My first full Council meeting was last Friday, and it had a full agenda: setting the 2018/19 budget (including the proposed 4.9% rise in Council Tax) and approving the Capital Programme, as well as approving the continuation of the Council Tax reduction scheme. I voted for the latter, but did not feel able to support the budget or the capital programme. On the budget, I appreciate that the Council is working within very tight financial constraints, and that officers are doing the best they can to ensure vital services are protected. But I just don’t believe that this Conservative council has fought hard enough against the swingeing cuts imposed by Conservatives in Westminster. The simple fact is that Council Tax is going up and up – even though wages are low and stagnating – because local authorities have been starved of funds by central government.
Regarding the capital investment programme, I have two major concerns. The first is that about £2.5m is being borrowed for initial work on building a bypass to the West of the city (I understand the full bypass scheme will cost much much more than this in total, potentially well over £100 million). Yes, Hereford has congestion problems – but in my view they are mainly due to people like me driving into town and trying to get from one side to the other to get to work, school, the shops, the hospital etc. A bypass won’t address this – and it especially won’t do anything to help those of us living to the East of the city. Instead, I feel the council should be investing much more money right now in sustainable transport, both a) within the city (e.g park and ride/bike/car-share) and b) in rural areas (e.g. using mobile tech to support community transport). That sort of thing will be cheaper and more effective, and I’m hoping to make links with people who can help make detailed proposals along these lines. By the way, the council will next week launch a consultation on the bypass plans. I’ll be going along and I encourage you to do so too, and have your say before it’s too late! (BTW, I’m not simply ‘anti-bypass’ – I think each case should be assessed on its own merits. My key objection here is that I haven’t seen any actual evidence making the case for a Western bypass).
My second major concern is the proposed £20 million earmarked this year for the Development Partnership. This is by far the largest chunk of the capital programme – a hell of a lot of money. Half of it will come from the sell-off of the council farms, and half from borrowing (but I have no idea why the council plans to borrow even more, when we’re due to get about £42 million from the farm sales…). I have lots and lots of questions about these plans, so I’ll be meeting some of the key officers this week to get more info. Investment in infrastructure and economic development is a good idea in principle, but the devil is in the detail. The recent Blueschool House fiasco highlights what can go wrong if contracts aren’t properly supervised. So, we need much more detail about the ‘Development Partnership’ will involve, proper analysis of the potential social, economic and environmental impacts, and assurance about financial safeguards. I’ll be keeping a very close eye on this going forward.