Sunday, November 11, 2007

Polishing off the family silver

Earlier this week on the Stirrer, a story broke about the sale of a small plot of land in Acocks Green. This isn't a story that will set the world alight, but it means a lot to a few residents and speaks volumes about the state of our city and the policies of our Liberal Democrat/Tory Regressive Partnership.

The patch isn't big, but it has a little historical significance, as part of the avenue of trees leading up to Acocks Green House. The first picture shows it as it was last year. For a number of years, it has been open land, used by local residents as a public space - right beside it are a couple of blocks of flats and some low-rise housing, full of elderly residents, who valued that little amenity. Given that, you would think that the City Council - keen to encourage use of open space and to secure the future of a tiny part of the green lungs of our city - would carry out a little light landscaping so that residents might enjoy it even more.

You would, of course, be wrong to think that, as our masters have decreed that all surplus land should be sold and that this parcel is surplus to their, if not our, requirements. Accordingly, a neighbour has bought the land and, after an attempt to fell the trees (stopped by Preservation Orders being slapped on them), he has now fenced the area off. Rumours persist that he either intended to extend his house or to use the land for car parking - neither very practical with the trees in situ. This is how it looks today.

The fence is just under the 2m height limit which would require planning permission, but is over the 1m limit which applies if the fence is adjacent to the highway. I understand that no application has yet been submitted and that the Planning Department were made aware of the potential breach some weeks ago.

So, when the story hit The Stirrer, I pointed out that this was a direct result of a policy shift within the council. Cllr (counting down the days until May 08) Hemming responded

we didn't find out until after the sale had gone through... There is a policy issue about informing local elected representatives etc. That policy (which has been in place for a long time) is something I am trying to ensure involved informing local representatives...

The policy is driven by the Deputy Leader, who chairs the Property Committee and the council have been stripping out the silver since at least 2005 - when Cllr Hemming himself held the reins (the patch of land used to fall into his ward prior to boundary changes and still falls inside his constituency). Since then, it has been under the control of Paul Tilsley - another of the Yardley mafia and councillor for Sheldon, just across the border from Acocks Green. How hard is it for Paul to let his colleagues in the constituency know that land is up for sale in their wards? How hard is it for Paul to let every councillor know about council property about to be sold off? Perhaps a swift email to those nice Blackberries?

Perhaps a list like this might help?

Every time proposals come to the Property Committee, the standard form is completed
3.2 Have relevant Ward and other Members / Officers been properly and meaningfully consulted on this report?
And every time, back comes the answer.
The Deputy Leader has been consulted in the preparation of this report. There has also been consultation with the Cabinet Members for Transportation and Street Services, Housing and Regeneration together with wider consultation with Members in the constituencies. The relevant chief and senior officers have also been consulted in relation to the proposals to declare properties surplus to requirements as set out in Appendix 1

So there is no meaningful consultation - which is supported by Cllr Hemming's statements and the report submitted to each meeting is factually inaccurate. Indeed, my sources on the ground tell me that it came as a surprise to the three local councillors (all Liberal Democrats), who at least dealt with the requests for Tree Preservation Orders on the mature trees swiftly, so they do deserve some kudos for that. I'm not being critical of them, but of the policy that led up to this.

It was in Cllr Hemming's direct power to ensure that members were kept informed, but he did not make it happen. It is in Cllr Tilsley's direct power to change the process, but nothing has happened for more than two years. Either they aren't committed to local information, or more likely they don't want to tell Labour councillors when land is about to be sold off to the highest bidder, because they know what the response would be.

When I challenged Cllr Hemming that he ought to take responsibility for decisions made by a Cabinet of which he was a member and a coalition shored up by his Liberal Democrat members, he weaselled, claiming that sales had taken place for years.

The council has always disposed of land - and there's nothing wrong with that - but things have changed in recent years. Financial year 2005-06 generated £32.6 million in income. 2006-07 was supposed to supply some £60 million and 2007-08 is targetted to beat that combined total and raise £149 million in cold, hard cash.

That's a quarter of a billion pounds of council assets being flogged off - don't you think we have a right to know more? Don't you think that the Liberal Democrats should stand up and defend a policy that they helped to push through and that their local leaders have personally championed?
Or are the disciplines of government too much for them?

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