Live: Ric Metcalfe answers your questions

City of Lincoln Council Leader Ric Metcalfe answers questions from readers in a live Q&A session throughout the day. To ask a question or follow-up on an answer, use the #LeadersLive hashtag on Twitter, our Facebook page, or comment below.

09.23: Good morning! Daniel Ionescu for The Lincolnite at the City of Lincoln Council this morning, where we are kicking off the Leaders Live project with Councillor Ric Metcalfe. We’ve set up camp at the City Council, where we are going to reply to your questions throughout the day.

9.30 The Lincolnite asks: How has the council changed since you were last in power?

Ric Metcalfe:There is no doubt that the council has, over the last four years, become quite inward looking – understandably concerned about looking at the books. But that administration lacked the vision to look forward and show how it can take the city forward. With Labour in power, we’ve announced a range of service improvements that will help us achieve our five priorities.

We’re back after a few technical hiccups.

10.30: Steve Burnley asked: “What is your position on the application for a mosque to be built in Lincoln on the former site of the Co-Op dairy?”

Ric Metcalfe:: Well of course this is a mixed use application, not just for a mosque but it includes a housing development, and a supermarket. Council rules prevent me from saying in advance what i think about the merits of this application. When the planning committee consider this in a few weeks time they will look at the site as whole. I know the local Islamic association have had an ambition to build a mosque for a long time and like any community group one would hope they will be able to realise their aspirations at some point. But, I reiterate that its the planning committee who will look at the application on it’s merits and make a decision based on planning policy.

11:00: The Lincolnite asked: This week will mark one year since the controversial application to bring back horse racing on the West Common were rejected by the previous administration. How did you feel about the plans and application at the time

Ric Metcalfe: You’ll recall that although labour weren’t in control [of the City Council] at the time, as an opposition we got behind local people because there was widespread concern about what bringing back racing to the West Common would mean. The operation would have required a much bigger footprint of the common land than was hither to the case. So naturally, people in Lincoln were really concerned the loss of common land to horse racing.

The other aspect of this was that it never look like a viable business proposition. It was an ill-thought out submission to bring back racing and the business plan such as it was never convinced us that this was a deliverable objective. Even though viewed outside of these two considerations, the idea to bring back horse racing and put Lincoln on the map was quite nice.

But I think given the adverse impact on common land, and the unrealistic propositions of the business plan, the application failed. The previous Conservative administration themselves voted it down. We were aware throughout the debate that there were certain tensions between the Conservative MP and the Conservative administration then at City Hall. It came as no surprise it was rejected by the Conservative council there was a certain amount of displeasure and a certain amount of ‘egg on the face’ of the Conservative MP.

11.25: One last question before Ric Metcalfe returns to his work for an hour, and we’ll get more questions answered in the next session from 1pm.

Barbara Foster asked about the opening hours at the Hartsholme Park cafe: “It is very strange that Hartsholme Park cafe is not open after 4pm in the height of summer in school holidays and when the caravan park is full. I went yesterday when many people were disappointed.”

Ric Metcalfe: I’m interested to hear this from Barbara. I think Hartsholme Park is an absolute marvellous facility and there ought to be supporting services to make sure it goes well when visitors come to the park. The cafe that you are talking about is a private business that the council has no control of, so they make a judgement about what’s commercially viable for them, but I’m very happy to look into it to see if there are any representations we could make to the cafe owner about amending their hours, at least during summer periods.

11.40: We managed to squeeze one more question in, about the train barriers in Lincoln, and plans to have them down for up to 40 minutes in an hour.

Ric Metcalfe: This problem has dogged the city since 1850. When the then-town clerk of the City Council went to Canterbury, in order to look at the only place in the country that had level crossing gates, he was asked to asses whether this sort of system could work in our city centre. He came back and said he could see absolutely no problem of the gates being installed, and gates were promptly installed. There was then a riot by Lincoln people who smashed the gates down; I can understand the feelings of people of Lincoln at that time, as I can now, when we are going about our daily business, constantly interrupted by the gate closing and trains coming through the city.

Clearly, a rail for Lincoln is absolutely important to its vitality, so we need that rail link. Equally, however, we need to balance out the huge amount of inconvenience that Lincoln people experience with the amount of time that the gates are down. It’s quite clear that clearing from the East Coast main line and putting more freight traffic through Lincoln and other places, has and will increase the amount of time of downtime we experience.

It’s not practical to be thinking about closing the gates, through there was a proposition by Network Rail to do so — but I think they’re now persuaded that would be the wrong solution. We have to look at this in the wider traffic management context of the city. The East West Road Link is an absolutely critical bit of the jigsaw puzzle that we need to put in place in order to take traffic away from the crossing.

We’ve now got a position where we have a very important shopping development at St Marks and we need to retain that connectivity between different parts of the retail centre of Lincoln in order to enable it to thrive. I think the answer undoubtedly is pedestrian access over the railway line, probably of that section of the High Street when we get the East West link installed. That does mean a properly engineered lift system such as that it would be compliant with the disability discrimination act. I was there myself for 20 minutes there the other day, waiting, and it is totally unacceptable. We’ve got another meeting with Network Rail in the near future to have a further conversation with them about progressing a solution.

2.30pm: Wendy Crips asked about night buses timetables: “There is only one bus every hour to the south of the city. I take my boy to football and lots of activities are in the evening. I have to pay for a taxi to get home and it makes it expensive.”

Ric Metcalfe: This is a serious problem and I actually experienced it personally myself because I live on the edge of the city and I’m affected in exactly the same way – the last bus that I travel to is at 7.15pm, so I’m having to resort to getting a taxi home.

The reason for the changes to the service arises from a drop in funding to the County Council from central government, and in turn the County Council have taken out £1 million to the subsidy that they’ve provided to the main providers of bus services in and around Lincoln. The City Council regard this as an extremely retrograde step because there are all kinds of reasons why we need a good service, not only does it have bring economic benefits, but it also brings health and environmental advantages too.

I know a lot of people are affected by this and I’ve often travelled home with workers who rely on public transport. We’ve made the strongest representations both to the County Council and to Stagecoach, particularly to ask Stagecoach why it isn’t possible to cross subsidise some of their less profitable services with some of their most profitable routes. They seem to adopt a policy of trying to make a profit on every single route that they run, so with fewer people using the buses in the evening they’re most vulnerable for getting cut.

I have to say that at the route of this, without sounding too partisan about it is a government view that market forces, more than public subsidy, ought to govern the level of service that people get – and therein lies a fundamental philosophical difference that I would have with the government. We’ll continue to make representation to the County Council and Stagecoach but we’ve no direct power other than speaking up for people like Wendy.

2.45pm: Chris Hainstock asked: “Can you confirm that all attempts will be made to enable the eastern By-pass for Lincoln. A long overdue and much needed road. This road was first discussed in the 1940’s – surely it must be built now.”

Ric Metcalfe: The City Council have been requesting an Eastern Bypass for a very long time. It’s hugely important economically in order to help Lincoln thrive, and in turn important in enabling the city to make an economic contribution to the East Midlands region as a whole.

I have to say we’re much better positioned this time round than we have ever been. If the County Council do make the position that they’re expected to release today to provide the necessary guarantees that the Department of Transport (DOT) require we’re very hopeful that the DOT look favourably on it.

Do you think that a single carriageway Eastern Bypass is the solution to Lincoln’s traffic problems, when the initial proposals included a dual carriageway?

Ric Metcalfe: With regard to the single/double carriageway debate – one would have to say that a single carriageway would be better than nothing. In an ideal world if there were the resources to make it a dual carriageway from the beginning – so much the better. My understanding is that road would be built in such a way as to allow it to be duelled at a later date.

2.57pm: Simon Draper asked about parking concessions: “When will the council reinstate free parking for Blue Badge holders in council car parks. It was in your manifesto however not heard when it’ll be reinstated.”

Ric Metcalfe: This is a long and sorry saga as you know. The previous Conservative administration wrongly introduced charges for blue badge holders, which we opposed as a Labour opposition at that time.

I know there are some people of the view that the charges should be dispensed with all together, and that may have been the view of certain individual councillors but we didn’t have that in our manifesto, we made no formal commitment to dispense with the charges. I have an open mind about this but haven’t formally looked at it yet, but we certainly will do in due course.

There seems to be a consensus that Lincoln is short of parking spaces. How is the City Council looking to address the shortage of parking in the city?

Ric Metcalfe: It’s not true to say that 24/7 there are insufficient parking spaces. There are times within the day, week and year that there are bottlenecks. But actually some of our car parks are not fully occupied so it’s not true to say as a generality there’s a shortfall. We do need to keep it under review though, in rhw long term going on providing more and more city centre car parking is not the answer for a small historic city like Lincoln, we have to look for other creative solutions – better public transport, park and ride and encouraging people to travel by other means into the city such as by bicylce.

3.07pm: From Twitter user @Jaf1981: Other cities and towns similar to Lincoln have park and ride schemes operational. Why doesn’t Lincoln have one?

Ric Metcalfe: It has been one of my aspirations for many years trying to get two or three strategic park and ride sites for the city. We tried an experiment on Nettleham Road for a while but it proved extremely expensive for us, as a small district council, to fund such as service. The County Council now have come to the opinion that a park and ride service would be a good idea, but putting in all the bits and pieces you need to make it work takes time. At the end of the day unless the park and ride shuttle bus gets you into the city quickly and cheaply, people won’t use it, so you have to make sure you’ve got all the traffic management arrangements in place in order for it the services to succeed.

How do you feel about County Council plans to charge for on-street parking in the city centre?

Ric Metcalfe: In principal I don’t feel as strongly as other people do about charging for on street car parking. When there’s lots of competition for a tight amount of space, one of the ways to resolve that competition is to use a price mechanism. You have to pay for city centre car parking anyway, so I don’t quite go with the argument that there is something sacrosanct about not paying for using scarce space on the street. The County Council have decided this is largely very unpopular with people and they’re not going to proceed with that. But this raises a problem on how they’re going to finance the new responsibilities for civilian parking enforcement for on street car parking – and they’ll have to take it to another round of conversations with local authorities in the area to find out how to best deal with it.

3.15pm: How do you feel about the riots that have taken place in London and other cities, and why do you think that riots did not take place in Lincoln?

Ric Metcalfe: Well it’s been a shocking experience hasn’t it, there’s been a lot of dreadful things done around the country particularly in London. People have been killed, it has been extremely serious out break and we’re now seeing the courts dealing very quickly and very punitively with some of the very serious offences that have been committed – and quite rightly too.

I think the reasons for the riots are very complex and far reaching and undoubtedly relate to many of the social problems that exist in the areas where the rioting took place. I think we’ll have to reflect long and hard about the extent of which those social problems got away. They’re not excuses they’re explanations, the fact that kids aren’t working, aren’t engaged in society and they feel disaffected means that they’re more likely to get into trouble of all sorts – both on this mass scale but also on an individual basis.

It’s very hard to say why there haven’t been any riots in Lincoln, it would be easy to be complacent and say we don’t face the severity of the problems in some of the areas affected by the riots. I don’t think that’s entirely true – we’ve set out our priorities as a council recently that look to address these issues. We acknowledge that there are a lot of social problems in Lincoln, we have quite a lot of poor people with fairly high levels of unemployment, and we’ve certainly got our share of anti-social behaviour and crime in the city. It’s always difficult to say, we have had civil disorder from time to time so it’s not impossible for it to happen again, but this time we had very early discussions with Lincolnshire Police to make sure that we were alert to picking up any intelligence about any problems and we were very well prepared in the eventuality of any trouble arising.

Shaun Maye asked: What are your views on the poor broadband provision in certain parts of the city? How is the City Council working to address that?

Ric Metcalfe: Broadband provision in the city is a hugely important issue. It’s a very important bit of infrastructure in terms of businesses functioning properly, this is absolutely critical. For many years we’ve been calling on our economic partners, like the County Council and others to try and invest or get investment made.

4.55pm: Doris asked: “Why can’t Lincoln get a modern swimming pool? Louth got a new leisure centre last year. Scunthorpe has a new centre which cost over £20m. Lincoln is bigger than both Louth and Scunthorpe and we have a dated pool that we share with a school. Can’t the council set an ambition to have a great facility, possibly with an ice-rink that benefits everyone?”

Ric Metcalfe: A very good aspiration indeed for Doris and I know for many others. Lincoln certainly lacks an Olympic standard swimming pool – the difficulty ofcourse is that these things are incredibly expensive to build and to run. We’ve had this ambition ourselves for a long time and are hoping to find partners to work with to realise this dream.

Sam asked: “Do you believe it would be productive to reinstate the bulky waste item collection service? I like to keep fit so do a lot of cycling. I have noticed whilst out on my bike that fly tipping has increased, often down country lanes. Surely the cost of the collection service counter acts that of the clean up?”

Ric Metcalfe: This was the very reason why when we were in opposition, we opposed the Conservative administration’s proposal to get rid of the free universal bulky goods collection service. What we have in its place is a service but it’s now charged for, although old age pensioners and people with disabilities are able to get this service free of charge. If we were in a position to renegociate with Cory Environmental at a later date we’d want to get this back as a free service for all, although at this time I can’t make an undertaking that we will because obviously there is a cost involved.

5.10pm: When in opposition, your party has rejected the idea of elections every four years instead of every year, as it currently stands. Lincoln is now the only district council in the county to use yearly local elections. Do you still think they are a good idea?

Ric Metcalfe: I think there are arguments on both sides of this issue. There is no doubt that if you hold elections every four years, whoever wins then has time to set out their stall, set out their programme and have a greater degree of chance of seeing through that programme. On the other hand, Lincoln has always traditionally had annual elections. One yearly elections do maintain a very strong democratic link between the council and its voters. It also gives voters a fairly quick opportunity for making their views felt if they feel the council is departing from what it has said it was going to do.

I am not hugely opposed to going to four yearly elections, but we won’t get the opportunity to vote on that in full council again for another three years I believe

The City Council has a reduced government grant this year, and for the years to come, which arrived during Consersative control of the city. How do you feel about continuing to enforce these cuts?

Ric Metcalfe: Well it’s a real challenge, let’s not make any mistake about this. We rely heavily, as most councils do now, on the central government grant. We only receive a small percentage of our revenue through local taxation, so it’s not as significant as central government support is. So, if central government takes away money, then it puts us in a very difficult place. There is significant progress that has been made so far, but we need to save another £2.25 million you can see this is a big mountain to climb. We’re still working hard to find other ways to save money, whether that’s through shared services with other local authorities, more efficient working and use of technology, or whether through actual reduction of services through cost cutting.

Do you think Lincolnshire Police or the City Council should foot the bill for CCTV in the city? Who benefits most out of it?

Ric Metcalfe: The council share with the police a responsibility to do all it can in relation to prevent crime so we wouldn’t run away from our responsibilities as far as crime and anti-social behaviour is concerned. We wish, in an ideal world, that the police would make a financial contribution and we’d like the business community to make a contribution too, but having said all that everyone else is severely financially constrained so I’m not holding out great hope for those in the short term.

Let me make clear that I think it’s very unlikely that we’d do away with CCTV in the future, but clearly because it’s a huge financial burden on the council – it costs more than £400,000 per year, which for us as a small district council is a lot of money. We’ve got to find some way of reducing its cost, whilst maintaining the effectiveness of the service.

5.15pm: The last round of questions —

Chris asked about City Hall opening hours: “For those who work a normal 9-5 day, why was the decision made to close City Hall at 4:30?”

Ric Metcalfe:The total number of hours that City Hall is open hasn’t actually changed. We have changed our hours slightly, we used to open late on a Wednesday morning and that won’t be the case now – we’ll be open between 9am and 4.30pm all week. What we find is that the majority of people who contact the council do so by telephone – about 70 percent, which is why we’ve established a very efficient call centre (open from 8.30am until 5pm between Monday and Thursday and 08.30am until 4.30pm on Friday).

We’re also seeing a developing use of the internet as a means of contacting the council and indeed of actually carrying out varying transactions, making payments, requesting services and so on. So, there are other channels in contacting us instead of walking through our front door, that’s not to say that personal contact isn’t still important to us and we do keep our opening hours under constant review.

Shell Bee asked about closure of schools: “Special schools (especially Queen Park School) in Lincoln are already overcrowded. How can the closure of Queens Park School make a positive impact on the already overcrowded St Francis and St Christopher school? There are many empty schools (i.e. Ermine school) that would easily accommodate pupils from Queens Park School.”

Ric Metcalfe: We share Shelby’s concern which is why our Community Leadership Committee held a public hearing with all interested parties a week or two ago in order to hear the concern that reflected the many representations the City Council has had on this issue over the last few weeks. The conclusions of the committee were that the County Council should put a pause on their current proposal to close Queens Park School and look again at alternative options.

We haven’t come out as a council in outright opposition to the proposal because the County Council have done an awful lot of work already in looking at those other options. But clearly parents and other stake holders are not convinced that all of the other alternative options are being promptly bottomed out. That’s why we’ve asked the County Council to put a pause on their proposal to try and convince people that they really have explored every other option.

That’s it for our first Leaders Live session. Daniel Ionescu brought you the answers from Ric Metcalfe today, with the kind help of Simon Burgess from City of Lincoln Council. Also, thank you to Mr Metcalfe for having us in, and all the helpful staff at the City Hall, which hosted us throughout the day. Feel free to give your feedback on the day in the comments below.