Mercury issue for February 2023 (January 2023 meeting)
If December’s meeting of Olney Town Council had been a tad light on personnel, the same could not be said for January’s gathering. The Olney Centre’s council chambers were positively buzzing with activity and renewed 2023-inspired vigour as councillors got back into the swing of things with the dawn of a new year.
In fact, when Ron Hall arrived with just seconds to spare before the 7pm start time, fellow councillors on his side of the table had to shuffle up reluctantly to let him in – like passengers making room for someone who has just managed to jump on a train as it pulls out of the station.
Apologies for absence and declaration of interest
So it was that only Deirdre Bethune, Trevor Aldred and Colin Rodden had passed on apologies for no-showing. Councillor David Hosking was back to deliver Milton Keynes Council’s regular update and with both Town Clerk Jane Brushwood and Deputy Town Clerk Rob Mungham in attendance, there wasn’t an awful lot of elbow room at the table.
Are there any declarations of interest, asked Mayor Ben Brown. There were three: Ian Stokes and Ben (sports club committee members) and Chris Tennant (association with the Caveman Conditioning group).
Well, I’m not going to say Happy New Year, said the Mayor, adopting the tone of Ebenezer Scrooge. It’s the 9th of January and I only say that in the first week.
There was a pause while everyone took in those rather un-festive comments. We were half-expecting a ‘boo!’ but that brief silence possibly prompted Ben to have a change of heart: Happy New Year everyone, he finally uttered.
The minutes of the December meeting were duly approved and it was on with the business in hand.
Ward Councillor’s report
David Hosking was in attendance once again. He, at least, was willing to wish everyone a Happy New Year. And a healthy one too, he said, 2023 is likely to be a challenging one for many and I hope that together MK City Council and OTC can continue to serve the residents of Olney and particularly those that need us most.
He had six updates to run through: EV charging points, litter, roads, Olney High Street, MK Councils budget consultation and housing growth. So a fair bit to cover, he said.
Those round the table noticeably settled themselves into their chairs for a long night ahead at that point. But they needn’t have worried – Councillor Hosking pranced through business like a Lipizzaner stallion. There was skill and finesse on show here as well as speed – David had another meeting to attend himself, so he wasn’t hanging around.
He mentioned that he had been seeking feedback since December on potential electric vehicle (EV) charging points in Olney’s Cattle Market car park. The vision was for eight parking bays with emphasis on people living in the town rather than on visitors. What was clear from the feedback David had received was that there was general support for the introduction of the charging bays but not necessarily at the expense of existing parking spaces in the town. That feedback was passed on to MK council officers and the plan to provide those spaces has now been removed.
David went on next to litter: a problem that blights our area, he said, particularly on roadside verges. Ward Councillors have received several comments from residents about the A509 from the Land Rover roundabout right down passed Chicheley Hill into Olney and out towards Warrington. Part of the problem is that much of the vegetation has gone over the winter months so you can now see more litter. David and his team have spoken to MK officers who will publish a new cleansing programme for that road, he said, and also Chicheley Hill out to Stagsden. The cleansing programme had been interrupted he said, with officers doing other jobs but it will be re-started.
Traffic management will be necessary on some stretches of the road, said David quickly, hoping it would be a throwaway line. ‘Traffic management’ usually translates as ‘temporary traffic lights’ and everyone knows that’s not a prospect that Olney residents driving home for the night ever want to consider. However, an accident on one stretch of the road a few years ago means that traffic management is necessary, said David, the memories of the furore surrounding the roadworks outside the Swan Inn in November clearly still hurting back at MK Council’s offices.
Moving on David said that the roadworks on Lime Street and Weston Road over Christmas had been completed and that traffic lights had been removed. He said he had noticed that Anglian Water were ‘back in town’, almost as if an old nemesis had turned up uninvited. Ian Stokes stuck his hand up sheepishly. It’s my house, he said, there’s a flood. Thank you for that confirmation, said David, I should come here more often.
One disappointing item was the works being done to repair a strange and faulty piece of road on the A509 that refuses to go away, reported Councillor Hosking. It’s known as the ‘Roller-coaster’ and drivers will know it from the way it dips up and down alarmingly. A repair attempt had been made but hadn’t been successful. Ward Councillors had asked officers to look at that again and report back. They are also looking at repairing some potholes that have appeared around the town, keeping residents awake at night especially when HGVs pass through Olney in the twilight hours.
Moving on to the High Street and providing support for retailers in the town, David said that it was well-known that businesses had been affected by Covid and that MKCC were keen to do whatever they could to help. There will be some further information on that coming up soon, he added, but I wanted to keep everyone up to speed at this point. We hope that it will be financial support as well as other types of help.
MKCC are currently consulting on its budgets for 2023/24 and the headline is an increase in Council Tax of 4.99% which includes social care precepts and social housing as well. OTC will be able to review that budget and comment on it to Milton Keynes. Finally he wanted everyone to know that an outline planning application for a further 800 new houses was granted as part of the Milton Keynes East project. This will increase traffic during the construction phase and also once the houses have been completed and people are living there, he warned. It won’t be helped by a new crossing which will almost certainly slow traffic down and might result in safety issues for pedestrians. David and fellow Ward Councillor Peter Geary have both voiced their concerns and spoken in objection to that decision but the vote has gone against them.
Local PCSO James Andrews wasn’t able to be at the meeting so Ben said he would run through the report for December. The Clerk interjected and said that a last-minute report of stalking and harassment had been received which slightly changed the report. Breaking news, said Ben, there’s an extra one to add. The list included the following: one stalking & harassment, two suspicious persons, three suspicious vehicles, one theft, three criminal damage, one public order, two burglaries, two road collisions and four concerns for safety. If anyone has any queries, they can be passed to James via the Clerk, said Ben.
Expenditure report and budget to date
The main part of the meeting tonight is agreeing next year’s budget, and that will fall into that, said Ben. Nobody knew what he meant by that second part.
We have seen a progression, said the Mayor, and there’s going to be a small surplus. There’s nothing in there where we’re way over budget apart from the obvious open space budgets such as the Rec, but on the positive side the council have made some really good savings. They have reviewed contracts, for example, and it has certainly helped with budget setting this year. Ian Stokes asked about a particular expense under ‘Market Projects’: what’s that for, he queried. Is that on the Market, asked Ben, desperately trying to find what Ian was talking about. Yes, said Ian, fourth line from the bottom. Ah yes, said Ben, that’s for the refurbishment of the toilets. No it’s not, said the Clerk, who had clearly been waiting to see how Ben was going to answer. It’s for the electric bollards – the power points, she said adding without a hint of irony: it came as a shock to us. We held some money back originally, she said, but now the balance is due.
Councillors who represent at external meetings
Did anyone represent the council at any meetings asked the Mayor. Well, there was the AG250 event on 1st January, said the Clerk, and you were there. Yes, said Ben, that was the kick-off event over the Christmas period and of course Olney was featured on Songs of Praise on Sunday. There will be the AG250 events throughout the year and we will make sure we advertise those and attend wherever we can.
We also had the Christmas Lunch which some councillors took part in, said the Clerk. On Christmas Day? asked Ben. Yes, said the Clerk, and you could see she was thinking: well, when else would it be? It wasn’t a council thing, she said, but it was held here in the Olney Centre. The volunteers are too modest to take any credit but thank you to those who gave up their time to do that, said Ben.
Update on S106 spending
The Clerk said she’d had a meeting with Vistry Homes who are building on the Yardley Manor development on the outskirts of Olney. The discussion was about the proposed community building – Vistry were concerned that OTC were not prepared to take it on and were confused as to why the council had rejected it. They were asking what it is that OTC do want. I told them that it doesn’t meet any of our requirements as it’s neither a sports hall nor a community centre, said the Clerk.
Separately, she had shown S106 officers from MKCC around the Olney Centre to demonstrate to them how things are done there and what improvements are needed.
The council now have a feasibility report about the Olney Centre. Ben said that the report was about looking at improvements to the building such as windows being changed and double glazing and the building of a mezzanine floor on the pre-school area so that they can have an office and kitchen upstairs and give more floor space for the children. They also want to increase door widths and add in solar panels and improve the heating system and refurbish the toilets.
The Kitchener Centre has also been informed of funds available to them and they will make applications directly. Anyone can look at S106 availability, said the Clerk. There’s a computer programme on it, which is sat on my laptop and I will find out how it works and let people know, she said. But it is publicly available – it’s supposed to be all-singing, all-dancing.
Chris Tennant congratulated the Clerk’s office on the work they have done on the Olney Centre project. He said one of the main benefits of the work was in reducing carbon emissions. Yes, agreed the Clerk, we are trying to get rid of the gas completely, she said, and we are looking at alternative ways of heating the building.
She said they had been looking at something called a varied refrigerant flow system. There was total silence at this revelation. Clearly no-one had heard of it before. Someone had to break the hush: that sounds good, said the Mayor, to sighs of relief around the table.
Updates on the Recreation Ground
The Mayor said that updates on the Rec will appear on the agenda every month even though ‘there’s not a lot of swimming going down there at the moment’. The Deputy Clerk said that, in fact, two people had been in the water a few weeks ago.
Ben said that CCTV, which had been improved recently, is now offering greater coverage of the Rec and the car park. Some of the sports clubs there have added in their own CCTV on top of what the council had contributed, he added. The message for everyone is that if you are doing anything silly down there, you will be seen. The quality of the cameras is now so good, said Ben, that ‘you can see the raindrops on the river’. Volunteer marshals have been meeting to discuss what they have learned from previous years and there will be a call for more volunteers.
Schedule of charges
At this point two members of the public – Phonebox columnist David Pibworth and Kevin Viney, both of them former councillors – upped sticks and left the meeting without so much as a ‘by your leave’. Was it something I said?, asked Ben. Always, replied Ian Stokes. And we were just getting to the most exciting part of the night, said Ben, the draft schedule of charges.
These are what the council charges tenants to use its facilities and there had been a proposal to increase these by 2.5%. There was one exception to that: the Olney Centre where there would be no increase. Ian Stokes had been doing his maths homework. There seems to be an anomaly on our proposed rentals, he said. Rentals for the East Street building were different from that charged in the Olney Centre. We are not being consistent, he said. There’s nothing to stop us doing that, said the Mayor, we are entitled to. He added that they need to review it which could be done by the Recs and Services committee. Ian said he thought the council were undercharging for the East Street building and other facilities including the MUGA recreation area when compared with the Olney Centre. Peter Geary said that the council have a duty by law to make the best use of its facilities and can’t be seen to be offering lower rates. The Mayor said that he understood Ian’s frustrations and that further reviews would be made when they had clearer comparisons.
Draft budget for 2023/24
The Mayor reported that there was a forecasted income of £160,114.40 for the coming year and a forecasted expenditure figure of £500,050, which meant that there would be a precept request (what the council earns against what it spends) of £339,935.60 to Milton Keynes City Council. This is a 2.9% increase on the current precept. This was approved by the council and the precept sent to MKCC. Ben thanked Peter Geary for ‘getting his head in a lot of budgets’ at the Milton Keynes offices. It’s a budget we can be proud of, said Ben, and we have delivered good value to the people of Olney. On the subject of budgets, Peter Geary said that Ward Councillors have a discretionary grant of £1000 per year each to spend on community events and he was open to suggestions. Applications to receive this funding, as long as it’s match-funded, should be directed to Ward Councillor Keith McLean. The King’s Coronation later this year has been suggested for example, said the Clerk.
Johnsons Field update
The Mayor thanked the MKCC team for helping to develop a plan to improve the Johnsons Field recreational area in Olney. The Clerk said that planning permission would be required because new features are being proposed, not just repairs, before a public consultation process could be started.
Ian Stokes has always been a big fan of a new skate park and this was another opportunity for him to campaign to get one built. I think this is a good plan, he said. It’s a good use of space and offers facilities for a wide range of ages. Can I recommend that we do push for the skate park, he said. That is something that consistently comes back and children in the town ask for again and again. Ron Hall agreed that the plan had been mentioned several years ago and it is an ideal opportunity now to build it.
Residents of Johnsons Field have expressed some concerns about these plans and I think we should be mindful of them, said Dan Rowland. There were nods of agreement around the table. Any other comments, asked the Mayor. From our experience, let’s not make the same mistakes again, said Ian. Can we include CCTV into these plans? There was again a long silence (and perhaps even a groan from someone) as it became clear that Ian might be on his own where closed circuit cameras were concerned. Again the Mayor had to break the hush: that’s a question we can go back to, he said. Councillors agreed that they would keep Olney residents informed about the Johnson Fields plans with exhibitions or displays so that people could make their own minds up in time to give their views. The Olney Centre and the Farmers Market were both identified as sites for the displays and information. A new footpath going across the Field is also proposed but where to put it? Peter Geary said the best way is to see where the grass becomes most worn out by people and then put the path there. Nobody could disagree with that logic.
A 28 day public consultation process was proposed and agreed. The council will also propose to MKCC that the current zipwire and an unused tyre swing on the Johnsons Field site is removed to make room for the proposed skate park.
Could Ian Stokes finally be getting his wish of a proper place for people to take their skateboards? Park that thought…
The next meeting
The next meeting will be on Monday 6th February at 7pm in the Olney Centre. If you would like to contribute to the Public Participation section at the start of the meeting, or any time the Mayor deems appropriate, please contact the Town Clerk: email@example.com.