Olney Council report for Monday 6th February 2012
The first person to speak was Paul Watson, a former Mayor of Olney. Paul had read in last month's Mercury that the Council had Increased its precept, the part of your Council Tax which goes to Olney Town Council (OTC), by 10%. He'd been astonished by this, given that he believed the Council's reserves to be very healthy. During the six years ended 31st March 2009, he stated that Income and expenditure had been under strict financial control, resulting in increases in the cash and bank reserves every year from £195,000 on 31st March 2003 to £386,000 on 31st March 2009, not including the money provided by Milton Keynes Council (MKC) for planning gain and land purchase.
He stated that this financial discipline appeared to have been abandoned and, in each of the years ended 31st March 2010 and 31st March 2011, cash and bank balances had fallen, by in total almost £80,000. Whilst current numbers were only available to the end of December 2011, an extrapolation of those figures to a 12 month period to 31 March 2012 suggested that the same downward spiral was continuing: Even with the 10% Increase in the precept, the Council was staring at an overspend or more than £65,000. Further, he noted that, if the Council had approved the Market Place Toilet renovations, which seemed to be so strongly supported by the Chair of Finance, that would have required a further £38,500, based on OTC's estimates.
Paul felt this was in stark contrast to OTC's staff having been on a pay freeze for three years, bar one Government allowance of £250 paid some time ago. He s1ated that OTC's current spending level was profligate, and that it wasn't too late to reduce spending by instructing the Chair of Finance to rescind the budget approved last month, eliminate the precept increase and prepare a budget which balanced income with expenditure.
Members of the Public speaking in this slot are allowed a maximum of three minutes and, in this meeting, the limit was enforced vigorously by Steve Clark. So, Paul didn't get to finish his contribution.
Later In the meeting, Mike Hughes spoke to express his concern about this, and register his disgust at how harshly Steve had called time on the former Councillor's contribution. He felt It was a disgrace. Steve noted his comment.
For information, the minutes of December's Finance Committee meeting show that, of the eight people on the committee, two were absent and, at the vote to set the level of the precept, three voted in favour, one against and two abstained. This proposal was then brought to full Council and finalised.
The second person to speak was Carole Russell, asking the Council to continue part• funding a Specialist Nurse for the Elderly at Cobbs Garden Surgery. The Friends of the Surgery had been campaigning to raise funds but, while they'd raised nearly £2,000, this was nowhere near enough to fund the post. Carole felt that the nurse was a lifeline for the elderly in the area and that, particularly with Olney having a higher than average proportion of elderly people, it would be a travesty if the post could no longer be funded. She concluded by saying that the Friends would not give up raising funds in future and that she was sorry to have to tall back on the Council.
The third speaker was Terry How, expressing his concerns about the disposal of the land to the rear of 57 - 59 Moores Hill, a topic also covered later in this meeting. Terry felt that crtain individuals had pocketed vast sums of money over the sale or the land. He stated that there'd been no representation from Olney's Ward Councillors, who seemed to know what was going to happen in advance of It happening. He was sure that the disposal of the land could have been handled better - it seemed to him to be a case of collusion al MKC, with Olney's Ward Councillors having something to do with ii. He slated that the situation stunk and asked that, If some individuals have made £200,000 to £300,000, how much would go back to Olney residents? He felt that the correct procedures had not been followed by MKC, who are under investigation by the Ombudsman about the issue. Terry fell strongly that a similar situation should not be allowed to happen again, and that OTC had a duty to make sure it didn't. For information, Olney's Ward Councillors are Debbie Brock, absent from this meeting, and Peter Geary, present and seated in the public viewing area.
Pinder's Circus is due to visit Olney, with the likely time and place being 7th - 9th May on The Pyghtle. The Council will inform local residents.
Grant Application for Nurse post
Following on from Carole Russell's contribution, this agenda item was for the Council lo decide whether or not to accept a Grant Application for £11,550 which, added to the money raised by the Friends, would fund the Nurse post for another year. Tony Evans and Mike Hughes thought the post was important, were in favour of funding it but nervous that the commitment was open ended. Deidre Bethune S1ated that the Council had budgeted for the funding. Colin Rodden felt that there were certain things that the Council needed to do, but that it mustn't duplicate things that should be done by the Health Authority.
The Grant Application went to the vote, with all voting in favour bar one abstention - the Council will fund the position tor another year.
Land to rear of 57 - 59 Moores Hill
First, some background on this long running issue. Over the years, a number of Planning Applications to build houses on the land to the rear of 57 - 59 Moores Hill have been made and rejected. Now, an Application has been accepted by MKC and, contingent on that acceptance, a developer has purchased two thirds of the garden of one of the Council houses in Moores Hill from MKC, which has also granted an easement for access to the site via a thin strip or its land off Dinglederry. In addition, the developer has purchased part of the garden of a nearby privately owned Moores Hill property, a key area which Joins the access strip with the Council house garden area. The purchase of the two areas of garden, the granting of easement for access and of Planning Permission all come together to create an area of land on which houses may be built.
There were questions as to whether MKC has handled this process correctly, so a complaint was raised In order to discover what happened. MKC complaint investigations can pass through a number of stages - surf to http://bil.ly/z98jJZ for further information. The main findings of Stage two or the investigation were:
- There was no evidence of MKC consulting with OTC or OTC's Ward Councillors about the land disposal;
- The land was not advertised for sale in an appropriate publication. This was because MKC's Valuer felt that sale to this developer was the only viable option for achieving a development rate for the land, since this developer had already secured the key area of private garden. The Valuer should have set out the justifications for not advertising the land in writing, but appeared not to have done so.
- MKC used independent expertise to value the land at a development rate, and secured a price higher than this valuation.
- Summary: "In my opinion, the Council ... disposed or the land in accordance with relevant law and largely in compliance with Council Policy, There were some procedural issues which appear to have been missed but in reality these issues are unlikely to have resulted in any different outcome in the disposal."
Presumably, the investigation had been escalated further, as the Council had received the following letter from MKC: "The outcome of the stage three investigation Into the Council's processes surrounding the disposal of the above property interests concluded that Property Services had not properly administered the processes ln regard to consultation with Town and Parish Councils and their respective Ward Members. Although this maladministration occurred during the time of my predecessor (2010) I should like to apologise for any inconvenience caused to each of you. The protocols put in place ensure that evidence or timely consultation is included as part of the sign-off procedures, such that there Is now no scope for error or omission in the future.
Jeremy Rawlings spoke first, having followed the land disposal issue from the start. He felt that Terry How was right - the support given to affected residents had been abysmal. He summarised the letter as saying that, yes, MKC had made a mistake, but that they weren't planning lo do anything much about it. He felt that OTC must make sure the issue gets raised to a higher level. Jeremy stated that the way the land disposal had been handled was wrong, but didn't know how to proceed further. He concluded by saying that the sale of the land was alter an MKC Planning Meeting in which most of the comments were against It yet, when it came to the vote, most Councillors abstained.
Mike Hughes asked Steve Clark, as Mayor, for his views and perhaps an undertaking to investigate possible ways to proceed. Steve agreed with Jeremy but, again, lei! it unclear what the Council could do. Tony Evans stated that OTC needed legal advice, MKC having operated Improperly and against its own protocol by not advertising the land sale. He also noted rumours that the land had since been sold on by the original purchasers lor a massive profit. He explained that OTC had said the situation was wrong from the start, that It should seek legal advice and, perhaps, that it should sue MKC.
Colin Rodden, a lone voice, questioned the validity of one public body suing another in these money-saving times. He also lelt that Olney had to be allowed to grow - houses had to be built somewhere.
Jeremy Rawlings stated that, while one Olney Ward Councillor is related to one of those who'd purchased the land from MKC, there was emphatically no suggestion that either Ward Councillor had done anything wrong.
Investigations after the meeting confirmed that the residents have raised the complaint to the Ombudsman and discovered that, while the Council was unable to raise it in this way, it's investigating other options, including whether it could support the residents' complaint.
Mercury thanks Jeremy Rawlings and other Councillors who've provided background for this section and helped ensure its accuracy.
Grant Application for Youth Centre
Jeremy Rawlings gave a brief introduction, saying that the Youth Centre was applying for a grant or £1,250, the salary of a professionally qualified Youth Worker for two sessions per month, for the year starting April 2012. The Council funded the post last year and the sessions have proved very popular with around 50-60 children attending.
Mike Hughes asked if the Youth Centre had tried to obtain funding elsewhere. Jeremy said that ii hadn't, noting that MKC doesn't fund these sessions tor Under 13s. Mike suggested that perhaps the session entry fee should be increased from 60p to £1.60 per person, thus covering the cost. Tony Evans felt that the Grant Application was very good value for money and that, with some people spending time criticising young people In the area, the Youth Club was doing something positive to help. Deidre Bethune concurred, saying that OTC needed to fund the sessions. A vote was taken and passed with all in favour bar two abstentions - the Council will pay the grant.
Bits 'n' bobs
MKC is running meetings to explain the process of Community Asset Transfer, in which it plans to transfer some of the assets it owns lo more local ownership. Peter Geary spoke briefly from the public gallery to clarify the purpose of these meetings. As Alan Richardson noted and Peter Geary confirmed, the Olney Centre is not one of these assets - it's not MKC's to transfer.
Some funds arising from the Petsoe End Wind Farm development are becoming available. with £7,000 assigned to the Olney Parish. This money must be allocated towards schemes "for the promotion, installation and education of renewable energy or energy saving measures" in the Parish. OTC will send a representative to the next meeting of the Community Development Liaison Committee, set up to administer these funds.
The Council had received a letter from a local business asking that the Market Place Car Park time limit be increased from three to five hours. The Council refused this request for reasons including three hours being long enough, there being longer stay spaces in the town and the cost of changing the signage.
In the Cattle Market Car Park, a single parking bay is reserved for turning. However, Mike Hughes noted that it's often heavily encroached on by the vehicle in the next space, thus leaving insufficient angle for vehicles to turn. This results in cars having to back out of the Car Park onto the main road - hardly ideal. MKC has suggested increasing the reserved area to two bays, thus allowing cars to turn more easily. The Council ag.reed with this suggestion.
As reported in earlier Mercury articles, the local Churches are organising an event on 27th July to coincide with the Olympics· Opening Ceremony. Tony Evans noted that this was progressing and that, once the finances had been estimated properly, the organisers must be encouraged to put a proper proposal to OTC. He felt ii would be a fantastic event, if it could be made to work.
Next Meeting 5th March
The next meeting will be held at 7.30pm on Monday 5th March in the Council Chamber in the Olney Centre. Members of the public are always welcome to attend and, if they wish, speak at the start of the meeting, or at any point that the mayor decides is appropriate.