Ferris Cowper’s County and District Council Newsletter

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Dear Neighbours,

On the 21st  April it’s Her Majesty The Queen’s 90th Birthday. What a wonderful lady!

As usual I have lots of news for you. In this issue I am discussing my resignation as County Councillor, briefing you on the upcoming elections on 5th May, offering a thorough and hopefully “debunking” briefing on Devolution, an update on local government funding and of course a run through the hot topics for Grayshott.

Clean for the Queen

My thanks to the wonderful Grayshott volunteers led by Phil Bates who turned up on a chilly morning to celebrate The Queen’s 90th Birthday by taking part in the nationwide Clean for the Queen event. I received a thank you letter from the Government Minister for Local Government which is being forwarded to the volunteers whose email addresses are known to the District Council.

County Councillor for Grayshott, Headley and Bramshott and Liphook

As you may have read in the local newspapers, I have resigned as the local County Councillor. The effective date of the resignation was in fact the date it was received at Winchester. So all I have been able to do is ask for the County Council officers’ indulgence in using my HCC email files to bring all open cases to neat suspension, ready for my successor who will be elected on the 5th May.

The reason is exactly as I’ve stated publicly, which is workload. When I sought election to the County Council in 2011 I was a District Council back bencher and I had the time to do the job. Two things changed that. Firstly in 2013 I was pressed to resume the Leadership of the District Council. Little did I know that this presaged the most complex era in the history of EHDC with the accelerating momentum of Whitehill and Bordon, the Devolution issue and the need to refinance the Council. Secondly and on top of that new workload, my hands-on style as a County Councillor attracted a great deal of casework and as you know, I always handle casework with attention to detail. The two just did not stack up and I wrote to the Leader of HCC early in 2015 advising him of my intentions. Devolution was the final straw and instead of staying on until the 2017 elections I had to step down this May for the good of my health. Which leads me on to the subject of elections!

Elections on 5th May

On 5th May we have national elections for the Hampshire Police and Crime Commissioner. The Hampshire PCC has a very important role in the funding and general strategy for Policing in the County.

In our area our biggest problem is minor rural crime and it’s vital that the Hampshire PCC commits to a fully funded programme to deal with this issue because it is the main cause of the Fear of Crime in the countryside. As you know I have worked hard with the current PCC, Simon Hayes, (Ind.) to get three EHDC dedicated Police Community Support Officers and also a number of Automatic Number Plate recognition cameras, (for rural vehicle based anti-social behaviour). I’ve also been able to influence another candidate, Mr. Michael Lane, (Con.), to adopt this strategy but to date no other candidates have approached me. I hope they do because local Council Leaders and Chairmen should be able to offer good advice on community safety needs.

On the same day and at the same Polling Stations, you will be able to elect my successor as County Councillor. County Council by elections tend to suffer a poor turnout, (as did the PCC elections last time), so do please make every effort to get to the Polling Station. If that is not convenient don’t forget that anyone can apply for a postal vote or a proxy vote and many more are doing so these days. It’s simple; you just ring up EHDC on 01730-266551. You can apply for a Postal Vote up to 11 working days before the election so that’s Tuesday 19th April. For a Proxy Vote it’s six working days so that’s Tuesday 26th April.

By now you should have received your Polling Cards. If not don’t worry, you can vote without them. However they are useful as they confirm your eligibility to vote and where you may vote. At every election in my 17 years as a councillor, we have had folk turning up at the Grayshott Polling Station who may only vote in Hindhead or have dropped off the Electoral Roll. If you don’t receive one by mid-April, I suggest you contact EHDC on the number above to clarify the situation.

Devolution

So where have we got to on this topic? You may be wondering if it really affects you anyway. Well one thing you can say for certain is that it does.  But it takes a while to explain! Here goes.

The Government is now very clear on one thing which is that local government is changing to the Directly Elected Mayor, (DEM), system just like the one that they have in London. In the past six weeks I’ve been one to one or in very small groups, with two Secretaries of State, three Ministers and a good number of senior civil servants and there are more to come. The message is crystal clear; the organisation of local government is changing and the Government has set this term of Parliament in which to do it. Many people find the standard model of a DEM system unattractive because the DEM in effect becomes an autocrat with absolute power, although of course they have to stand for election every four years.

In the standard model, the DEM would run a large grouping of councils which would be called a “Combined Authority”, (CA). Initially the powers of a DEM will cover Transport and Highways, Economic Development and Adult Learning and Skills. However the early enactment of this concept has been changed and now the Mayoral powers are unfettered, so a DEM can, legally, take over any and all local government duties including education, adult social care and so on. Expansion along these lines is likely to take place only after the first four years of a Mayor and not sooner

Since 2001 almost all first and second tier local councils, (that’s Counties, Unitaries and Districts), have a Leader who runs the Council and an Executive Cabinet who must approve all policy decisions. The decisions of the Leader and Cabinet are in turn subject to the approval of the Full Council of all elected members. Under the standard DEM model the Mayor has absolute power and the Cabinet is consultative only. Full Council becomes a debating forum. Unsurprisingly, many people find this a worrying development.

Because the County Council devised “Hampshire and Isle of Wight” proposal was based on this unpopular model, the Solent Combined Authority bid was put together initially by five Leaders who were hoping to get Government support for the notion of a “Constrained Mayor”. In this model, the Mayor would be required to work with a Cabinet who have executive power and could over-rule the Mayor when necessary. I was one of the five that devised this concept. Since then we have grown to eight in number representing a population of three quarters of a million people covering East Hampshire, Havant, Portsmouth, Gosport, Fareham, Southampton, Eastleigh and the Isle of Wight.

Our proposals are different from the County Council approach in another vital area, housing numbers. You all know how much effort and angst has been spent developing an East Hampshire Local Plan for housing up to 2028. The County idea was to create a new corporate entity called the Housing Delivery Board that would be able to override that plan anywhere in the county and in the case of East Hampshire for example, my councillors and officers would be almost powerless to stop additional unwanted housing. For me, it’s vital that your locally elected council remains accountable to you for both housing numbers and also the location of housing. It mustn’t disappear into an obscure and unelected bureaucracy. As a result, the Solent proposal enables any one cabinet member to veto Mayoral housing plans.

Thirdly, our idea has a much more manageable scale comprising just eight councils to form the CA. The County’s idea proposes all 15 Councils in Hampshire plus two National Parks plus two Local Enterprise Partnerships, the last four being unelected but ranking equally in voting power with the Councils. With the more manageable scale we were able to propose that each of the eight Leaders would comprise the Cabinet of the Combined Authority thus retaining the identity of the existing eight councils. On top of that, each Leader would continue to chair a local committee of their council that would look very much like the current local council cabinet, the idea being to retain our local identities and the sense of localism that a local council delivers today.

So if this is such a good idea why aren’t other people doing it? Well they are! Hampshire comprises a County Council and 14 local councils who are Unitaries or Districts/Boroughs. This is in addition to the town and parish councils where they exist. You now know that eight of the 14 are working on the Solent CA proposal. Well, interestingly the other six are working on a very similar proposal which is loosely called the Northern Districts bid. Their bid has been provisionally run past the Government and they have encouragement to proceed. They are taking a very similar approach to Solent and we are keeping close to them. Apart from the advantages of a Constrained Mayor and local control over housing, they also see the huge benefits of keeping the size of the CA manageable. None of us wants the sort of burgeoning, remote, autocratic colossus that the County Council has proposed.

Would I prefer to remain as EHDC? Yes I would. In fact we must remember that in the early stages a Combined Authority would be implemented as well as the existing councils, so EHDC and all the others would continue to exist in what I see as a sort of transition period. However, assuming Government policy doesn’t change, with the DEM having such power, it’s hard to see how local councils can survive in the long term. I am confident the Government is resolved to make the change to DEMs.

So do we sit here stubbornly and courageously fighting the incoming tide of the DEM and then find that after a period of autonomy we end up being told what to do and where to go, with no choice because the system is already implemented by then? Or do we become pioneers and take control of our future by helping the Government to shape this policy, (which emerged in the industrial cities) and make it fit for the rural shires? I’ve gone for the latter!!!

Local Government Funding

I covered some of this in my Christmas newsletter but more has happened since then. I explained that the Government’s strategy is to remove all central grants to local councils, (about 40% to 50% of the funding of most councils) and replace it with “100%” retention of Business Rates. This is incredibly complex because most local council expenditure is on Adult Social Care and Education which are County and Unitary services, but County Councils don’t levy Business Rates, only Unitaries, District and Borough Councils do. So as you might expect, a pooling system exists. EHDC collects about £30m in Business Rates but keeps only 6%. The County, (all 15 councils), as a whole, only keeps 88% because it has to pool 12% with the less well-off areas of the UK. So there is no such thing as 100% retention.

In the Budget in March, the Chancellor extended Business Rates relief to smaller companies by raising the thresholds at which Business Rates are payable, reportedly taking about 600,000 businesses out of the rates regime altogether. Great for those businesses, (many of which will be in Grayshott), but less good for the strategy for local government funding!!!

Councils will receive a transitional grant called a section 31 grant to close the funding gap. But that would be a central grant wouldn’t it? Those are the things the Government is phasing out because local councils can retain Business Rates? If you are now confused then there are millions like you.

The bottom line is roughly this. In Hampshire there are about £740m of Business Rates going around and that’s roughly equal to the central government grants all 15 councils receive. Take off 12% and local government is out of pocket by about £80m already. Take off the new rate relief which benefits smaller companies who are the economic heartbeat of rural communities like ours, then you can probably take off another 15%, (nobody has done the numbers yet; that’s an informed guess).

So this model of local government funding is broken before it starts. Now, just touching on the dreaded devolution topic once more, the early, pilot, CAs will be asked to also pilot the idea of replacing grants with Business Rates. It’s not going to be easy is it? However as you know, I’m already working on refinancing EHDC by switching to commercial property investment and also creating new council owned business ventures, (initially in the public sector) and away from grants and taxation. Guess what; in the transitional “shadow organisation” of the Solent CA, which we have to create if we are to be ready to be an arm of government after a mayoral election in 2017, I’m the “shadow” cabinet member for Finance and Public Estate. This will give me the chance to drive in many of our local ideas and get them exposed on the public stage. So if I’m lucky we may yet be able to square the circle of local government finance.

Grayshott Market

I have many regrets over this topic. I regret the loss of the market. I regret that some of our established businesses lost money because of the Market. I regret that some of our local business who made money from the market will now lose that money. Finally I regret the harsh words and ill feeling that arose during the debate. Yet it all seemed to be such a great idea!!

It’s all my fault of course! In my early days as a District Councillor I got to know the owner of The Square and I’ll call him Mr. P because he’s a private man. Like the late Barry Penny before me, I had always hoped that The Square could be opened up to the village and taken out of private ownership. After many years of discussions I ‘phoned Mr. P one day and he agreed to sell The Square precinct to the local council. We negotiated a fee and he very kindly asked for little more than a sum to cover the conveyancing costs. Clive Slaughter was Parish Council Chairman at the time and he agreed that GPC would pay the fee and completed the steps necessary to transfer The Square precinct into the ownership of the Parish Council.

The critical fact here is that Mr. P only made this magnanimous gesture because he wanted The Square to be used by the community of Grayshott for the general good of the village. So having The Square Events Group is bang on Mr. P’s strategy. But it does mean we have to think about how we are going to do that if Saturday mornings are off limits. Does it mean all Saturday mornings or just some? What about Saturday afternoons? Sundays? It’s not realistic to major on weekdays when so many people work Monday to Friday but there would still be school holidays perhaps?

Whilst understanding and empathising with both sides of the argument, I do hope that all of us can come together to secure the maximum benefit of Mr. P’s legacy for the village and the community of Grayshott. I’ve already offered EHDC manpower and cash resources to any and all who can help to achieve this.

Planning

Applegarth Vale remains in discussions between the applicant and EHDC planning officers and I expect some announcements one way or the other very soon indeed.

In the Christmas newsletter I referred to EHDC’s refusal to convert the “Shoe Shop” to residential, (to protect the retail vibrancy of that central part of the shopping centre) and the applicant’s appeal will be heard shortly.

The District Council’s Allocations Plan, (which takes the overall housing numbers for the District up to 2028 and allocates most of those numbers to preliminary designated large plots), has been signed off by HM Planning Inspectorate. To become law it has to be “adopted” by EHDC’s Full Council, (refer back to Devolution!) and that should happen next week.

This means that EHDC can commence work in earnest on the development of detailed policies. These are the policies you may have encountered if you have been personally involved in a planning application. One of most eagerly awaited I know, is whether or not the Waggoner’s Estate will qualify as an Area of Special Housing Character, H9 or whatever the new numbering will call it. Another big topic will be the line of the Settlement Policy Boundary which I expect to be redrawn. Thirdly, I am resolved to change the Shopping Centre Policy for Grayshott to bring it in line with Petersfield and Alton. All of these matters will be subject to advertised public consultation.

Highways

I’m sure you’ll realise how absolutely delighted I am that the new footpath along Upper Hammer Lane has been completed. This was fraught with problems such as MoD bureaucracy and dormice habitat but with excellent help from HCC Highway Officers we overcame all of these challenges and now schoolchildren from Grayshott, Hindhead and Bramshott have a safe walk to school. In fact many people have remarked to me that now we have kerbstones and nobody walking in the road, it’s safer for drivers as well.

The last thing I achieved before my resignation from the County was to get detailed proposals drawn up for reduced speed limits in Grayshott. The highlights are the 50 reduced to 40 at Kiln Way, a longer stretch of 30 instead of 40 on the Headley Road west of the village and the village centre reduced to 20 from 30 along both Headley Road and Crossways Road. Initially I’ve offered consultation to Grayshott Parish Council, The Grayshott Society and BiG. Very shortly and following their comments, there will be a general consultation with the public. I hope you like the scheme because it deals fully with numerous complaints I have received over many years, concerning traffic speeds in the village.

I have managed to hang onto about £35k of funding for a long term solution to Boundary Road. As I understand it from the excellent Boundary Road Residents Association, council grants from EHDC, HCC, Grayshott PC and Haslemere TC as well as those residents and institutions in the road itself, should raise enough cash for a robust solution with a 10 year life or more. Because it’s a private road, the initiative rests, as ever, with the residents but I know that progress continues at a pace.

The new streetlight for the layby in Headley Road will be installed soon. I’m sorry this has taken longer than expected.

Car Parking

As I reported last time the project is active. I’m still awaiting data from the businesses in Grayshott but I do know it is being consolidated.

My officers are also actively looking hard at possible property acquisitions to ease the situation further and there are defined options available.

The other details are fully described in my Christmas newsletter

Grants

The Grants year is over now and resumes in June. My final balances on both my County Councillor Devolved Grant and my District Councillor Devolved Grant were invested with the St. Luke’s Grayshott Youth Group to help them buy a ‘bus.

My EHDC grants are open for application from June. However this year, to apply for the County Council Devolved Grant, you will need to apply to the person elected on 5th May.

And finally,

 I was sorry to hear that Mani Rai has decided to stand down as Chairman of Buy in Grayshott. Grayshott has always been so lucky to keep finding wonderful volunteers for almost any job in the village, not all of which get the thanks they deserve!!! Well Mani, thanks so much for serving the village as Chairman of BiG.

If you have any County Council queries I’m afraid you now have to use the HCC ‘phone line or website until 5th May after which you can approach the election winner.

Otherwise, please contact me by email at ferris.cowper@easthants.gov.uk or by ‘phone on 01428-609858.

Cllr. Ferris Cowper.

Leader of East Hampshire District Council.

District Councillor for the Ward of Grayshott.