unique but we certainly have seen some odd events in Sefton Borough during 2013.

PS. A piece of good news is that the expected closure of W H Smith’s shop in Bootle New Strand, which I commented on not so long ago, is not now going to happen.

Localism – Don’t make me laugh & Scrutiny – Not a chance!

When the Coalition Government brought the Localism legislation onto the statute books the following Governmental statement was made “Councils need to be making it as easy as possible for people to take over buildings and services that are valued by the local community”.

Now don’t get me wrong, I know only too well that Localism is a policy that suits the Coalition at times and not at others. But let’s take that statement of Government at face value because I believe that Sefton Council can’t honestly hold its hand up and say it has made it as easy as possible for community groups to take over the running of the 7 branch libraries that it has just closed across the Borough. Indeed, I think it would be fair to say that Sefton’s stance could, I my view, be more accurately defined as making it as difficult as possible!

But what of scrutiny of the Executive/Cabinet? Has that process been holding the powerful on the Council to account? Sadly the answer is NO! We Lib Dems said, when the Labour-run Council grabbed all the chairs of the scrutiny committees for Labour councillors to hold that there would not be any effective scrutiny and so it has proved. And I say this despite Labour councillors on a scrutiny committee failing to back the Labour leadership last night over the libraries debacle.

Sefton's Scrutiny Committee in session at Bootle Town Hall on 17th December 2013

Sefton’s Scrutiny Committee in session at Bootle Town Hall on 17th December 2013

To my mind what happened last night was driven by the Labour Cabinet not by the Scrutiny Committee because when it got too hot the Labour members of the Committee called for a recess. They seemingly did this so that they could go into a private meeting with the Labour Cabinet members, which they were supposed to be holding to account, to come up with a way of getting the Council out of a hole it had dug for itself.

When they emerged the meeting was effectively taken over by the Leader of Council who proceeded to make recommendations to the Scrutiny Committee about how he thought they should deal with the embarrassment at hand. That put the tin lid on it for me.

Community Library campaigners in Sefton feel…………….

Will volunteers ever be allowed to stack these shelves with books again - Not if Labour-run Sefton has anything to do with it!

Will volunteers ever be allowed to stack these shelves with books again? I have just returned from the Sefton Council Scrutiny meeting where brave community library campaigners came up, yet again, against the brick wall of Sefton Labour Party.

But this time the Labour dominated Committee crumbled and fell apart! It failed to back the Labour Cabinet and deferred making a decision on bids from two community groups to run Aintree and College Road, Crosby Libraries to the New Year.

But they refused to take the advice of opposition Lib Dem members of the Committee who proposed that the matter be referred to Full Council for a debate about all kinds of concerns and worries that had been put to the Committee tonight by community campaigners. Indeed, after a bout of headless chickening they called for an adjournment of the Scrutiny Committee to regroup. The Christmas fudge of a compromise that came out of that 10 minute private Labour only conclave was that they wanted to defer the meeting to the New Year and hear no more criticism of the Labour-run Council.

They failed in their attempt to shut me and Cllr. Andrew Tonkiss up so they got more concerns to put in their worry caps for Christmas.

This is no longer about money to run the libraries, it’s about the lack of trust and faith the Labour-run Council has in its community groups and at least one of its Parish Councils (Aintree Village).

Some book titles that seem to sum up how the campaigners feel:-

Betrayed

Betrayed

Double Cross(ed)

Double Cross(ed)

Rough Justice

Rough Justice

All these titles were snapped in one of the Borough’s closing libraries this week as the selves were emptied of books.

All the community campaigners want is to be given the chance to try to run their Library. All Labour said was we really don’t know what to do – we need new orders!

Community bids to run Sefton Libraries – Why were they really turned down for Aintree and College Road, Crosby?

Prior to attending the crucial meeting of Sefton’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee this evening here are some thoughts and questions about the community bids to run Aintree and College Road Libraries which Sefton Council has so far rejected.

Frankly, the bar was set far too high for newly created community organisations to be able to get over. The only one to get though was the bid for Ainsdale Library and that was from an already well established company.

The obvious question to me is why did Labour–run Sefton Council play its cards as it did? I know the volunteers running the bids feel that they have been given the run-around rather than a fair chance to show what they can do.

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Was the reality that Labour did not want the bids to get through?

But amongst all this the most telling part of the debate at Sefton’s Cabinet meeting on the 5th December was the all too obvious, in my opinion, stubborn refusal to embrace the volunteers and community campaigners from Crosby and Aintree and to give them a chance to have a go at running their library. Instead, the Cabinet hid behind all sorts of rules, which Sefton Council had invented, that simply made the campaigners jump through far too many hoops.

Why not give them a year or two to see what they could do? In such a scenario Sefton could have held back on its investment in the properties, which is required because it has not kept up with maintenance requirements. Surely, testing out the volunteer plans for real was always going to be the best way forward unless that is the Council was firmly of the view that it really did not want many if any of the community run bids to get through?

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The other telling thing that came out of the debate at the Cabinet meeting was that I can’t recall any of the questions and concerns that the two volunteer groups raised being answered by the Cabinet in any meaningful way. It just looked like it had already decided what it was going to do no matter what representations were made to it!

And what of the local MP? His reaction was, I am told, to issue a press statement saying that he was going to Government to ask them for more money to run Sefton libraries. Well yes, but what on earth has that got to do with volunteers running the libraries? Surely Bill Esterson should be angry that Labour councillors have not given the campaigning volunteers the chance to have a go at running their libraries? In the end this has come down to how well and to what extent Labour-run Sefton Council is prepared to work with fledgling volunteer groups to encourage them to take on the running of community libraries. And the answer seems to be hardly at all! As an MP for the Borough and a Labour one at that Bill should be taking on this party’s councillors and shaming them into a change of heart.

If Labour has the will to back off from its present stance, embracing the campaigners rather than holding them at arms length, then the volunteer bids can still be given a chance to succeed. But that needs Bill Esterson MP to take his Labour councillor colleagues on in a very public way instead of wringing his hands on the sidelines.