Labour councillors set a budget with a carbon-busting theme at Council on 26th February. In spite of serious financial challenges faced because of government funding cuts, Stevenage no longer receives any government grant funding, the proposals saw Labour councillors plan to deliver 120 services, some new initiatives and a range of measures to help the town reach zero carbon by 2030 for just £16 a month
Since 2011 the £5.3 million the Borough used to get has been slashed. Add to that the pressure of dealing with unfunded inflation, which rises to £4.2m next year and the overall extent of pressures on the budget is £9.48 million. The budget this year will be £9.1 million, therefore, less than half of what it would have been were it not for government imposed austerity. No wonder that savings target are ever difficult to meet.
The frontline services delivered by local government, that people in Stevenage and across the country depend on are still the Cinderella of the public sector. Nationally almost 85% of upper tier council spending has to be spent on social care and the care of vulnerable children. Shamefully, there appears to be no recognition from central government of how little this leaves for other vital services.
The demand for affordable housing continues as more and more council houses are sold under the Conservative “Right to Buy” scheme. At the same time, Stevenage Borough Council is required under the national planning policy framework to contribute to solving the national housing crisis by facilitating the construction of 7900 houses by 2030.
Addressing climate change is becoming the defining issue of our times overshadowing everything else as noted by the UN, and most nations.
The LGA declaration of climate change and the rhetoric around it from the government should mean that this does not fall as an unfunded burden on local authorities. However, the government has yet to allocate any funding to local government to help with tackling climate change. The bulk of the action which needs to be taken will be at local level. Stevenage Borough Council has committed to tackling this head on and is focussed on cutting emissions to net zero and supporting our businesses and residents to do the same by 2030.
So, responsibility and accountability for addressing a range of important issues including housing, homelessness, social care, health inequalities, skills and economic development and even addressing climate change are delegated to the Borough Council by central government but task-appropriate powers and finance are not.
Climate change is the theme of the 2020/2021 budget. A robust four-step plan is being crafted to reach the net-zero target.
- Reduce emissions from the council’s fleet, buildings, assets and land.
The carbon footprint and wider environmental impacts of all new developments in Stevenage are now considered through planning, and every report received will have to have climate change implications set out clearly to aid decision making. Using this approach, recycling of waste last year (4665 tonnes) saved the council just over £1million.
- Climate Change Charter: Citizens
The Council wants residents to be informed and empowered to make the meaningful lifestyle changes required for Stevenage to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030. Our citizen’s climate charter will ask residents to commit to some of the changes they will make to help reduce the town’s carbon use.
The first initiative here in the absence of Government funding and in addition to £54,000 already allocated for recruitment of a climate action officer is an additional £20,000. This will support a programme of “Quick wins” identified by a citizen led Peoples Climate Action Forum, the youth council, the Schools parliament and the college. Two community orchards have initially been identified in need of revitalising . The project will see the planting of 12 mixed fruit trees (apple, plum and pear) along with some wildflower seed sowing in the next few weeks.
To improve biodiversity, a number of roadside verges and parkland have benefitted from meadow management to support an array of wildlife and increase the carbon capture rate of the land.
Seventeen local traders have signed up to a scheme to offer free water refills helping to cut disposable plastic bottle use. More will follow. Proposals to introduce free drinking water refill stations in the town centre, High Street and our parks are under consideration as is provision of a cycle-hire scheme. Four more E-Charging bays for electric cars will be added to the 12 in existence in Stevenage and 2 electric cars are available to support council staff in their daily work.
- Climate Change Charter: Business
Many businesses and contractors in Stevenage have their own programmes of activity to tackle climate change and Step 3 of the programme will be to talk to them, find out what their plans are and ask them to sign up to the Climate Change Charter. The town centre contractor Mace, has independently made the exemplary commitment to become zero-carbon by the end of this year.
- Collaboration and Lobbying
The Borough Council recognises that cannot achieve everything on its own and that ways will need to be found to get different powers through lobbying if the zero carbon goals are to be achieved. An opportunity has been identified to have Britain’s first all-electric bus town to pave the way for green communities of the future and is “work in progress”…
Citizens Advice Bureau
The CAB deals daily with many residents struggling under the pressures arising from Conservative austerity policies. Without the services of the CAB much of the cost of what they do would fall on the council, so £20,000 will be allocated to help them with funding cuts.
Town Centre Regeneration
The regeneration of Stevenage Town Centre also includes the Old Town High St , The Leisure Park and Roaring Meg. The High Street has lost Waitrose, the Post office and the Farmers market is struggling. The council owns no property on the High Street and so cannot help with rent adjustments or in other ways that an owner could. However, Labour councillors announced a package of measures to support the High Street and will work with the Business and Community Partnership to develop an area plan for the High Street and when funds allow will staff the collaboration.
Primett Road Car parks are underused since the departure of Waitrose so commuters will be encouraged to “Park and Stride” to the station, saving themselves £4.60 a day, hopefully adding footfall to the High street while also gaining the health benefits of a short walk.
The Royal British Legion will be supported with their events.
It is important for our young people to understand why VE Day matters and our colleagues at the Museum will create a booklet to explain why VE Day is part of our heritage and why Stevenage, the first post war New Town exists.
Central to the public celebration in Stevenage the council will be organising ‘Victory Park’ events, at each of the Green Flag award-winning parks. The celebrations in parks in Britain in 1945 were focussed on the return of peace in Europe far more than they were about the triumph of one nation over another. We must never take that peace for granted. The council will be seeking sponsorship to cover the full cost of these events and have already been successful in obtaining £5000.
What has been achieved in the last 12 months?
Our local plan was finally adopted following its totally unnecessary delay of well over a year on the holding direction imposed at our MPs request. This is crucial as without a plan in place, the town is vulnerable to speculative and unwanted planning applications which would be difficult to refuse. Now that the plan has full government approval, progress is being made at pace with the Town Centre development. The evidence of that is all around us as Queensway North is developed, Town Square is being radically renovated, the planning application for SG1 is submitted and the plans for the new bus station are well-advanced.
Housing and building homes is always a priority for the council and for many residents. The Borough Council house building programme is on track to build 550 council, affordable and private homes by 2025. New developments at Rockingham Way, Burwell Road and Blackwell Close are now homes to local people and with Herts County Council four homes at Blackwell Close for adults with learning disabilities have been delivered. New homes at Shephall Way and Scarborough Avenue are under construction and the contractor for Kenilworth Close has been appointed. This is a remarkable achievement considering that for every house sold on “Right to Buy”, the Borough Council is only permitted to use £59,000 towards building a new home from a sale price of £244,000 and the cost of building a Stevenage home is currently £165,000. The government rhetoric of one-to-one replacement is manifestly empty. However, our Labour council is determined to do what it can to tackle the housing and homelessness crisis.
The Co-Operative Neighbourhoods Programme which includes Neighbourhood Wardens will benefit from the investment of £387000 to continue the work of localising Borough Council teams and services. The bar has been set very high by Pin Green, the first community-led ward, where residents worked with the Council to create a community centre, park and to select shops that were needed by the locals to use and enjoy as a community.
The Borough Housing and Investment team have been awarded a Rough Sleeper programme grant of £177,000. The need continues to reduce the number of rough sleepers and homelessness in our town by helping them to find ways to change their circumstances and health for the better with some help.
The Stevenage Works Partnership has been offered £330,000 to support local people with training. The Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) supports this partnership and the Council will be working with North Herts College to deliver its benefits.
Since 2007, the Council has taken on more than 50 apprentices with many being employed permanently in a variety of roles including, business administration, human resources, finance and accounting, and much more. All apprentices have gone on to achieve a NVQ award.
The £1.5million playground improvement programme continues to roll out and young people continue to design the playgrounds they will be using and to enjoy our playground areas and new play equipment that can be seen across the town in Peartree Park, Torquay Crescent and most recently in Roebuck.
Stevenage Against Domestic Abuse (SADA) has continued its success and won further funding through expansion. The demand for its innovative services has led to neighbouring councils including North Herts and Welwyn and Hatfield paying for our service to be delivered across North and Central Herts
As well as the foundation stone of our cooperative principles and ways of working, The Borough Council remains firmly committed to the direct delivery of services and insourcing wherever that is possible.
Council Tax 2020/21
The Borough Council provides 120 services including bin collection, litter picking, parks maintenance, planning, housing etc. Given that there is again no NO central government grant because of “necessary austerity”, residents’ priorities cannot be met if council tax were frozen.
So against a very difficult financial background our Labour Council is delivering for Stevenage people, delivering their priorities, keeping the promises made in the manifesto and tackling new challenges like climate change by innovating and listening and learning from our residents.
Council tax will increase by £4.45 a year or 2.37% for a band C property. That means the Stevenage element of a Band C will be £191.62 for 2020/21. This means the equivalent of just under 53 pence per day of Stevenage residents’ Council tax bill will be spent in Stevenage by the Council.
£191.62 is less than the cost of home broadband for twelve months. It is less than a large family buying three loaves of bread a week for a year and it is less than the cost of an annual individual gym membership.
A figure to keep in mind is that all Stevenage services, a billion pound town centre regeneration, new homes, leisure and the theatre, parks, recycling and refuse collection, community centres, environmental health, play, planning, elections, tackling climate change and the rest of the 120 services cost £16 a month. Clearly a bargain particularly in the context of Government imposed austerity.
With the County Council increase of 3.99%, and 5.32% from the Police and Crime Commissioner, this means the Band C council tax in Stevenage for 2020/21 will be £1,624.69.