Devon County Council

Sexual harassment and bullying case involving leading Devon councillor: I think the County has handled it properly

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At the last Devon County Council meeting, Councillor Emma Brennan (Labour, Heavitree and Whipton Barton, Exeter) made a protest about the continued presence in the Council of Councillor Brian Greenslade (Barnstaple), who has been found guilty of sexual harassment and bullying against Council employees during his time as leader 10-15 years ago. Earlier, we had approved the minutes of the Standards Committee which considered the matter.

Councillor Greenslade has lost his membership of the Liberal Democrats and now sits as an Independent (but he is not a member of the Non-Aligned Group to which Claire Wright and I belong). He has also lost his membership of Council committees and his access to all but the minimum Council facilities necessary for him to act as a councillor. These are the maximum penalties the Council is able to impose; it is not possible for the Council to force him to stand down as a councillor.

DevonLive reports that Devon County Council has refused to release details of the case. Based on what I know now, I think that Council officers and the Standards Committee have handled the case properly, taking the matter extremely seriously, and if they say that releasing sensitive details would undermine confidentiality and the integrity of the case, I accept their judgement.

Local refugee support group backs County Council’s request for help in finding accommodation for refugees

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Ottery Refugee Response have sent me Devon County Council’s appeal for help in finding accommodation:

Devon is playing its part in meeting the UK government’s pledge to bring 20,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees to the UK by 2020. We are also part of the government’s national programme to look after unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

Resettling Syrian families

A life away from war. Landlords - how you can help

Local councils working together across Devon have pledged to house over 40 Syrian families. Since June 2016, families have arrived in Devon at the rate of just over one each month on average. Families continue to arrive when housing is ready for them. To meet our pledges, we need landlords who will rent properties to councils to house refugee families. The UK government’s resettlement programme provides funding to Councils for housing and other resettlement costs such as English classes, interpreting, cultural orientation and help into work.

Looking after unaccompanied children

In summer 2016, the government set up a ‘national transfer scheme’ so that councils across the country could share the responsibility for looking after unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. These children may arrive in the UK independently or under government programmes. Devon joined the national transfer scheme from the start. We are already looking after children placed with us under that scheme and we have indicated to the government that we are prepared to receive children over the next few years in line with that commitment.

In autumn 2016, Devon hosted a temporary Home Office centre to look after children brought into the UK to be reunited with family members when the Calais ‘Jungle’ was closed.

Sign up to keep in touch with what Devon is doing and how you can help >

Contact email address: refugeesupport@devon.gov.uk

Devon County Council underspends on social care because it can’t get enough staff – Cabinet member claims it’s ‘good management’!

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At today’s Devon County Council Cabinet meeting, significant underspends on several areas of social care were reported due to staff shortages and staff vacancies. While I together with Labour and LibDem councillors suggested – as officers had told us previously – that this raised serious concerns about whether the Council was able to deliver the services needed, and whether it was getting staff and pay levels right, Conservative Cabinet member, Councillor Andrew Leadbetter said it was testimony to ‘good management’.

Pay more and more council tax for fewer and fewer services – Devon Conservatives’ inspiring record of managing the County Council’s decline reaches a new low

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My last post but not least on yesterdays County Council meeting – it approved the budget and set an increase in Council Tax of 4.99 per cent. 

As my Independent colleague Cllr Claire Wright explained in her speech, health visitors, funding for foster care, the schools counselling service, among others are to be cut, cut, cut – while an extra £5m is stashed away in reserves (because of the unreliability of the Government’s new wheeze of letting councils keep business rates as a partial substitute for central funding).

County budget meeting 15.2.18I pointed out that – while we all want to protect spending on the young, elderly and disabled – another year of huge rises in Council Tax (making 14 per cent in the last 3 years) will hit hard those managing on modest incomes.

As a colleague pointed out, Council Tax is an unfair tax and the way in which the Government is loading social care costs on to it is a disgrace.

I said you’d have thought that it would be good for Devon to have the same party running its council which runs the national government. Actually it’s the opposite – the Tory Government takes advantage of the Devon Tories’ slavish loyalty, and the Devon Tories let them get away with it.

YOU CAN WATCH MY SPEECH BY CLICKING HERE AND FAST-FORWARDING TO 1:56.

Extra £5m earmarked for reserves should be spent on at Devon’s at risk services, Independent councillors will demand at Thursday’s budget meeting

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The additional £5m that Devon County Council is squirrelling away in reserves this year should be spent on vital services, say the Independent Group, ahead of Thursday’s budget meeting.

This Thursday (15 February) will see the council set its budget and put back an extra £5m in the Business Rate Risk Management Reserve, in case of unexpected financial difficulty.

Devon’s four-strong Independent group of councillors – Frank Biederman, Claire Wright, Martin Shaw and Jacqi Hodgson (Green Party) are opposing this move and proposing instead that it is spent on funding vital services that are set to be lost.

The group’s proposal is that:
–  no health visitor posts are cut (30 posts are proposed to be lost)
–  no foster carer loses any income (there are proposals to reduce the income to some foster carers)
– there are no cuts to the schools counselling programme (there is no money for this)
– dangerous pavements in the county’s towns and villages are repaired (this is an ongoing problem and people are falling and hurting themselves)

Frank Biederman, Leader of the Independent Group said:  “We’re frustrated at further government cuts, which means higher council tax, again, for far fewer services, again.”

Claire Wright, Deputy Leader of the Independent Group, who seconded the motion, added: Devon’s council tax has soared by almost 20 per cent in just seven years.  That’s £250 for an average band D property.

“This year it is set to rise by a further almost five per cent.  It’s quite wrong and it is adding huge pressures to those people on low incomes.

“I put the blame on the Conservative government and those MPs in Devon who yet again have voted in favour of unacceptable cuts that damage people’s lives.”

“It’s a predictable disgrace.  We are asking Devon County Council to write an open letter to all Devon MPs, expressing disappointment to those who let down the people of this county yet again.

“The government finds money to fund the projects it wants to but unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to support the provision of public services.”

Devon County Council’s government grant has been cut by £155m (76 per cent) since austerity began in 2010.

A further £20m is set to be cut from this year’s county council budget.

Jacqi Hodgson said:  “We need to encourage people into fostering, at a time when record numbers of children are coming into the service.  Not reduce pay.  We know the use of private homes is not in the best interests of children and are much more costly.”

She added: “Frontline services cannot be sustained with persistent chipping away at budgets; any available monies should be spent on keeping them viable, not squirrelled away.”

Cllr Martin Shaw said:  “Average earnings for a full-time male employee increased by 0 per cent – nothing – in the last year, while inflation is at 3 per cent, i.e. a decline in real income of 3 per cent. That’s the context in which massive council tax rises are being proposed.”

“Ignoring our pavements is not good for local businesses and has a tremendous cost to the person and the public purse when slips, trips and falls happen.”

The full motion is below:

A – That this council does not put a further £5millions into reserves, at the same time as asking hard pressed, low paid Devon residents to pay more council tax for fewer services than ever before.

B – that part of the five millions is used to maintain the level of pay for all Devon’s Foster Parents, so no one sees a drop in their income.

C – That part of the five millions is used to maintain numbers of Health Visitors so that no posts are made redundant.

D – that part of the five millions is used to maintain the schools counselling services, currently likely to be lost via the public health budget

E – that this council writes an open letter to Devon MPs expressing deep disappointment with those who voted in favour of cuts to Devon’s council core funding

F – that any remaining monies as part of the £5millions, is transferred to repairing pavements in our city, town and village centres.

Frank Biederman added: “We hope Councillors from across the chamber support these amendments, we all have to stand together for the people of Devon, it is clear Rural counties like Devon are the poor relation, when it comes to government funding.”

Pursuit of elusive ‘devolution’ deal is leading to a new layer of bureaucracy: an unelected, one-party ‘Heart of the South West’ combined authority

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speaking at Cabinet 8.11.17This week’s DCC Cabinet meeting approved a Conservative proposal to set up a formal Joint Committee with Somerset (report at item 7 of the agenda). Objections were raised to aspects of the proposal by the leaders of the Liberal Democrat and Labour groups, and I spoke on behalf of the Non-Aligned Group (which comprises the three Independents and one Green councillor). You can watch the debate, and read my speech below:

I think we know what is going with devolution. We have a government which is ripping the heart out of local government spending, pushing services to the border of viability; this is causing enormous difficulties for this council but also driving down local incomes and so weakening our regional economy. But at the same time it is holding out the carrot of giving us limited extra powers and returning a modest bit of the lost funding, if we jump through its ‘devolution’ hoops. The government barely seems to know what it’s doing over ‘devolution’ and the hoops keep changing, but we still have to guess what they are and do our best to jump.

And so we end up with the papers in front of us today. We are asked to endorse a ‘vision’ of higher productivity and economic growth and create an extra layer of bureaucracy to support it. The problem is that the vision bears little relation to reality. The ambition is to double the regional economy in 18 years, i.e. to increase its size by 100% – this requires a compound growth rate of 3.94%. In the real world, the actual growth rate in the SW over the last 18 years has been 30% and the annual rate 1.47%. Nationally, the UK economy has never grown by more than 3% p.a. in any of the last 18 years, and is currently veering downwards below 1.5%.

So we are asked to believe that we can increase local productivity growth from below the national average to well above it, and thereby buck not only regional but also national growth trends. How are we going to that? By waving the wand of the Hinkley nuclear white elephant and hoping that it somehow spreads some stardust over Devon? I can tell you that so far the LEP has produced almost nothing which offers help to the economy in the rural, small-town, coastal Devon which most of us represent.

 

Let’s take a reality check – if I come to the budget meeting and tell you, ‘the economy will grow by 4%, business rate receipts will shoot up, so spend, spend, spend’, you are going to look on me as a madman, and rightly so. So why should Devon County Council buy this phoney prospectus? And why should we embark on radical constitutional change to support it?

I know this is only a proposal for a Joint Committee, with limited financial implications. But it is clearly presented as enabling us to ‘move relatively quickly to establish a Combined Authority’ if that is deemed necessary. We already have 3 tiers of local government. This is the beginning of creating a fourth tier, without a mandate, without elections, and without balanced political representation.

95% of the people of Devon don’t even know they’re living in something called the ‘Heart of the South West’. It says everything about the lack of democracy in this so-called devolution that we are using this PR-speak rather than the county names which people understand. I know the Government prefers cross-boundary devolution projects, but Cornwall got a stand-alone deal, and we are much bigger in both population and area. 

Apart from Hinkley there is no strong reason for us to tie ourselves to Somerset rather than Cornwall or Dorset. Our local government is being distorted to support an anachronistic nuclear project – for the benefit of companies owned by the French and Chinese states – instead of developing renewable energy for which we have a good basis in the SW.

I have this Cabinet down as a group of a level-headed people. But here we have fantasy economics, making claims which are about as credible as the figures on Boris’s battlebus, and constitutional change which means that Devon people and their councillors are asked to start handing over democratic control to a one-party quango in conjunction with unelected business people.

Since the Government is always changing its mind about devolution, there is no reason why we shouldn’t change our minds too. I ask you to

 

  1. go back to the Government with a realistic agenda for Devon, that addresses the needs of all areas of the county and all sectors of our economy and society
  2. back off from this unnecessary proposal for a joint committee.

 

 

Devon County Council’s Cabinet supports Plastic Free Coastlines after primary school children’s pleas

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My Independent colleague Cllr Frank Biederman this week succeeded in getting DCC’s Cabinet to endorse initiatives to achieve plastic-free coastlines, after very articulate speeches by two children from Georgeham Primary School in his North Devon division. Frank’s motion said:

‘This Devon County Council supports Plastic Free Coastlines, committing to plastic free alternatives and supporting plastic free initiatives within Devon. The Council commits to lead by example to remove single-use plastic items from its premises. Also it must encourage plastic free initiatives, promoting the campaign and supporting its events. A representative of this Council will become a member of the Plastic Free Coastlines Steering group’.

The Cabinet agreed that the Council be recommended to:

i)  support the spirit of the Notice of Motion, which aims to provide leadership in avoiding single-use plastic items in order to achieve a ‘Plastic Free Coastline’; and

ii)  commit to addressing this issue further through this Authority’s environmental performance agenda, including a review of single-use plastic items and how suitable alternatives to these might continue to be adopted.