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East Cambridgeshire – let the election battle commence

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Clues to the Liberal Democrat election campaign at East Cambridgeshire District Council in May can be gleaned from a series of amendments to tonight’s budget setting full council.

Conservatives control the council with 16 of the 28 seats – Lib Dems have nine seats, there are two independents and one non-aligned councillor.

Liberal Democrats have proposed an “alternative budget” that would include a new Local Plan and a move to civil parking enforcement in the district.

They also propose a doubling of the fund for environmental and climate change schemes, and a grant pot for support for local Coronation events.

Liberal Democrat group leader Cllr Lorna Dupré (Sutton) said: “This is a responsible alternative budget that, unlike the Conservative proposals, doesn’t duck the need to start work on a new Local Plan.

Liberal Democrat group leader Cllr Lorna Dupré (Sutton) said: “This is a responsible alternative budget that, unlike the Conservative proposals, doesn’t duck the need to start work on a new Local Plan.”

The Lib Dem budget proposal retains a council tax freeze for 2023/24.

The ‘big ticket’ items put forward by the Lib Dems include the creation of a reserve and to then fund the forecast costs of a new Local Plan.

Civil parking enforcement

They also believe the council must fund the initial capital (£500,000) and then on-going revenue costs to implement civil parking enforcement within the district.

The council has always rejected civil parking enforcement and is looking at other ways of stopping people parking illegally in the city.

One idea is for volunteers to help but a police chief has advised that whilst it is legal to recruit volunteers as unpaid ‘traffic wardens’ finding the time to vet and train them is a major obstacle.

Supt James Sutherland spoke of the difficulties and challenges when he provided an update to the council.

The district council is moving towards being the last local authority in the country to decline the option of civil parking enforcement.

Council leader Anna Bailey has said: “I do not want to use the sledgehammer of Civil Parking Enforcement (CPE) to crack a nut, so we are working with Cambridgeshire Constabulary on a solution that has not yet been implemented anywhere else in the country to tackle this issue once and for all.

 

Cllr Anna Bailey said: “I haven’t shied away from the fact that we had issues with our waste collection service last year arising from the round reconfiguration and followed by really serious sickness issues.”

Cllr Anna Bailey said: “I haven’t shied away from the fact that we had issues with our waste collection service last year arising from the round reconfiguration and followed by really serious sickness issues.”

“We are aware of the hotspots around the district, and we want to create a solution which is effective, cost effective and sustainable”

‘Responsible’ alternative budget

Liberal Democrat group leader Cllr Lorna Dupré (Sutton) said: “This is a responsible alternative budget that, unlike the Conservative proposals, doesn’t duck the need to start work on a new Local Plan.

“Our existing Local Plan is now eight years old and will struggle to defend the council and its residents against planning appeals and inappropriate development.

“Our budget proposes to build in a turnover allowance of £200,000 each year to reflect that not all council job posts are filled all year round.

“This saving will be put into a reserve fund to pay for the cost of a new Local Plan.”

‘Grown-up’ response

Lib Dem Operational Services lead member Cllr Mark Inskip (Sutton) said: “This alternative budget is the grown-up response to unlawful on-street parking.

“Instead of distracting the local police from the fight against crime to issue parking tickets, it takes on the responsibility of civil parking enforcement, using funding from developers and a time-limited grant from the county council for the set-up costs.

“Otherwise, under the Tories, East Cambridgeshire will shortly be the only district in the country apart from Wealden and the Isles of Scilly where it is still left to the police to enforce—or more usually not enforce—on-street parking.”

Lib Dem deputy group leader Cllr Charlotte Cane (Bottisham) said: “The threat and impact of climate change become more urgent every day.

Lib Dem deputy group leader Cllr Charlotte Cane (Bottisham) said: “The threat and impact of climate change become more urgent every day.

Lib Dem deputy group leader Cllr Charlotte Cane (Bottisham) said: “The threat and impact of climate change become more urgent every day.”

“Our alternative budget increases the district council’s Environment Fund from £100,000 to £200,000 for each of the next four years.

“A Liberal Democrat led council will reopen discussions with local residents, organisations and businesses about how this money can be best used to combat the climate challenge.”

Lib Dem Finance & Assets lead member Cllr Alison Whelan (Ely North) said: “For many of us, this year will see the first coronation of a British monarch in our lifetime.

“Many local communities will be marking this event but have found the twelve-week deadline for lottery funding challenging.

“A one-off grant pot of £20,000 will provide support for local groups to celebrate the Coronation in a memorable way.

”This and all the other proposals in our alternative budget are achieved within a council tax freeze for the coming year.”

Cap in hand for extra cash

The council will hear tonight that a trading company responsible for recycling and waste services has been forced to go cap in hand to its owners – East Cambridgeshire District Council – for a £500,000 ‘one off’ payment to bail it out.

East Cambs Street Scene (ECSS) says the £500,000 for the current year (2022/2023) is needed to tackle escalating costs.

A report by the council’s finance director Ian Smith says the “increase in management fee” is needed to meet additional costs faced by ECSS this year.

The amount needed to balance the books has surprised opposition councillors.

Cllr Charlotte Cane is deputy group leader of the Liberal Democrats on the council and sits on the audit committee.

She believes councillors have been kept in the dark about the losses incurred by the trading company.

Cllr Cane said the finance and assets committee was advised as recently as January 23 that the service was “forecast to come in £250,000 overspent when compared to its net budget. The main factor leading to this is a £300,000 overspend on waste collection”.

The committee was told that “while ECSS has not yet formally requested an increase in management fee from the council to fund the additional costs of resolving the recent issues at the company, this is expected to happen prior to the end of the financial year.”

Cllr Cane said: “So they had flagged an overspend on 23 January, although at £300k rather than £500k.

“On the one hand, which means they had flagged it to members slightly before full council.

“On the other hand, it makes it even more strange that they were still reporting to audit committee on 30 Jan that it was ‘unlikely’ that ECSS would fail to deliver on its budget.”

Launch of East Cambs Street Scene in 2018. A promotional video was created for YouTube. It has been viewed 395 times.

Launch of East Cambs Street Scene in 2018. A promotional video was created for YouTube. It has been viewed 395 times.

Mr Smith said the budget for ECSS has always been prepared with a minimal requirement for a profit margin in order that the costs of the service to the council are as low as possible.

“These arrangements have operated effectively in previous years, but with the unexpected and unplanned increases in inflation in 2022 and the consequential “cost of living crisis”, the company has been unable to hold cost within its approved budget during the year,” says Mr Smith.

Major areas of overspend by ECSS are listed by Mr Smith:

He says the 2022/23 budget was prepared including a cost-of-living increase of 2%.

The NJC award was £1,925 for all full-time employees, which with the average pay for an ECSS operative being £22,000 per annum, equated to an increase of 8%.

He says there was then a further local agreement, to add a further 6% to pay from the 1st of April 2022 increasing to 10% from the 1st of November 2022.

“The net impact of these changes being an additional £152,000 of costs,” says the finance chief.

He said the changes were an essential element in implementing a waste improvement plan to “address changes in the working practices and terms and conditions of ECSS staff and recruitment and retention challenges”.

At the same time, additional overtime costs totalling £78,000 and agency staff costs of £94,000 were incurred to plug gaps caused by sickness and unfilled posts.

The trading company also altered refuse collection rounds – which led to widespread disruption.

Mr Smith says vehicle maintenance has also been a major issue.

The council had delayed buying new vehicles whilst they waited to see if the Government would fund them following a new nationwide waste strategy policy.

“As a consequence, some of the fleet is now beyond what is considered it’s useful life and instances of breakdown have increased,” Mr Smith says.

“This has resulted in additional maintenance costs and the need to hire additional vehicles when ECSS’s own fleet is off the road.”

He said the budget had included extra costs for this, but these have proved to be higher than forecast resulting in a further overspend of £113,000.

Rising cost of fuel

And ECSS was hit by rising fuel costs which led to a further £100,000 overspend.

On January 31, the ECSS board requested the extra £500,000 to keep the company stable.

The board blamed “external economic and labour market factors and delays in legislation”.

Mr Smith says the 2023/24 budget will result in a 21 per cent rise in the management fee paid by the council to its trading arm.

Cllr Cane said she was anxious not to be seen as being critical of the refuse crews at the trading company.

“They have worked their socks off,” she said. “They kept us going through Covid and through all weather.

“It is not their fault that their ability to do their job properly was botched by the re alignment of rounds which saw them having to work weekends to catch up.”

She said opposition councillors had many times asked questions informally and behind the scenes about the state of the refuse service “and we were continually getting fobbed off”.

She said pay awards were known throughout last year “and it was right and proper they should have been awarded. Clearly our crews were not being adequately paid and similarly fuel price increases have been known about for some time.

“Yet council officers still came to a recent audit committee and presented a ‘risk register’ which said everything was ok and there was no problem.

“Well clearly there was and either we have an audit committee that gets clear and transparent responses to our questions or what’s the point?

‘Savings reserve’ likely to be used

“The committee is there to ensure proper governance and control of funds and we should be getting full information.”

Cllr Cane said she “presumes the £500,000 will come from the council’s famous ‘savings reserve’.

“But the point is ECSS is a trading company, a separate trading company but how separate they are is not clear.

“And in addition, we are not getting information promptly because they are a wholly owned company without any democratic control.”

“My concern is coming just as a member of audit committee – I am meant to be helping to oversee our governance and financial management is being done well.”

Council leader defends her record 

Cllr Bailey said: “I haven’t shied away from the fact that we had issues with our waste collection service last year arising from the round reconfiguration and followed by really serious sickness issues.

“We have worked hard to overcome the problems and made significant investment into the service which is recovering.”

Cllr Bailey says East Cambs “will be the only district or upper tier authority in the country to have frozen council tax for 10 years.

“Ours is a small council; nevertheless, we have recently committed £2.3m to nine community projects on top of more than £10m already invested in other community infrastructure and £3.8m given to parish councils.

“We also continue with free parking in the council’s town and city centre car parks.”

She added: “In 2016, we set up East Cambs Trading Company, which is 100 per cent owned by the council and runs the much loved Ely markets, the parks & open spaces team and Palace Green Homes which builds new and affordable homes.

“The company has benefited the Council by over £3.6m to date.

“To put that into context, raising the East Cambs element of Council Tax by one per cent brings in about £45,000.”

The meeting tonight is at 6pm and is livestreamed.

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