Sunday, 25 December 2011

Merry Christmas

I hope everyone is having a great Christmas. A councillor is for life (well his or her term of office!) not just for Christmas, so do please let me know how I can help - preferably in a day or so. I hope everyone has a great time, I've got a feeling 2012 is going to be a great year!

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Prudhoe Town Council - an update

We had the last meeting of 2011 of Prudhoe Town Council last night. I was glad I went. The meeting was inquorate before I showed up! The town council had it's usual enormous agenda but it was amazing how we whipped through it with the majority of the hot air producers being absent!

I thought I  would try to keep residents up to date with the major events at the Town Council (PTC) because virtually no members of the press or public ever attend. Last night we had to exclude the press and public to discuss a confidential issue but it was OK as there wasn't anyone there!

So what did we agree to do last night? Well we agreed to start the process of a major upgrade at the cemetery buildings at the old cemetery in Prudhoe and we agreed to move into the new Spetchells centre, where the officers of the council and all the meetings will be based from March, an improvement on the current premises, Waterworlds creche (although I have always felt it's a fitting location!). What did we learn? That the Town council has about £20,000 in unallocated balances and it is likely to underspend by about £40,000 on a budget of £244,000 by the end of March, which should hopefully reduce the increase in council tax next year. We also learnt that the County Council has agreed to the campaign by me and Cllr Bill Garrett to count the South Road toilets as a "strategic" asset, which means that the £10k annual maintenance charge will be borne by the County Council rather than just Prudhoe tax payers.

That's about it! The council usually meets once every two months but is meeting twice in January, one of which is to look at its budget for next year.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

pt 3 - we need the credit companies to pay for the cost of their irresponsibility

I've run a few articles on the website about the increasingly immoral cost of banking and the rise of unscrupulous pay day loan shops. The other thing that needs to be done over and above the recent changes to mortgage eligibility and the implementation of the Vickers report is to make banks and other credit companies pay for the cost of the advice that is needed to sort out peoples problems caused by them.

First of all, a declaration. As a CAB manager, I manage a team of dedicated debt advisers who help hundreds of people manage their debt problems every year. They are currently funded by a government programme known as the Face to Face debt programme. It costs the government £27m a year to run. The government also pays a substantial sum every year to lawyers and debt counselling charities through legal aid for debt advice. Now there is no doubt in my mind that this work is essential. The social costs of not helping these people far exceeds the costs the government puts in. But why should the taxpayer pay to help people get out of a mess caused by people being given credit they usually can't afford?

If you have a complaint about a bank, you go to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS). If you do that the bank you are complaining about has to pay a fixed fee to the FOS to sort your complaint out. Instead of making the taxpayer pay for independent debt advice, why are we not asking the banks to pay a levy instead?

In February the Treasury said that "The Government intends to put the provision of debt advice onto a more sustainable footing. We want to see a flexible and cost effective response to debt problems, so that people can be helped in a way that works for them. The Coalition Agreement pledged that the Government would take action to help people to manage their own debts. It has been looking for new ways to encourage debtors to seek this support in its call for evidence on consumer credit and insolvency." Since then there has been silence. A levy on the banks would be a sustainable footing as it would stop charities such as mine going to the government with a begging bowl every year.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

pt 2 - we need to stop exploitation of people through pay day loans

Over the past few years, as the banks restrict personal credit, we have seen the massive expansion of payday loans. I noticed in a recent planning submission that the Money Shop (representative APR - 219.1%) is planning to open more than 200 stores over and above its existing 407 stores. As budgets get tighter and the banks more uncaring, the poverty market is increasingly been met by expensive providers. Many of our town centres are being filled up with pay day loan shops, cash for gold outlets, pawn shops and expensive monthly payment stores. They all aggressively market themselves on TV and through sports like Football (middlesborough and Blackpool FC are sponsored by Ramsdens for Cash and respectively). Personally, I think the very easy availability of these shops is dragging our high street down as well as putting temptation in the way of the most vulnerable in society.

I would consider making expensive credit shops a separate planning category aside from the A2 category so we could set limits for the number of these establishments in our town centres. At the moment they are categorised like a bank in planning terms, which makes them hard to restrict. I would also ban advertising for such products. The current industry seems very lightly regulated and many adverts running seem to encourage payday loans as a no bother pain free experience. Many people I see at the CAB have been given unsuitable and unaffordable loans and are then allowed multiple rollovers. Many are then aggressively pursued by debt collectors.

I accept that from time to time people might need emergency cash and that,, in those circumstances, a payday loan may be not so bad. I would suggest that we restrict the number of times people can get emergency cash in this way to 5 times a year. After that they would need to seek independent debt advice and counselling before they can take more out.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Banking reforms should only be the start - pt 1

There has been welcome news over the weekend on Banking reforms. Firstly Vince Cable confirmed that the Vickers report would be implemented in full. This is great news as it stops, to a large extent, the future prospects of our country being held to ransom by casino banks. Also welcome are the proposed restrictions on mortgage lending - to stop people being lent money they can't afford.

But for people at the moment we have a real problem, with banks squeezing every last penny from consumers while they restrict their credit lines. Despite all the talk of banks being more understanding, they are continuing to charge massive charges for people going overdrawn (the news of a Santander APR of 819,000% being one of the more startling). Now we see state owned banks RBS/NatWest and Lloyds restricting access to cash from basic bank accounts to their own ATMs. This has massive implications in more rural areas where there is often just one (if that) ATM with a very expensive and irregular bus ride to the nearest next one. We then saw Barclays triple the charge for a missed Direct Debit to £24 on basic bank accounts, which are held by the people most likely to be in trouble and who would find it hardest to recover from the impact of these charges.

Banks argue that if they don't put these charges in they will have to charge for accounts. Of course this is rubbish. They could forgo profits to be socially responsible. It seems that the only way to get them to do this is to legislate on maximum charges and to stop them restricting ATM usage. I'm always reluctant to urge legislation but when banks refuse to change it is needed. In the meantime, we should be instructing state owned banks to at least not do these things.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

De Nada, Nowt, Zero

Nowt added to council tax from t' county!

Whichever way you say it that is the council tax rise passed for hard pressed council tax payer’s at the county council level. I was listening to some people at the bus station the other day who seemed to think the county were pushing up their bills. I had to jump in and correct them! Northumberland Lib Dems have made history by not increasing the Council Tax this year. Despite having to make large cuts to balance the budget, I completely endorsed the approach. I have always opposed Council Tax as an unfair tax. It hits people on the bottom end of the income scale, such as pensioners and young families, hardest. Everyone is having a hard time of it at the moment and this is a very fair decision.

At the last local elections, I pledged not to vote for increases in council tax above inflation, which they have honoured. Although inflation in September (the level at which council tax is judged against) was 5.2% I hope we can freeze the Council tax at the county level again. The bad news is that the Town Council will likely push up the small element of the precept they control, as they are taking on new responsibilities. I hope however that they don't increase the already substantial administration budget, which is well over 20% of the Town councils costs.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Investing in libraries and social care

Me with the brilliant Gordon Flugell, our first client!
I was really pleased to go to Halwhistle to the launch of one of our five pilot Social Care and Information points across the county. The five are in Haltwhistle, Cramlington, Morpeth, Amble and Berwick.

In Haltwhistle it is in the library. Since taking over as portfolio holder with responsibility for libraries in May, I've been very keen to push the concept that libraries should become more and more the hub of the communities and we should use our considerable network of libraries to let residents access a wide range of council services. It is part of making the library service resilient and strong despite changes in peoples needs. It's a lot better than the knee jerk closure of libraries by some local authorities. A few years ago the council took the painful decision to close council run day care centres, which were out of date and  expensive. We were able to save money and give a much expanded range of options to residents.

The new (ish) personal budgets give residents a much wider choice of options but sometimes vulnerable people need help using them. That's why we have worked with Northumbria Foundation Trust to employ a network of support planners to help people. It was a pleasure to talk to the support planner for the West of Northumberland, Kay Williams. I last spoke to her when she worked at the old council run day care centre in Prudhoe, Oaklands. So it was great to see she has got employment helping people use the new system. She is available to residents from Ponteland to the Cumbrian border. If people want to use a support planner ring  01670 536 400 for help.

Gordon, the first person to drop in, had suffered from a number of strokes and now he needs a bit of support. He uses his personal budget to go to a regular day club. He really appreciates the face to face contact as opposed to using the phone to get help.

Kay will be in Haltwhistle library on Monday and Thursdays for people to drop in but Pat and the other librarians are trained to know the basics to help residents and there is information on other support informations such as Carers Northumberland and the CAB. We will be seeing if this helps get people involved after 6 months of running it and if it does we will look to roll it out to other centres. 

Affordible housing in Prudhoe - any ideas?

I've spoken before about the need for more houses in Prudhoe for people on the housing list to be able to rent at affordable levels. The situation is far, far worse in Prudhoe West (my ward) where a lot of the houses have Most of the houses in the main sites in the town are spoken for and we have reached the edge of the greenbelt, so what to do? Well maybe get empty homes into action. No dice. As I discovered at the area committee last night, Prudhoe West has the second lowest levels of empty homes in the county (5 on the 11th - for a full table see agenda item 8 here

I have stated that there are an additional few properties where development has stalled but I would be interested in peoples ideas where we could build more homes or where there are existing sites. I have suggested that the waste ground at the foot of Castlefields, near the industrial estate in Low Prudhoe to be investigated. Not a perfect site but I am really scratching my head here! I genuinely would like to hear local peoples ideas on how we can develop more affordable homes.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Time to stand up and be counted on Europe

Not a real photo! Credit to Jason Hunter for this though.
The coalition government has always had areas of general agreement between the three parties in it (yes three – The Liberal Democrats, moderate Conservatives and the 81-100 “Tea Party” conservative MPs). Many commentators up to now have commented how well all three seemed to be getting along on matters concerning the EU, considering the massive divide between the majority in my party who want to be fully involved in the European Union, fighting for structures which suit the UK needs and reversing the democratic deficit built up by member state governments, and the Tea Party Tory MPs who will not stop till Britain leaves the EU and becomes a welfare free free trade island with links to the USA.

Indeed it is quite surprising how we all rubbed along. The problem is that whilst Liberal Democrats are consensual politicians to their core, always willing to negotiate and be reasonable, the Tea Party Tories are fundamentalists, who believe in an isolated Little England (and it is England, there are virtually none of them from Scotland or Wales). They are not serious negotiators.

As a member of the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG), the internal organisation that works for stronger links between the Liberal Democrats and our European Liberal sister parties, I am a strong believer in the ideals of the European Union and believe that our interests are best served by being at the negotiating table and that there are areas ( for example the economy, the Environment, management of the seas, worldwide free trade, foreign aid, foreign policy, immigration and policing) where Britians interests are served best by co-operating.

So it was in a somewhat depressed mood that I trudged down to London yesterday for a meeting of LDEGs executive committee. We welcomed two of Nick Cleggs special advisors (or SPADs) to the meeting where they set out their impressions of the negotiations in the build up to the UK summit and the aftermath.

It is clear that very few in the cabinet, let alone MPs and MEPs, were involved in negotiations. They were kept fairly tight, as it would be folly to let other governments know your position before you want to let it be known. Initially, Cameron wanted to go into negotiations arguing for a substantial repatriation of powers, including all Working Time Directive issues. Lib Dems generally agree that there is a case for the repatriation of some of these powers but, unlike the Tories, we would not see this as an excuse to abolish laws limiting the amount employers can exploit their workers.

So Clegg successfully argued against this stance, on the grounds that there was no point at all in going to a summit that was about the survival of the Euro talking about a totally different issue. That would have just resulted in mockery from our EU partners and an inevitable walk out by the PM.

The seven concessions asked for by the UK government were backed by Nick Clegg. They are relatively minor and many are being negotiated by our excellent MEP Sharon Bowles, who is chair in the European Parliament of the Economic and Finance committee (incidentally the fall out from the summit makes it increasingly unlikely that a British MEP will be taken seriously as a candidate for the chair of such a body in the future, a very sad fact). But it was acknowledged that he needed a “fig leaf” to show his Tea Party backbenchers. It was also agreed that we were unlikely to get all 7 concessions and they were the start of bargaining, not “red lines”.

Nick Clegg did a lot of lobbying with EU leaders to get the UK position agreed. He is personally liked by EU leaders, probably due to his mutilingualism and his experience of EU institutions from being an MEP and EU trade negotiator. Nick even flew to Spain to lobby the new Spanish prime minister. It was felt that Merkel was sympathetic but that Sarkozy, who has a presidential election to fight soon and always enjoys a bit of Anglais bashing, wasn't.

Any other UK Prime Minister of the past 40 years, including Thatcher, would have been able to get a deal. Cameron's isolation in Europe (the Conservatives pulled out of the pan European Conservativee grouping a few years ago so didn't go to the pre meeting of centre right leaders where a “Line” of negotiation was agreed between the majority of Europes leaders) added to an incompetent negotiating stance (he effectively walked out rather than stretch out negotiations) meant that the UK was left isolated. The non Euro countries, who we could have expected to have found common cause with, were so appalled by the UKs stance that they were more likely to throw their lot in with the Euro 17, in an attempt not to be seen to be destructive like the UK.

All this resulted in Britain not being at the table for future negotiations, a disastrous position meaning we will no longer be involved in shaping many elements of the EUs financial issues. This is really bad for UK business, both the City and UK manufacturing. This has been backed up by near unanimous condemnation of Cameron from the Chambers of Commerce, the City and the CBI.

The view of LDEG (and I am fairly sure of the DPM as well) is that Cameron intentionally broke the spirit of the compromise before the summit and went to Brussels less than keen to get a deal. He put the interests of his party ahead of the country. That is really disappointing. The Liberal Democrats have time and time again put their short term popularity with the public on the line for the sake of the national interest.

We did not want to compromise on tuition fees or but recognised the need for give and take to achieve a government acting in the national interest, getting deficit reduction. We recognise that government is about doing what's right rather than what pleases your party. By walking away when a deal could have been secured, Cameron has let the Liberal Democrats down and much more importantly the country down.

LDEG is now determined to make the case for the Liberal Democrats to continue to be a party that supports staying in the EU and staying at the negotiating table. I want to make the case to the British people, who have been drip fed a diet of jingistic anti European nonsense by the press for 30 years.

I am sick of hearing our national dialogue with Europe being framed in language reminiscent of WW2 (“bulldog spirit”, “unlike the rest of Europe we're not afraid of Germany”). The rest of Europe has moved on. Germany has built up a successful competitive manufacturing based economy whilst the UK has given up its status as a leader in making products to become a retail and services based economy. During those years, productivity has dropped whilst governments have just made us work harder to make up the difference.

The North East, my home for all my adult life, is the only region with a net positive balance of trade with the EU – i.e. it exports more than it imports. Whilst marginalisation may be more acceptable to regions where financial services dominate, it is essential for people in the North East that our links with Europe endure.

I am proud of Nick Clegg for speaking out on Europe (apparently Clegg and Cameron had their first stand up row about this matter) and for saying what's right. It must be made clear that displeasing the Liberal Democrats in the coalition on Europe carries as high a political price as annoying the wing nuts in his own party for Cameron.

The Liberal Democrats have always campaigned for what we think is right, not what the polls say is popular at the moment. By carving out a clear pro-growth, pro-trade position that argues for involvement with the EU, I believe we will be respected for speaking out.

If you're a Lib Dem member, you will get a lot out of joining LDEG. Here is their website

Hammer Blow

Me at the Hammerite gates

There was widespread disappointment in the town of Prudhoe as AkzoNobel, the owners
of the historic Hammerite brand, announced they were planning to close plants in Prudhoe and Slough and re-site work at a new plant in Ashington.

Although the news is better than if production had been moved overseas or down south, I'm concerned that the 96 workers at the Prudhoe plant are treated fairly and given the option to still work at the Ashington plant or be given good severance terms and retraining.

I've called for a special meeting of the County’s west area committee to call AkzoNobel management to account and to see what is being done. I am disappointed that the firm couldn’t or wouldn’t consider staying in the Prudhoe area,  but the fight is now on to ensure workers are treated well when the
move happens.

In addition, I'm keen to discuss the future of the site, which is in the middle of greenbelt land near the hamlet of Eltringham and may well have residual pollution issues.

Are you or a family member a worker at the Hammerite Plant? Get in touch on Prudhoe 832933 if we
can help.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Torch triumph

Me with the invite to Prudhoe from Lord Coe

There has been a positive reaction in Prudhoe to news that the Olympic torch will be making a detour in between its trip from Newcasle to Durham next year and will be coming through Tynedale on Saturday 16th 2012.

The news came after a campaign from me and officers at the council to ensure people in Prudhoe and the west of the county have a chance to see the torch. The original route planned by the London committee meant the torch would only travel down the east coast of Northumberland. There was considerable concern in the town that we would miss out on this once in a lifetime opportunity. As the portfolio holder for culture on the council I was in the perfect position to lobby the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) to tweak the route. I am really pleased to say that they have listened. The torch will be coming through on a Saturday so there will be plenty of opportunities for residents to see the torch first hand.

The torch relay is going round the UK and will be accompanied by a convoy of vehicles from LOCOG,
sponsors and the Metropolitan Police. Nominations have closed for people to run with the torch and I hope that a local person will be selected to run the distance in Prudhoe. In Northumberland, we have managed to get the torch for much more time than anywhere else in the North East. The County Council is now working with the Town Council, who hopefully will arrange a warm reception for the torch. We are aiming for a celebration of sport, with lots of activities for young people and to bring back some old local sporting traditions, such as the Miners’ run, which saw people running to Hedley and back. Anyone wanting to get involved in the celebrations can email me at neil.bradbury at

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Poetry to my ears - Milton Grove to get a resurface

I'm overjoyed to see plans to resurface Milton Grove in Prudhoe – for the first time since the concrete road was built in 1940! Although the road surface is still structurally OK it is very noisy and is full of holes and bumps. There has been an urgent need for work for years.

Since getting elected to the County Council, I've been pressing for work and resurfacing is due to begin soon. In addition, the County will try to replace the pavements, which in some places have sunk substantially.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Car Park Charges Campaign

Me and campaigner Tom Appleby at the ticket machine at the Wylam car park: time for them to be scrapped

Just a quick note to say I've launched a campaign with Wylam Parish Council and my fellow Lib Dem campaigner Tom Appleby to make the two country park car parks in Low Prudhoe and Wylam free
to local residents. On both sites the charges are leading to people parking on neighbouring areas causing
disruption and not raising as much money as envisaged when the previous Labour administration imposed the charges. I hope there will be an epetition site up soon.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Not what you know

Any student of economic statistics recently would have to be very positive to spot encouraging trends. The best we can say is that perhaps we have passed the bottom of the slump. Vince Cables speech at Lib Dem conference this autumn set the scene - responsible but very serious.

Many people are saying that young people today may be the first generation in centuries where they are worse off than their parents. Of course in many northern towns, the neglect of traditional industries by successive governments has meant that for working class families that has been the case since the 1930s for many families.

The problem is that the chances of a meritocratic society, where everyone gets what their skills and work ethic entitle them to,  existing are becoming slimmer with every year. Increasingly, what your parents earn is the guide to your likely success. As social mobility shrinks, the ability for people to make the most of their potential goes down. The increasingly Victorian (in economic terms at least) nature of our economy is reflected in the growing gap between the haves and the have nots. The OECD recently published a report on economic inequality in Britain (you can see a summary here).

Its conclusions are that inequality started to increase rapidly from 2005 at the peak of the last economic boon (interestingly, youth unemployment started to rise). Yes that's right, it rose when the Labour government were spending like crazy on public services, so one does have to question how redistributive that spending was.

We are one of the most unequal western societies (after the USA, Portugal, Chile and Israel!). That is not good for society but it is not good for growth either as research shows poorer people spend the vast majority of extra income in the local economy and as people get richer they increasingly salt income away in savings.

So income inequality is a bad thing above a certain level. We are definitely above that. So why has this increase happened? The OECD report blames reduction in redistributive taxes for the rich, a move to more people being self employed and less benefits for poor people. It states that public services have become better at targeting disadvantage however. Most worrying for me is the conclusion that:

More people are marrying within the same earnings class. Unlike many other countries,  the earnings gap between wives of  rich and poor  husbands has grown  strongly:  this gap was about GBP 3,900 in 1987,  but increased to GBP 10,200 in 2004. 

I think this is really sad. What it is saying is that Britain is becoming a more class bound country. How horrible. The natural conclusion is the emergence of an underclass of "untouchables" where it doesn't matter if you are bright and hard working you will never be allowed to move on up the ladder. We shouldn't let the occasional exception (such as self styled barrow boy Lord Sugar) blind us to this reality.

So what is the solution? Well I broadly agree with the OECD report but I would say we need:

-To expand sectors of the economy which offer a skilled well paid jobs base for people from a working and middle class background. Bluntly we need to prioritise manufacturing at the expense of the sectors of the economy the government has worshipped, financial services and retail.
- We must get away from a culture of rampant consumerism, where you are seen to be more successful if you have more stuff. I see people every day who have got into massive debt funding a lifestyle that society says they need to have but in reality they can't afford.
-We need to give young people practical skills that give industries what they need. Frankly that doesn't mean sending millions more teenagers to average universities to do media studies degrees. It means investing in vocational training
-We need to encourage people to work and reduce the benefits trap. The Lib Dem policy of raising the basic threshold is a start, it is a disgrace that on the minimum wage you still pay income tax at all
- We need to tax undeserved wealth. Vince Cables mansion tax was a rough and ready stab at that but land value tax and other taxes that tax money that you gain from, for example, the increase in value of land due to the council building a new access road must be looked at.
- Everyone must have access to cheap and accessible public services.

Not hard is it? Well it must be because since the 70s Britain has been going backwards. If we don't give everyone a fair chance in life then we will definitely go backwards as a country in terms of GDP, but more importantly in terms of decency.

Pick up your dogs Poop or Pay up!

Following a rash of complaints about the amount of Dog mess around Prudhoe, I've been asking people on Twitter (@bradburysworld)  to identify problem areas. Some of the areas where there are problems are where children regularly walk and play. It is beyond belief that people
don’t pick up their dog’s waste.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as the Dog Poo Fairy!
More stickers warning people to scoop their dogs’ poop have been placed around the town and a council “hit squad” has been dispatched to clean up the areas identified.

The Council has also pledged to monitor two problem areas so if people are seen not bagging up their dog’s faeces, they will be prosecuted and taken to court. If you are not scooping up your dog waste, then be warned. You can put it in any council rubbish bin so there is no excuse. If you see any problem areas, please get in touch with me.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Come and shop in Northumberland at Christmas

Parking will be free at certain times of the day

Parking in Hexham, Morpeth, Alnwick and Berwick council car parks will be free all day on Sunday 18 December and free between 9 and 11am and 3 and 5pm from Monday 19 to Christmas Eve. This is all part of the councils attempt to help local shops and to encourage people to come and do their last bit of Christmas shopping. Car parks will be clearly marked with the temporary changes. 
Of course parking in Prudhoe town centre (and Ponteland) is already free at all times and I have fought hard to keep it that way so you can take your time even more in Prudhoe!

This is a foretaste of the shoppers permit that all residents will be able to apply for next year, which will offer all residents a free permit to park for free between 9-11 and 3-5 in all our main towns that charge for parking. This scheme has worked well in Morpeth and encourages people to shop when the car parks and shops are a bit quieter. It also means that spaces are not clogged up with shop workers parking all day for free stopping customers get a space.

Winter preparations update

After two extreme winters, I've been working hard to ensure that the County Council improves its response this year.

Grit Bins have all been given unique numbers and the phone number to get them filled up has been put on the bins. New grit bins have been placed in the ward and new concrete bases have been put in place where grit bins were on unstable ground, which caused them to tip over. Contracts with local farmers to
grit estate roads that gritters find it hard to reach have been issued.

In addition, the county has 40,000 tonnes of grit in storage and has spent £2.14m on grit for the winter. Previously secret priority routes are now being published online so people can understand the Council’s grit routes. In a town like Prudhoe, I can’t say that we won’t have some issues if we have snow but I genuinely believe we have the best preparations at the Council since I have been involved.

As always, if residents have suggestions, please call me on Prudhoe 832933

Unaffordable affordable housing: A messed up world

Madness - the £189k unaffordable affordable house
It was a lively meeting of Northumberland County Council today. The highlight was the slightly surreal moment of the Tories proposing a motion urging ring fencing second home council tax money for affordible homes and the Lib Dems, Independent and Labour groups uniting to oppose it! The Lib Dems and Independents opposed it because it would have inadvertanly reduced the amount the council spends on affordible homes, Labour because they vote against anything the "party of Thatcher" put forward even if it makes sense.

But it did lead to a debate about affordable homes. The Tory group, which is incidentally made up of a large number of very wealthy landowners, think we just need to raise the amount we spend on buying sites, presumably off very wealthy landowners. Labour have no solutions. Cllr Andrew Tebbutt for the Lib Dems pointed out that there are more than a 1,000 affordable homes with planning permission that are not being built and we have land banks across the county we could give to proactive developers. I was really pleased to hear from Cllr Tom Brechany that the counties "lend a hand" scheme, where we guarantee mortgages to new home buyers who can't get a mortgage, had given its first mortgage.

In my own little way, I contributed to the debate because in my home town of Prudhoe we have an example of everything is wrong with affordable housing. In the town we have only three sites where significant amounts of new housing can be built without encroaching on greenbelt land. There was only one in "public" hands where there is the most chance of a development. That is at the former Prudhoe Hospital site. Back in the distant past of the Blair government in 2004, deputy prime minister John Prescott said that he would be making all NHS sites be turned into social housing sites for key workers (I'm not dreaming this, see the article on the BBC website here - it names Prudhoe). Great news, as Prudhoe urgently needs more social housing with a massive waiting list for affordable homes.

Of course it was total rubbish. NHS estates sold the site to the highest bidder, as it needed money for the new hospital building (of course that's not true, they had full funding for it). They sold it to Gentoo homes, a profit making division of the Gentoo group which has its origins in Sunderland's council housing stock. They put in an application with 40% affordable homes, the minimum allowed in Tynedales plan for new homes. I wasn't as happy as when Mr Prescott pushed the 100% idea. But at least a developer with a strong commitment to social housing was developing the site and we would get 40% of the homes for the people who need them.

But of course Gentoo don't give a monkeys about people in Prudhoes needs, they just want to make as much money as possible to ship back to Wearside. They slapped in a change to the affordable level to 22%, using a tool called the "economic viability test". Across the county, developers are now using this tool to make a methodology to push the idea that in the recession they can't build any homes unless we reduce the number of affordable homes. The councils planning department appears to not have any discretion and has to listen to these arguments. It drives a coach and horses through then planning system, which tries to ensure that homes are built which are needed rather than what makes developers the most money.

The homes in the "Humbles Wood" development have gone on sale, with house prices going up to £360,000. Within a week a majority of them have been snapped up, off plan, without a brick being laid. So much for there being no market or profit in this development! Scandalously all the affordable homes are not what I would call affordable. Firstly they are for sale not for rent. The disadvantaged people who need my help as a councillor are nowhere being in a position to buy. When you are a victim of domestic violence, for example, you and your children need a place of safety to rent. And as for them being affordable, these so called affordable homes are from £108,500 to a staggering £189,000. And then you only own 70% of the property! The median wage in this country is £25,000 (much lower in Prudhoe). To buy even the cheapest affordable home here you need to earn considerably more than that. You can buy houses in Prudhoe for a lot less and you get 100% of the house to yourself.

So a public body has ignored its responsibility to the people in the community it serves to give them affordable homes, a public housing association has manipulated the planning rules to reduce its obligations to the minimum and has then completely taken the Michael in terms of what it defines as affordable  Until councils can crack down on this madness, I fear the idea of us getting homes for local people that they can afford is a pipe dream. I will be working hard to get Northumberland council to be a leading body trying to sort this out.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Lib Dems invest record amounts in Libraries and Leisure in Ashington - we need your views

The Grove centre in Belfast - Ashington deserves a high quality facility
I'm really pleased to share that the councils £20m investment in Library and Leisure facilities in Ashington has moved on to the consulation stage. If you use or might use a new centre, we want your views. I am keen to hear from people who have stopped using existing facilities and use other centres or people who would like to use them if they suited their needs more.

After 30+ years of neglect of libarary and leisure facilities in the former Wansbeck district by Labour, I think local politicians don't believe the council is "for real" on this project. They worry it is too ambitious and that we won't be able to build on a town centre site, our preferred option. Well I am ambitious and so I should be with £20m to spend. I want a centre that helps increase participation in reading, and healthy living and gets more people to get the services from their County Council. I want this centre to be something that draws people into the town centre, which needs all the help it can get in these difficult times. I want the Ashington facility to be a national exemplar. The question from people shouldn't be "it can't be done, can it?" but instead "why hasn't it been done before?"

Across Northumberland we have great facilities, with the exception of the former Wansbeck district. I am not a "local" so I can't say why the District Council didn't apply for the many grants from the lottery that were on the table in the early 2000s for leisure centres. All the other district councils in Northumberland did and did so sucessfully. So I'm not going to take any lectures from local Labour politicians who did nothing to help their local people on this front for years.

As portfolio holder for culture, I am responsible for giving everyone in the county the responsibility to access good quality services from their council. We hope to be on site next summer so its vital you tell us what you want in a new centre and if you are happy with our vision. We will be consulting ext year again with more details.

Please go to and give us your views.