On March 6th the Council passed its annual budget. Financially, these are extremely difficult times to say the least. Over recent years the Council has suffered a £70m cut to its funding. Funding is down to 2008 levels, although prices have gone up and so have the service demands from a growing and ageing population and our communities suffering the impacts of pay freezes and welfare reform. This year we had to bridge a spending gap of £28m. This situation is a result of cuts imposed by the Tories in Westminster on the annual allocation to the Welsh government, from which the authority gets most of its funding in the form of revenue support grant and other grants. Therefore, the cause of our situation is the self-defeating and cruel political choice of austerity, claimed to be all about ‘balancing the books’ but borrowing has increased since 2010, when the Tories came back into power. Austerity is really about attacking, and if possible destroying, the public sector and replacing it with the private market or otherwise, charities. When the Westminster government did lift the public sector pay cap there was no funding in place, so the Council has had to find this money.
By law, we have to pass a balanced budget, otherwise the officers will draw up a balanced budget, which may have very different priorities to one drawn up by a Labour Council.
Therefore, the budget was not an easy one to draw up and pass, involving as it does cuts to some services and increases in some charges. However the proposed charge for users of social service day centres (which, incidentally Swansea is a highly unusual Council in not already having) is being deferred for the moment. In any event, only those who could pay would pay and consultation showed that service users, given the choice, would prefer to pay for a service than lose it. Council tax is increased by 4.9%. The Council is making a political choice to keep services running and to protect jobs and skills when at all possible.
Nevertheless we have invested in new schools, roads and for the first time in a generation we are building council houses, to a high energy saving standard, so that the challenges of affordable housing shortage, fuel poverty and climate change can be tackled at the same time.
We refuse to reduce Council services to their statutory core: the things that we have to do by law, namely education and social services. We want to carry on providing the further helpful services which make Swansea the great place it is.
What was telling was the muted response from the opposition parties in the Council chamber. Apart form a few relatively minor amendments, which were rejected, there was no alternative put forward because they know the situation and in the case of the Tories, they know their friends in Westminster are responsible for it.
From time to time, Labour councillors and supporters might be told that they should worry less about Westminster and more about everyday issues in Uplands. However, there is much that as a Labour Council we would love to do for Uplands and everywhere else in Swansea, stuff that makes life better, like flower beds in the parks, maintenance of bowling greens, extra staff to to deal with HMOs etc., which we simply cannot do because our funds are being cut year on year to a level that is becoming unsustainable.
Austerity is the elephant in the room. Getting the Tories out in Westminster (along with keeping a Labour-led Council in Swansea) is the best things that could happen for Uplands.
There were three planning applications from Uplands before the planning committee this month.
One was to convert the Twizzle Lodge Nursery on Hawthorne Avenue (including building a single storey extension) into 13 student flats. Cllr Nick Davies called this into the committee as he and Cllr Mary Sherwood regarded it as a misconceived application, a view shared by many local residents. We organised a petition against it. Highways objected to the application on the basis that there was insufficient parking provision and inadequate access to the site. Planning officers recommended that the application be refused on grounds that it was an over-intensive development, disrupting to the residential amenity and would result in an unacceptable level of on-street parking. In the event the application was withdrawn.
There were two applications to convert residential properties into 6 bed HMOs, one at 6 Brynymor Road and the other at 199 St Helen’s Avenue. Both were opposed by Uplands Labour Councillors who had, in the case of 6 Brynymor Road, organized a petition in opposition addressed the planning committee urging them to refuse the application on grounds of over intensity of HMOs and because they would if granted and if complying with the council’s own parking standards, result in an unacceptable increase in on-street parking. In both cases, Uplands Labour councilors challenged the view apparently still held by officers that living next to a HMO was the same as living next to a family home: there is no ‘head of household’ to approach about noisy or anti-social behavior, 6 adults with their own social lives is not the same as a family with children, many HMOs are not sound-proofed and their design frequently removes the soft furnishings that absorb sound.
The application for Brynymor Road was approved, that for St Helen’s Road rejected. Why the mixed result? The clincher appears to have been HMO density in the streets concerned: 29.3% and 44.58% respectively (if allowed). The refusal may be challenged at appeal, of course.
If the HMO Supplementary Planning Guidance put before the committee in July – with a realistic threshold reflecting the existing character of the area – had been adopted, both applications could have been rejected and the authority could have been confident that the decisions could have been defended at appeal.
The Future of Twizzle Lodge
A Hawthorne Ave resident who contacted us with concern about the proposal and helped gather signatures is interested in seeing the building return to its former use as a community centre. He suggests applying for Lottery funding to purchase it for community use. The owner has agreed to meet with us to discuss this idea further. If anyone would be interested in getting involved or sharing their thoughts, please get in touch.
We have lost a beautiful, large London Plane on Beechwood Road near Gwydr Square, and a few more around the area have been marked for removal. On Glanbrydan Ave some residents gathered a petition to try and save a tree there. We have had discussions and meetings with the Council’s Arborists and the Manager of the Tree Services Unit from the Parks Department to be able to understand the situation better. When trees become diseased, die, or begin destroying underground services or nearby property, we face serious risks: someone could be injured or we could face very high bills; therefore they need to be removed.
Fundamentally the problem then is that Council lacks policies to protect trees or ensure their replacement (where possible) – our legal duty to “protect and enhance biodiversity” in the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, and our various duties to reduce carbon and increase ecosystem health and resilience, in the Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, now require us to address these gaps. Mary is in regular meetings with the Nature Conservation Team and other relevant officers about developing policies and strategies to help us here, and has also been working with the Head of Corporate Performance to ensure that “tree loss” itself is also recognized as a risk to the council, having impacts on air quality, carbon levels, health (physical and mental) and the sewerage charges we pay to Welsh Water (trees suck up gallons). In the meantime, we are keen to do what we can to keep Uplands as green and leafy as possible, and have asked for Officers to help us identify suitable locations for new trees and appropriate types. Most of our trees were not well-chosen or well sited, hence the problems we’re now having. We can use our community budget for planting and there may be some additional funding from the nature conservation team. Uplands can then serve as an example of how to meet tree-related challenges in our suburban centres.