Business Rates changes are a farce

Shops face a big % rise in business rates

The word is that the Conservatives are now contemplating backsliding on their Business Rates review in the face of a growing backlash.

Sign of things to come if the Conservatives don't get a grip of business rates?
Sign of things to come if the Conservatives don’t get a grip of business rates? Cross Street empty shops – more about high rents and rates than whether the road is open to cars or not.

Conservatives introduced the changes to help rebalance the economy and have been assuring everybody for months that 75% of business wouldn’t be affected or would see their rates drop. In January, Andy Boddington, Lib Dem County Councillor for Ludlow, exposed the massive detrimental impact the changes were going to have on the retail economy of Ludlow. You can read his blog posts on the subject here: April business rate hike could permanently damage the retail economy of towns like Ludlow, and here: Mixed fortunes and trouble ahead after changes to Ludlow’s business rates. His research was picked up by the local press and radio, and then the national media picked up the issue facing Ludlow.

This has developed into a national problem reported widely by the national media. Reports are that the Chancellor is now facing a backlash from Conservative MPs who have been feeling the heat from Business facing extortionate rises.

Andy’s figures make grim reading for Ludlow and the other Market Towns of Shropshire. Massive, punitive business rate rises are not just a story for urban areas in Shropshire. The pain is also being felt in rural areas too. If the Conservatives continue to get this wrong then more shops and business will close and cease trading. Cross Street’s empty shops are that way because of high rents and rates. Spending £50k on bollards or removing the bollards won’t help get those premises filled. Street Scene enhancement and realistic rents and rates would make a bigger difference. Let’s hope Cross Street isn’t the tip of an iceberg.

Whittington and West Felton businesses are also feeling the pinch as they face their new rates in April. In the SY11 4 postcode district, which is almost exactly the same as the County Division boundary for Whittington Division, the average business rate change for 195 businesses is a 38% rise. Some businesses can have a compound effect where they have a cash machine on the premises. Such businesses can get charged business rates for the main business plus a separate bill for the cash machine itself.

A few lowlights:

  • average business rate change for 195 businesses is a 38% rise
  • The biggest % rise is seen by Rednal Karting with a whopping 223% rise
  • Mile End filling station is going up by 71%
  • The Ironworks is going up by 58%
  • Holiday cottage businesses are going up by 113%
  • Brynallt Kennels facing a rise by 98%
  • Workshops are facing a rather modest rise of 33%
  • Shops face a rise of 209%
  • Hairdressing & Salons face a rise of 210%
Shops face a rise of over 200% in business rates
Shops face a rise of over 200% in business rates

Over the last few days, there have been reports about how the Government is going to make appealing harder.  However, businesses have been telling me that they have huge issues with appealing already and that Shropshire Council isn’t very helpful and somewhat obstructive in the process. Shropshire Council is only the collection authority but surely they can be more sensitive and direct businesses to where and how they can appeal.

There was already huge disquiet with Business rates and the inherent fairness of the valuations. At Rednal Karting they would like a fairer assessment. When they compare themselves to other similar Karting venues they are severely penalised and have been frustrated in getting the valuation appealed.

If the Government does back down it would be welcome but if it is simply a tweak of the transitional arrangements that wouldn’t be a satisfactory outcome. The current suggested transitional arrangements are geared towards larger businesses. Business Rates need a comprehensive root and branch review to make sure that the system is fair to everybody, not just those at the top and the bottom.

In the post-Brexit world, we need to be doing more than ever to support the economy and help businesses make the transition thrive, not penalising businesses.

Broadband by the numbers

David Walker by a BT cabinet in West Felton
David Walker by a BT cabinet in West Felton
David Walker by a BT cabinet in West Felton

Many moons ago – 15 years ago to be exact – when I was a Councillor for Bridgnorth, I campaigned long and hard to get broadband to Bridgnorth. Eventually, Bridgnorth got onto the list for pre-registration in 2002. BT set a high a trigger-level of 750 before they would consider enabling broadband at the exchange. Again I campaigned to get people to register and get Bridgnorth over BT’s interest trigger level. This culminated in Bridgnorth passing the ADSL trigger-level in February 2003 and a lot earlier than other places. The Exchange was enabled the following May. As a County Councillor, I also worked to see the roll-out of Broad Places.

Back then I said: “Securing broadband will lead to a massive economic boost for Bridgnorth. Improving the access and the speed of communication for businesses and home users will create new opportunities for job creation.” Times have changed, but this still holds very true today. The fact we are still lagging behind other areas is not good.

Speeds around Whittington

Over the last decade, across all sectors of the economy, services have shifted online as broadband access became more widely available. Businesses have made efficiency savings and opened up their business to whole new markets. Public bodies followed suit. Now the expectation is that services are delivered online. It hasn’t all been good news, with increased social isolation and lower customer ‘face-time’ leading to remoteness and in some cases a drop in customer satisfaction.

Speeds around West Felton

Throughout this process, and of particular concern to me, is the rural bias BT operates by. Rural areas pay the same charges as our Urban counterparts, yet the service we receive is always far worse.  As services switch to online, poor access to the internet is a real handicap for businesses and individuals in rural areas. The have-nots left in rural desserts or ‘not spots’ left unable to do the basics or having to put up with a reduced service. Shropshire Council has been paying BT to roll out Fibre Broadband into rural areas. Yet now we are in the realms of Super Fast Fibre Broadband. Currently, only 47% of exchanges in Shropshire can deliver Super Fast Broadband.

Having moved to Aston Moors, West Felton I was shocked at the broadband speed Sandra and Lily received: An abysmal 1.5mbps. After looking at the subsidies available through connecting Shropshire, we were told we didn’t qualify so we upgraded to Fibre to achieve the heady heights of 7.5mbps…. An incredibly slow speed for fibre and even for bog standard broadband.  I have previously received 20mbps in Bridgnorth 5 years ago. At work, fibre came to the village of Upton Magna two years ago and we enjoy a speed of 75mbps at our offices.

Take a look at any rural area on the think broadband website and the disparity from area to area in Shropshire is huge. At a time when services are online, and Councils & service providers expect/require you to access their services that way… At a time when businesses need to be as competitive as possible, locally and internationally… At a time when public expectations for how services should be delivered… Such poor access is a real barrier to Shropshire economic success and runs the very real danger of leaving many vulnerable people in rural areas more isolated than ever.

Many areas are now getting Ultra Fast Broadband. If Shropshire’s economy is to properly compete with other counties in the UK, or globally, in the post-brexit world, we need faster access and 100% roll our of Super Fast Broadband, and we need it quickly.

Check out the numbers for your postcode here: Think broadband postcode search

Let me know what you think of your broadband speed.

Broadband by the numbers: Whittington and West Felton Parishes

Let’s put some numbers on the broadband access in our area.

  • There are 3 exchanges that cover our area: Queens Head, Oswestry and Knockin.
  • Oswestry and Knockin have Super Fast Broadband, Queens Head does not.
  • North Shropshire has Estimated Maximum Mean Download Speed: 41.6 Mbps (compared to 130.5 Mbps for the UK)
  • North Shropshire ADSL connections get an average speed of 6.9mbps
  • North Shropshire Fibre (FTTC) connections get an average speed of 30.8mb
  • North Shropshire Super Fast Broadband coverage: 78.4% (compared with 91.8% for the UK)
  • North Shropshire Ultra Fast Broadband coverage: 1.52% (compared with 51.27% for the UK)
  • Only 47% of exchanges in Shropshire can deliver Super Fast Broadband.

Local Plan partial review

David Walker by another unplanned site in West Felton in 2017
David Walker, a Land Surveyor, at one of the many unplanned housing sites.
David Walker, a Land Surveyor by profession, at one of the many unplanned housing sites on Holyhead Road.

A couple of weeks ago Shropshire Council launched their review into the Local Plan (known as SamDev) and have launched a consultation.

The review will identify how much housebuilding and employment development will take place in the County until 2036, and where it will go. It will also look at the boundaries of the Green Belt, which is protected from development. Sites to build 17,000 homes in the County by 2026 have already been identified, and it is proposed that the updated plan will identify further sites to enable an additional 11,000 to 13,000 homes will be built over the next 20 years.

Why is this important?

This is likely to be the only real opportunity residents and Parish Councils to comment and make representations on it. There will be very limited if any opportunity to comment on submissions made by developers.  Due to lack of time and more significantly a lack of staff available to do the work. Once the plan is amended it will be very hard to alter sites or object to development on these sites.

Current SHLAA sites adopted in Whittington
Current SHLAA sites adopted in Whittington

Coupled with this consultation is the ‘Call for sites’ in addition to those adopted in the 2014 Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment (SHLAA).  Whilst No sites were adopted in West Felton, or Whittington, several were earmarked in Whittington (appendix 4) with long-term potential or potential. These sites will be back in the mix no doubt in this consultation. But history has shown how this can change in an unplanned way.

SamDev has had a troubled history already

We have seen to our cost already how the Conservatives made a mess of SamDev. SamDev was delayed for 2 years leaving the Council with no 5-year land supply. This meant many sites were granted planning permission that wouldn’t if they had an adopted policy.

David Walker by another unplanned site in West Felton
West Felton has been burdened with 70-100 houses they didn’t ask for, thanks to Conservative 5-year land supply failure & lack of planning control.

The SamDev delays were due to staff shortages caused by the Conservative policy of allowing anyone who asked for redundancy to take it. This short-sighted policy showed no strategic aim nor vision. Many planning and development control officers left. Much expertise and knowledge that was lost to the council.

As a result, West Felton will be burdened with 70-100 houses they didn’t want. If they had have been planned properly they would have probably been located differently, with a mix of houses more in line with the needs of the village and on a much smaller scale – The more likely outcome… Not at all.

As a Land Surveyor working for one of the countries most successful planning consultancies I find this particular failure by the Conservatives unacceptable and in one of the big drivers behind my decision to stand for lecetion next May.

Is the scope of the review going to be fit for purpose?

Probably not. Only yesterday the Conservative Government criticised Councils for being too slow and not accurately allocating enough housing to meet the national need. They will be shortening the planning process. Whilst good from a planning and development point of view, this is bad news for residents wishing to be involved in the planning process. It is now more important than ever that parish councils and residents get involved in policy development to head off poor policy making at the pass.

This consultation will conclude on Monday 20th of March 2017. Details of the consultation are here: Local Plan Partial Review – Issues and strategic options

Your views really matter.

 

Traffic figures show alarming jump

David Walker at looking at the traffic at Queens Head Junction
David Walker at looking at the traffic at Queens Head Junction
The Queens Head junction continues to be a concern. As traffic levels rise, the need for action is becoming more urgent all the time.

The latest available Road Traffic Accident data was released last October. The data for Whittington and West Felton Parishes broadly follows the trend shown in increasing traffic numbers across the country. However, the provisional data to June 2016 shows a potentially worrying spike. The last column on the right shows that the first half of 2016 had nearly eclipsed the annual total of the year before. If that trend continued through the rest of 2016 then 2016 would have had double the accidents of the year before and of the average since 2008.

The last column on the right shows that the first half of 2016 had nearly eclipsed the annual total in 2015 and matched the average of the years before (13 accidents.)

Whittington and West Felton Crash Statistics
Whittington and West Felton Crash Statistics

If that trend continued through the rest of 2016, then 2016 would have had double the accidents of the average since 2008. If there were no more accidents in the rest of 2016 then the figures would be on average. The later would be welcome but not a reason for complacency. Odds are that it is the former.

Residents have expressed concern about the A5 and the traffic growth for years. Some have called for the A5 to be converted to a dual carriageway and others have called for the addition of round-a-bouts at Queens Head and at Shotatton crossroads. The original design of this junction was questionable. It is clear to everybody who uses these junctions, on a daily basis, that the potential for serious problems is of growing concern. Far better to sort out these inadequate junctions before something serious happens. Over to you Highways England….

Crashmaps.co.uk is a useful site for seeing the location and details of reported road traffic accidents. The full 2016 figures will be made available by the department of transport next June

Crash map showing the range of incidents around the Queens Head junction from 2009 to June 2016

LED Street lights must be rolled out

LED Street Light at Whittington Level Crossing
Sodium Lights on Station Road, Whittington
Inefficient and costly Sodium Lights on Station Road, Whittington

Last week Powys Council announced that they will be replacing their existing street lights with LED Street Lights. They will be spending £1.5 million to replace over 5,000 street lights. Staffordshire council is doing the same and Herefordshire completed their switch to LED last year. Yet sleepy Conservative-led Shropshire Council are… errmm… doing nothing!

Currently, Shropshire Council is trialling the use of LED street lights. (There is one of these LED Lights on Station Road in Whittington.) However, they are making a costly mistake by not rolling out the more economically efficient LED lights. At present, Shropshire Council considers that the capital cost of swapping their lights is too high and are hoping that the cost of the lights comes down.

“…a significant number of columns are presently posing an unacceptable risk and are in urgent need of replacement” Shropshire Council, Challenge Fund Bid 2015

In my view, this is a very poor decision. When you consider that 88% of the lights are made of decaying concrete or that 44% are over 25 years old and 14% are over 50!! Shropshire Council said in 2015 that data to May 2014 showed that a significant proportion of the 4,060 light tested presented an “unacceptable risk and are in urgent need of replacement.” They identified that 252 needed immediate replacement and an additional that 2,347 needed replacement by 2017/18.  So 65% of those tested needed replacing presenting an “unacceptable risk and are in urgent need of replacement.”

They could use some of their £175 million cash reserves or they could borrow the capital cost from the Government’s Green Investment Bank, given that interest rates are still at historically low levels. Either way, replacement is increasingly inevitable anyway.  It is economic madness to do nothing when the long-term on-going savings are huge and the obvious benefits to public safety are widely accepted.

LED Street Light at Whittington Level Crossing
Energy efficient, safer and less light polluting LED Street Light at Whittington Level Crossing

In 2014 The Government invited all Highways Authorities in England, including Shropshire Council, to submit bids for a slice of the £275 million Challenge Fund. 28 authorities were successful in meeting the fund’s criteria and putting forward the strongest bids. Shropshire’s bid in 2015 was unsuccessful. Arguably because their bid lacked ambition. They only wanted to replace lights over 35 years old. Other similar bids were bidding to modernise the whole network. This failure left Shropshire with its old and inefficient street lighting. Fast forward 2 years and many many authorities are putting Shropshire to shame, investing to save considerable money on their energy bills.

Safer, Brighter, Cleaner and Cheaper

Just like domestic LED lights used in your home, there is an initial capital cost to replace the lights. However, the ongoing savings thanks to their longer life expectancy and replacement costs, and the direct savings in terms of power consumption. This means that the year on year savings quickly outway the initial capital cost. Using LED Streetlights also has the upside of improved lighting, reducing crime and improving safety for both pedestrians and road users alike. Due to the more directional lighting, they also reduce light pollution in the night sky and aren’t as much a nuisance to residential property. They also contribute to reduced Carbon Dioxide emissions, don’t use dangerous heavy metals or emit UV radiation.

Street lights in Shropshire use enough power to light every house in Whittington Parish

According to Shropshire Council, it takes 7.7 million kilowatt-hours of power to run their 18,500 street lights, illuminated signs and traffic signals every year – enough to power 2,600, or every home in Whittington Parish, for a year! Annually they spend £800,000 on repairing and renewing Street Lighting. The electricity consumed by an ‘average’ light costs between £25 and £65 a year.  Both the capital replacement and maintenance cost and the energy costs could be radically cut by switching.

According to a  market report by the UK Green Investment Bank in February 2014:

  • Councils spend 30% of their total annual energy bill on Street Lighting;
  • Savings of 50%-80% can be achieved by switching to LED lights;
  • LED lights have a life expectancy of 24 years and last for 100,000 hours;
  • Standard Sodium lights last for 15,000 hours;
  • Fluorescent lights last for 25,000 hours;
  • LED Lights are directional making sure the light only goes where it is needed.
  • Old lights disperse light everywhere, with as much as 30% going upwards;
  • Old lights offer poor lighting leaving many dark areas;
  • Old lights are a nuisance near residential windows.

Elsewhere…

It doesn’t take much searching on Google to see how everywhere else is getting on with upgrading:

Cheshire East Council are upgrading 24,000 street lights to LED

Kent County Council decided to replace all 118,000 of their lights with LED lights and project an annual saving of £5.2 million a year on their electricity consumption.

Bracknell Forest are replacing 13,000 street lights and expect to save £12 million over the life of the lights

Herefordshire Council has already replaced most of their 12,000 lights. They expect to see a return after 5 years and savings of over £16 million on their energy and maintenance costs over the next 20 years.

Darlington Borough Council converting 11,884 street lights to energy efficient LED lights.

UK Green Investment Bank plc (GIB) has agreed a £6.8m Green Loan with the Barking and Dagenham London Borough Council that could save the council up to £21m.

Doing nothing is not acceptable

According to Shropshire’s challenge Fund bid, the annual energy saving would be about £300,000 a year. That is £300,000 that can be reinvested in services, reinvested in the Street Light network or to reduce council tax levels. Over the lifetime of the new lights (24 years) that saving would be about £7.2 million of energy savings. With rising energy prices that saving figure has to be considered a conservative estimate. Given that many of the new light would last beyond that lifetime, the savings could be considerably more. At a time when money is tight, these are precious savings that need to be made

Given the environmental benefits, the “unacceptable risk” of column failure and the significant ongoing savings, doing nothing is not acceptable.

Shropshire school budgets cut by £13.4m according to NUT

Last week the National Union of Teachers announced the estimated cuts to every School Budget by 2020. Based on current Government policies, the total estimated reduction across all schools in Shropshire in real terms is:

-£13,431,854

This is a vast sum which amounts to a Shropshire average of £394 cut Per pupil or 360 Teachers axed. As a former County Councillor and Cabinet member with an Education portfolio, I find these numbers quite depressing and very short-sighted.

A good education is a critical factor in not only an individual’s personal life chances but also essential in terms of the nation’s ability to create wealth. By starving schools of the resources they need, standards will go down and ultimately we are all poorer. Especially in a post-Brexit world, we need to invest heavily in Education and supporting all of our industries to adjust to the new demands facing the economy. Get this wrong and the long-term problems for the economy will mount up. After Brexit, we need to be as competitive as we can as we will be competing on our own against the rest of the world. On many measures of education, skills, and productivity we already lag far behind many leading economies.

Individual school cuts for schools serving Whittington and West Felton

The Corbet School Technology College: -£306,734, -£463 Per pupil or -7 Teachers
West Felton CofE: -£29,416, -£246 Per pupil or -1 Teaching assistant
The Marches School: -£522,032, -£428 Per pupil or -15 Teachers
Whittington CofE-£66,382, -£323 Per pupil or -1 Teachers

According to the NUT: “Unless the Government allocates more money, schools will lose £3 billion a year in real terms by 2020.

“98% of schools’ costs are rising faster than their income.

“60% of secondary schools are running deficit budgets.”

More: http://www.schoolcuts.org.uk/