First may I apologise for not being at GM on Friday 15th January, but the Council have organised a full public meeting at the Barbican that evening to discuss the current flooding situation, and I feel that both as Labour Group Leader and as a Councillor for Guildhall ward – which was victim of significant flooding – I should be at the meeting. It will be one of the first opportunities for many residents to state their views, ask questions and have the start of a full debate.
So I will start with flooding: this has obviously been the biggest issue in York for the start of the year. In some ways the Ouse is almost a normal flooding situation, and although the river came perilously close to the current flood barriers, it did not come over, and protection worked well, and the recent defences put in last year to the Leeman Road area worked well. The big issue of course has been the failure of the Foss Flood Barrier, which has worked well over the years since it was built, but is obviously either at the end of its natural life, or seriously below capacity to cope with changes to climate which are putting more pressure on our rivers and perhaps the Foss in particular.
As part of my contribution to the local debate – and to the national debate, I was telephoned for comments by a wide range of media both local and national – I have said that what is needed is a full enquiry to examine not just what went wrong, but also consider the long term resilience of York’s flood defence both for the Foss and the Ouse. I am pleased to say that this has been picked up by the Administration, and after our recent Leaders’ briefing on the flooding my request for this to be done by enquiry, not just limited to Scrutiny, was accepted and I am involving myself with framing the
terms of reference. It is agreed that the costs of the Enquiry, and particularly the costs of an independent chair can be met through the money being passed into York to support the flooding relief operation.
As well as that I was with Rachael on both her visits to businesses badly affected by flooding and when Jeremy Corbyn visited the city and I was able to go to the Silver Command, where the partner agencies have been managing the crisis and the responses. At this stage I am not judging how well the council coped with the responses – I know the provision of free skips in affected areas has been well received, but the plight of the Travellers site in James St. has been particularly difficult – and a long term resolution is not yet in sight. As a group we will be pressing for answers around the long term planning and investment for the future, and in particular as to what was known beforehand about the Foss Barrier’s vulnerability. Any questions or comments will be gratefully received. I am not an engineer, but I have been asking questions about flooding in York for a number of years, and have a moderate understanding of how it works, and how best to prevent too much damage.
We will soon be heading into the Budget process. And we also have to grapple with the difficulties of being in opposition for the first time in four years, and also with the fact that (probably under our leadership) information for opposition councillors is severely limited. So until the papers go public towards the end of January/early February we have no clear information as to what will be planned by the administration. This will give us approximately three weeks to consider their budget and prepare any amendments we want to put forward. Neil Barnes – our lead on Finance – will be leading us through the process, and we have drawn up a timetable to plan for the work. I am proposing that Shadow Executive take a whole day to
finalise their amendments so that we can maximise the effectiveness of our proposals. We will not be creating an “alternative” budget – pretty much an impossibility in realistic terms - but we do hope to come up with some significant proposals that – even if they don’t get through – will give us an independent voice in the budget debate. But I hope the party will understand that we are going to be under a lot of pressure during this process and working to very tight deadlines.
I am embarking on a programme of “Meet the Regional Leaders”, with devolution still very much on the table I have set up a series of meetings with the Leaders of the West Yorkshire Councils: as a group we are still very committed to being part of the Leeds City Region/West Yorkshire Devolved Authority, as we see that as where York’s long term economic prosperity lies. One of the problems has been the fact that our boundary is not contiguous with the Leeds boundary (both Harrogate and Selby get in the way), but it would seem that both Harrogate and Craven District Councils also see their future as being part of a West Yorkshire Devolved Authority, and legislation going through Parliament would enable District Councils to come out of their County Council arrangements and join an adjacent authority – this would certainly make York’s case for joining West Yorkshire even stronger. The North Yorkshire MPs are concerned about the implications this might have for the future of North Yorkshire County Council but we are hopeful that this will go ahead and give us a stronger argument. The current Administration is not clear as to where it stands. Chris Steward – the Council Leader – has not attended any meetings of the West Yorkshire group – although he has a place at the table. We think the Liberal/Democrats favour an alignment with North and East Yorkshire, but the Conservatives are watching to see how the wind blows.
Cllr. David Levene and I went to Bradford on Friday to meet the Leader of Bradford Council – Councillor Dave Green; and we have a meeting lined with Cllr. Peter Box, leader of Wakefield. I am also asking for a meeting with Cllr. Judith Blake – Leeds Council – and these discussions will be useful. Arising out of our meeting with Dave Green, we will be trying to meet up with York Business leaders who, we are sure, favour the West Yorkshire link up. But it is making for a busy time as we try to sound out influential allies.
Nearer home, we are picking up some concerns around progress with the Community Stadium. It has already been reported in the Press that Tim Atkins, who has been leading the development for the last four or five years (he was appointed by the Liberal Democrat administration), is leaving the Council rather abruptly. It is an area of concern that such a significant development for the City – and which I believe has widespread public support – should be suddenly feeling a little shaky. I don’t think I can say more at this stage; but look out for a request for letter writing in the future.
Finally, as part of an agreement reached with all the three main groups on the Council, at our December meeting we approved an increase in Councillor Allowances. Like MPs pay this is always a controversial issue, and over the last two reviews we have voted against taking any increase. But the trouble is that the longer you leave it the more difficult if gets to catch up, and the less realistic the allowances become for sitting councillors and prospective councillors. We do not do it for the money, but we do put in a lot of work, not just meetings, but dealing with constituents – who recognise no “office hours” approach, and can ring you at all times of the day (and night, and weekends); it’s what we are there for but a modest increase in allowance does help. So right at the beginning of the council year it was agreed that we would re-convene the review
panel, accept whatever they put forward (and it was not so generous an increase as it had been four years ago), and take it through council with the minimum of fuss. As it was, 1 Independent and 2 out of 4 Greens voted against the proposal and it will come into force in January this year.
Finally, also at Council, we had an amendment on improving the Council Tax relief scheme. We had pressed for it to be considered as soon as possible, and were delighted at the good response to the consultation. We proposed a somewhat more generous arrangement – based on the proposals put forward by Advice York – but it failed. An increase is going forward, but more modest that we wanted. But it is something. And I am glad we achieved it.