Leaders Report, August 2020

I hope you are all well during these challenging times.

An update on what I am doing at the Council on your behalf.

I find it quite a stressful time at the Council as we continue to do most of our decision making via virtual meetings. It is really not the same as face to face contact, and it does mean debate is sometimes harder to do, because there is very little interaction between people. It is a lot more regimented. Most of the scrutiny committees are suspended, but Planning Committee and Licensing still happen via zoom, albeit on a reduced membership. There is a danger that those who were elected to the committee but not chosen to attend feel isolated . I attend both at the moment but my colleague June cannot attend either by Zoom. I feel very strongly that the Council needs to look at ways we can resume some face to face meetings in September. It is my wish as Vice Chair of Planning that this is one of the first meetings to return to some sort of normality safely. Most officers work from home at the moment but again I am hopeful that a reduced number will return to the office on a rota basis shortly.

Some brief items

  1. Full Council meetings in May and July were cancelled, however by law we have to hold our Annual Council meeting in September. We are looking at a venue which will hold all the Councillors in one room at a safe distance. Our biggest room is still not in use due to ongoing repairs. Quite appalling that a new building should need to put rooms out of service for long periods. I am constantly asking when they will be put back into use and constantly told it is imminent! One of the problems is a ventilation issue, but there are others. As a last resort we may have to have some attending in person and some by zoom, I would be very unhappy if that was the case, as there would be an imbalance between those in the room and those on zoom. It is at the Sept Council meeting we elect our Mayor, and Councillors to sit on our various committee meetings. I am expecting quite a reduction in Liberal Democrat places on committees due to the resignation of Ian Wilkes during the year. We are no longer an official group now, I am quite surprised that places on committees have not been taken off us already… this is their opportunity!
  2. Despite us not being a group officially, I am very much involved in the group leaders meetings which happen on a regular basis during lockdown. It does seem it is this group of 4 who have made the decisions about lockdown. I find it quite time consuming and quite a responsibility. It does keep the Liberal Democrats in the front line of decision making however. Although the Tory Cabinet are still the policy makers.
  3. The hard work of appointing senior staff into posts due to vacancies is now showing its rewards, despite lockdown. The separation of planning from business development is making a significant impact now. Shawn Fleet as Head of Planning has really turned round that department. A significant amount of work has taken place re enforcement control, with every planning officer involved. The new white paper draft recently published will also be the biggest change in how planning decisions are made since the 1940’s. Some very big changes on the horizons there as to how we can work within the framework set. Some of you will have been following in the Sentinel how town centre development is changing under the direction of Simon McEmery. Merrial Street will look very different if these plans come into place, and there are plans to better link in that area to the Ironmarket. One of the areas I am watching the space on, is how the many student accommodation blocks are filled, now students are not able to take up their university places in the immediate future. Already some developers are wanting to change their guidelines. However some developments were given permission based on student needs of not wanting car parking! Very different if the guidelines are changed to accommodate other sections of the community.
  4. Many of you will have been affected by the Walley’s quarry odour issue in Thistleberry, but it does affect surrounding areas also. The traffic routes to and from the quarry are also under review as is the amount of tonnage allowed into the quarry. Is it better to increase the tonnage and get it over with or keep to what we have? I am part of another task and finish group looking at how we can improve the situation. It is a difficult solution because the operators are working within the law. It is government law which needs changing! However there is work to be done with regard to highway issues. Our MP has raised the odour and management issues in Parliament but a change in legislation will be too late to help in this instance. Might help another problem in the future should we manage to change the law.
  5. The Council is heading for a substantial deficit in income due to the money spent on Covid-19 law and loss of income. The Conservative administration are keeping the figure very close to their chest but all will be revealed soon. There is a very sickening trend emerging, where the Tories blow their own trumpet continually and tell the rest how successful they are in everything and how they have improved the Borough so much. They use their chairs of committees to ask the question they want to give us information on. The Labour group do seem very quiet and do not put up the opposition they should be doing at meetings.

I hope this gives you a flavour. Do contact me with your questions.

Marion Reddish

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One Reply to “Leaders Report, August 2020”

  1. A brief comment on point 3 – students will be returning for the autumn semester in September at Keele, so there will continue to be a demand for student accommodation in Newcastle.