This month’s report focuses on news from the Council Chamber, which saw the adoption of both the LDP and the Budget, on February 28th.
LOCAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN – with HMO safeguards at long last
The LDP was finally presented to Council … along with some disappointing posturing from the opposition, and evidence of misinformation still circulating amongst the Uplands community.
Public Question time at the start of Council included a question beginning – apologies for my paraphrasing – Now that Uplands is to have 25% HMOs …
Of course most parts of Uplands are already well over 25% HMOs; the LDP should now ensure they will have no more, instead of having absolutely zero protection against further increase, as has been the case up to now.
And of course some parts of Uplands are still lucky enough to be under 25% HMOs, but the LDP is not a tool for trying to change that. If nobody converts a house to a HMO, or applications for HMOs don’t meet the many new criteria in the LDP, then those areas may never reach 25% concentration.
The LDP is not a set of goals for the council (or developers) to aim for. It is a tool to control development; to legitimately refuse development we don’t want. The endless and incorrect message that the council is aiming for any number of HMOs in any part of Swansea is completely wrong and it is shameful to see residents continually misinformed for political gain.
The part that does include goals, is the affordable housing target – the percentage of any housing development which must be sold at below current market rates. Swansea Labour wanted high targets and the Planning Inspector reduced them. While we have to accept this ruling, we have committed, as Cllr David Hopkins explained, to negotiating with developers and asking them to please aim higher.
Tory Independent councillor for Penllergaer, Wendy Fitzgerald, declared that two farms were due to be “concreted over” for housing in her area. Like Uplands opposition councillors, she is describing the LDP not as limits of what could be allowed, but as goals that will be aimed for. It will be up to the landowners whether those farms get developed for housing or not, and developments would have to be in line with LDP conditions (so: not full of concrete!). Fitzgerald also drew attention to a line in the report , referring to: “The measures that are to be taken to monitor the significant environmental effects of the implementation of the Plan”,condemning the LDP as bad for the environment and unsupportable. Cllr Phil Downing, Pontardulais, rebutted these criticism, referring to unwanted development in his ward which the LDP now allows the council to refuse. The point Cllr Fitzgerald is willfully missing, is that development has always had a significant effect on the environment, but this LDP commits us to monitoring them – in a much more proactive and protective way than before.
No LDP would mean no legal basis for refusing terrible developments having awful environmental, economic and social impacts. Its predecessor, the UDP, has expired and Swansea is vulnerable without a plan in place. So we are very pleased that – even though most of the Tories and Independents did not support it and Uplands Party did not vote at all – it was approved.
Along with the LDP, Council approved the 2019/20 Budget on February 28th. It was ultimately very disappointing to see the opposition vote against Labour’s budget, despite having no alternative plan of their own. A few areas of particular interest were debated:
Teachers’ Pay: the UK government sets rates for teachers’ pay. They have ordered an increase, but have not supplied enough funding to Cardiff to give local councils to honour it. We have committed to bridging the gap, although this contributes to the need for us to, sadly, increase council tax.
Libraries: Labour’s budget included a £35,000 cut to Library services, achieved through trimming hours during quiet periods, and contributing to an overall review of how servies might be spread more fairly across the county. Currently, better-off areas are well served, with Oystermouth and Killay libraries opening on a Sunday, and smaller libraries in much more deprived areas being open only a few hours a week. The main (Lib Dem/Independent) opposition group proposed an amendment to the budget, to keep the service exactly the same as it is, by reducing the budget for cultural services and major events. They claimed that libraries were an important resource for tackling poverty, in particular digital exclusion, given that Universal Credit must be claimed online and people need free access to computers. They insisted that the new proposed opening hours for libraries were based on periods of busy book-lending, not taking account of things like computer use, clubs etc. Robert Francis-Davies, June Burtonshaw and Mary all responded stridently to these criticisms. June has undertaken a thorough review of library usage, including computer use and social clubs/events. Keeping long hours in affluent areas won’t help the digitally excluded of Eastside or the city centre (Mary explained the digital inclusion strategy work underway with local partners), and the budget they propose cutting is used as match-funding to attract further grants, and gets us money from ticket sales, licences etc, so the loss actually translates into £140,000. A lot of this budget also goes to ensure that people on lower incomes access culture and the arts; this is also important for building confidence, creating positive experiences and ambitions, and tackling poverty. Since the budget, the criticism that the Tories, Independents and Uplands party voted to cancel the Airshow, has prompted discussion on social media about the merits (or not) of the Air Show. This is not really the point. The Airshow and/or other events would have had to be cancelled if their proposed £35k cut (resulting in a £140k total loss) to the Culture budget had gone ahead.
Green Infrastructure & Biodiversity: Cllr Fitzgerald made a further attack on Swansea Labour, refuting the Leader’s promise to invest in re-greening the city and county. She accused us of complacency over the felling of the ancient Redwood by a developer who had no permission, and the loss of considerable chunks of woodland on an approved housing development site. Rob Stewart reminded her that she has been fully briefed on the work we’re doing to bring the destroyer of the Redwood to justice. Mary referred back to the LDP for further evidence of Swansea Labour’s commitment to environmental protection and increasing Green Infrastructure, listing various LDP policies aiming to commit developers to introduce more greenery, protect the environment and safeguard against climate change, remarking that it seemed to deliver what Cllr Fitzgerald was hoping for in Swansea, so it was a good job it had been adopted … without her support.
Budget Voting: The Leader called for a Named Vote to identify exactly who was standing by the important improvements and protections announced in our budget – in the face of crippling Tory austerity and £24m less available to us than last year – and who was not. The record will show that everyone on the opposition benches voted against the budget. Even though they hadn’t proposed a different one.
Finally it’s worth remembering that, contrary to the claims of some in the public gallery, there is no such thing as a legal no-cuts budget when you’re losing £24m of your funding. If council can’t pass a balanced budget, the (unelected) officers are allowed to take over, and set one that suits them.