The Leader's Message
Leader's Message July 2013
At the annual council meeting in May I identified two priorities for Ribble Valley Borough Council for the forthcoming year: finance and planning. Not unexpectedly events since then have served to emphasise the growing importance of both.
The Government spending round announcement last month confirmed our worst fears. The 10 per cent cut to council funding in 2015/16 is on top of the 33 per cent reduction since 2010, which confirms local government as the hardest hit of the public sectors, with local authority core funding expected to fall by £2.1billion in this period.
This 10 per cent cut compares with 5.6 per cent across other departmental budgets, although the Government has announced that it will provide further support to freeze council tax at the equivalent of a 1 per cent increase.
Fortunately, our position in Ribble Valley is significantly better than many of our neighbours and we can look forward to the challenge with some optimism and determination.
The council's budget spend for the last financial year has, not for the first time, been better than forecast and enabled us to increase our balances by £90,000. We have a healthy balance sheet and firm handle on staffing and overhead costs, which have been reduced in recent years. We also have a dedicated, loyal and professional workforce. This is certainly not to underestimate the task ahead. The budget working group has already met and will be leading the work now underway to frame next year's budget and will, as always, be working to safeguard the quality and extent of services within growing financial constraints.
There cannot have been a time in recent memory when the field of planning has assumed such overwhelming importance, with the immense political and economic challenges that we continue to face as a planning authority.
I say planning authority, but one wonders if that description still describes the powers lying at our disposal. I am not naturally cynical or pessimistic, but it is undoubtedly true that our growing impotence in the face of the Planning Inspectorate's interpretations of the National Planning Policy Framework, which offers greatly reduced powers to control development, is now a source of widespread alarm and concern in the borough, and indeed across the country, particularly in rural areas.
The recent decision in relation to the Waddow View appeal graphically demonstrates the problem. The council's planning committee, rightly in my view, refused the initial application, despite the astonishing turnaround at the last minute by the Lancashire Highways Authority.
In the period between the hearing and the appeal, the changing interpretations of the Inspectorate led to a position in which legal advice indicated there was no realistic chance of defending the appeal. To continue would have rendered us liable to eye-watering costs, denuding our earmarked reserves and rendering us liable to investigation by auditors, with a possible surcharge for reckless spending of public money and giving further credence to threats from the Inspectorate to remove our planning powers as a "failing authority."
In my view, the emergency committee had no choice but to accept the realities and withdraw. Such is the Orwellian world of public planning policy in 2013.
The tragedy is that this seriously inhibits the powers of democratically elected councillors to control and direct planning in the areas they represent - so much for localism.
I take no pleasure in saying this. I applaud the Coalition's stance on deficit reduction and the challenge ministers have lain down against the ludicrous Opposition contention that the way to reduce debt is to spend more.
As far as planning policy is concerned, I find a resonance in the words of Sir Geoffrey Howe in his momentous resignation speech from the Thatcher Government: "It feels like going out to bat in a cricket match in which the team captain has broken the bat before you take the crease."
Wringing our hands in anguish will change nothing. We must continue to push forward within the constraints that exist. We understand from the Planning Inspectorate that examination of the Core Strategy will commence in early September. Opinions differ as to the impact this may have, but it can be said with absolute certainty that we are stronger as a planning authority with it than without it.
We continue to lobby ministers directly and with the support of Nigel Evans for a greater appreciation of the impact widespread development is having in Ribble Valley and I have sought an meeting with the new Lancashire County Council leader and portfolio holder to raise our concerns about the quality and extent of consultation, particularly on highways matters.
I have also asked the council's corporate management team to look at our own procedures for the monitoring and review of ongoing appeals processes to ensure much closer involvement of the authority's planning committee. The use of the emergency committee in relation to the Waddow View appeal was a correct and unavoidable decision, but I do not wish to see any future decisions decided in that way and we must look to ensure that the need does not arise. A report on the matter will be considered by planning committee at its August meeting.
Inevitably, finance and planning dominate our concerns and I have no doubt this will be a feature of the current civic year. It is important to remind ourselves that many other facets of the council's work deserve our attention. I would like to congratulate Councillor Jim White on the signing of the Ribble Valley Armed Forces Community Covenant, which he championed. This was an excellent event crowned by good weather and is an important recognition by this council of its duty to former and current servicemen and women. It also builds on a long and growing association with the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment.
On 31 July, the council will be launching its Year of Health and Wellbeing. I have to thank Councillor Bridget Hilton, who has pushed this idea forward from concept to realisation to coincide with the new public health role that passed to local government in April. The initiative will see various projects unfold throughout the year.
Stuart Hirst, Leader
Ribble Valley Borough Council