Marianne Overton

overton

Marianne Overton is the Independent County and District Councillor for Navenby and Branston District and the Cliff Villages. Also leader of the Lincolnshire Independents, a county-wide support network. Twice elected national Leader of the Independent Group of councillors for England and Wales and Vice Chairman of the Local Government Association.


Whether unitaries are a good thing or not, the worrying part was the apparent unilateral take-over bid of solvent district and city councils by a cash-strapped county council that has spent most of its reserves and is so broke it cannot see how to make ends meet the multi-million pound shortfall next year.

One (or a few) big authorities would be even less accountable and less answerable to the public. Without the cost of bureaucratic change, any savings could and mainly should be made by sharing services.

For example, having a standard bin service is suggested, but South Holland for one, sees their weekly bin collection system cost effective and popular and are thus in no mood to change it.

Going unitary would force decisions against the will of people in some areas. It would be fairly easy to imagine that damaging closures of local services could similarly be made, further alienating rural populations.

Centralising services makes people in councils less answerable and more distant. Reducing their councillors reduces their voice. The fewer councillors you have, the less you can see them.

There is a limit. Councillors are meant to be part-time and well engaged, in touch with our communities. There comes a point where even the most ardent, hard working councillor is going to struggle.

We do already share benefits across district and county councils; legal services, waste, strategic planning. Indeed nationally sharing services has saved £508m million. So how about our councils sharing a single IT service, human resources, democratic services, housing, giving planning permissions, and chief executive?

Would it prevent buck-passing of responsibility from one council to another? I suspect it would simply become one department blaming another instead. There is anyway no excuse for “buck passing”.

Councils have the power of wellbeing that gives us a duty to consider all aspects that affect our residents. There would still be partners as services have been passed from councils to the private sector, such as buses, academies, home care to name a few.

We may sometimes need a larger authority to hold big global companies to account, and to manage some bigger contracts. For example, the county council built the energy from waste plant, are building the Eastern Bypass and East West Link in Lincoln.

Sometimes we need a smaller more locally-focussed organisation, which listens to residents and works through complex local information, such as the district council deciding planning applications for a new garage or new housing development. There is a certain logic in having more than one size council, who are each good at what they do.

The parish councils are local and at the front line, with powers of their own, and are good at finding ways to support all the other needs a community may have.

I believe the savings of £150 million are unrealistic, unless there is a substantial further reduction in service to the public.

Savings from working more closely together can and should be made, without any bureaucratic change. Is this a back door way of getting the mayor that we voted against?

The real sticking point for closer working seems to be the lack of public trust in the county council leader to manage Lincolnshire in an even-handed way for the good of all, without political bias.

The party system puts control into too few hands. We need people who, like the Lincolnshire Independents, will think, speak and vote independently for people in Lincolnshire, and without taking the national party whip.

Marianne Overton is the Independent County and District Councillor for Navenby and Branston District and the Cliff Villages. Also leader of the Lincolnshire Independents, a county-wide support network. Twice elected national Leader of the Independent Group of councillors for England and Wales and Vice Chairman of the Local Government Association.

Like some other new authority areas, Lincolnshire is asking for devolution of the criminal justice system to the new proposed combined authority.

I had the shocking experience of visiting the Victorian Lincoln Prison last week; the last week of an excellent governor who feels the system is seriously broken. I have also looked at the national position, so my comments can be more widely applied.

Violence in prisons is on the increase; both in regards to prisoners attacking other more vulnerable prisoners and attacks on prison officers (Justice, Select Committee). There is also an increase in suicides amongst the prison population (INQUEST).

In this kind of environment, recruitment and retention of prison officers gets increasingly difficult and therefore staffing levels have fallen, whilst numbers of prisoners have increased (Howard League for Penal Reform). Prisons are overcrowded, with some single person cells now housing two people per cell. With inadequate staffing, prisoners are locked up for longer, up to 23.5 hours out of every 24, eating and toileting in the same room.

This is an environment where it would be incredibly difficult for anyone to remain “sane”, but since the vast majority of inmates have already been damaged by drugs or abuse, it makes a “toxic cocktail” that is hard to bear. Reoffending rates are still high and the sense of rehabilitation is low.

So what can councils do that’s different?

Councils are responsible for children and young people and especially children in care. Still too many find themselves on the wrong side of the law and a disproportionate number end up in prison (Prison Reform Trust). Councils are responsible for public health, reducing addiction and for supporting vulnerable adults in the community.

Can we do better?

Just building big national prisons isn’t tackling the causes of offending and subsequent reoffending. Prisoners need family support on release, so breaking those bonds with expensive, long distance travel for visits is counter-productive. Local prisons are still important.

Just reducing prisoner numbers on its own would be more dangerous still if those criminals who need help are left without adequate support in the community. There has to be a realistic alternative and that inevitably costs money.

We need workers with far smaller caseloads and real access to a range of other support services for people both in prison and on release back into the community.

Much more is needed by way of assertive outreach to prevent reoffending. It is often the “softer” preventative services that get reduced first in times of austerity, but as we enter the longer term, we may be now reaping what we sowed.

The vast majority of inmates are damaged by abuse or drugs. Abusing them further by locking them up with the risk of violence and drugs, does not feel much like rehabilitation. Yet providing work and training requires higher staffing levels, which prisons have not got.

Just spending money on more prisons is throwing good money after bad, if we don’t also tackle the underlying causes of offending behaviour, including mental health issues and addiction. Without adequate support in people’s lives, they sadly disconnect from a sense of a positive future outside the penal system. With or without devolution, we have to do better.

Marianne Overton is the Independent County and District Councillor for Navenby and Branston District and the Cliff Villages. Also leader of the Lincolnshire Independents, a county-wide support network. Twice elected national Leader of the Independent Group of councillors for England and Wales and Vice Chairman of the Local Government Association.

Funding schools, roads, leisure and health facilities needed to match the extra houses planned is a problem. The new proposals are out for consultation with replies welcomed from October 1.

Since government spend is right down they will not be funding the increased roads, schools and services needed to support their planned increase in population. So how much can the developers pay?

Once the Local Plan is in place, the rules for developer contributions will change. All new developments of three houses or more will be expected to pay a Community Infrastructure Levy or CIL charge and any site-related 106 agreements. That is, only if they can afford it according to their “viability assessment”.

A 106 agreement is an agreement to pay the bare minimum costs in extra school classrooms, surgeries and roads for the new residents. But the developer is only required to pay if his viability assessment says he can afford it. This, including his profit margin is kept secret and not open for us to question. Certainly the developers will not be paying more in 106 payments than their viability assessment requires.

The CIL rates or “roof tax” will be set by the district council and is designed to help fund the increased demands of the new plan. Currently they are estimated to be between £25 and £40 per square metre of house build.

However, there is not enough money for the infrastructure we need, so there is a list of priorities and only the top ones will be supported, starting with the Eastern Bypass.

If the developer pays any CIL at all, the first 85% goes to the Eastern Bypass until they have £34m – which may take a few years. That money is effectively already spoken for, before the first CIL money arrives. 15% goes for local facilities, schools, roads, etc, unless you have a completed neighbourhood plan. With a neighbourhood plan, you get 25% of the CIL money.

However, currently the expectation is to take less from the developers in Sleaford, than in other areas, 0% in some cases. So you could easily get only 20% affordable housing with nothing for local facilities, that is bigger demands as people move in, but not the money to support them.

There is no affordable housing minimum requirement in this plan, so some developments will not be required to provide any.

These CIL rates are out for consultation, so it is something you can influence and the district council will be making the decision.

Probably more important is the fact that Sleaford has been allocated the highest rate of development in the county at 58% increase, with no certainty of jobs, facilities nor services. – The plan relies on an optimistic level of economic growth. Attracting new businesses is in competition with every other council, Europe and further afield.

I believe the build rate of 1540 houses per year is still much too high, being around double the rate for 2013/14 and close to the highest rate we have ever experienced. The Strategic Housing Market Area Assessment (SHMA) outlines the consultants’ assessment of “housing need”, based on plans for a lot more people.

I have argued long and hard for a lower number of houses that would be more deliverable and give us a better opportunity of meeting our extra requirements for facilities.

This plan leaves an estimated shortfall of over £100m in facilities. The proposals for economic development and jobs are “high level”, without the substance of detail, relying on attracting businesses in from other areas, against competition from every council in the land and abroad.

Reducing business rates to get them in, further cuts to the money we need to provide essential facilities, so tends to be self-defeating. Big businesses, like the straw-burning power station, tend to appeal, leaving us short. It is certainly worth attracting businesses that add to our economy, rather than just competing, but it will not be a magic bullet to save the day.

Ultimately, the plan relies on economic development, the thinnest document of all, and relying on the widest range of forecasts.

Most of all, I am concerned about getting what we need to match the housing; jobs, facilities and essential public services. With an estimated shortfall of over £100m, this document does not give confidence in a successful future.

The current estimated growth needs for Lincolnshire, including inward migration is calculated at 917 houses pa. Forecasts vary, giving a range of 1000 dwellings more or less.

37,000 houses is less than in the last unsuccessful plan, but it is still too many. We should take a lower estimate of housing need. There is a range suggested even by the consultants’ housing need assessment, that would fit the Inspector’s criteria to get our plan passed and give us a better future.

From the first of October, please add your voice to the clamour in response to the plans and if you copy me in, I will be able to support you better.


Find out the Lincoln sites allocated for new housing in the Draft Local Plan here.

 

Marianne Overton is the Independent County and District Councillor for Navenby and Branston District and the Cliff Villages. Also leader of the Lincolnshire Independents, a county-wide support network. Twice elected national Leader of the Independent Group of councillors for England and Wales and Vice Chairman of the Local Government Association.

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