Three attempts before fly tipped waste bin removed

Flying tipping can be dangerous and annoying, this open bin was full of putrid water next to a children’s playground and I was concerned that it was only after I had reported it the third time directly to the Council officer responsible that I managed to get action to remove it.  The first two attempts using the Council’s online form for fly tipping were unsuccessful, the contractor apparently decided to log it as a missing bin collection despite my report highlighting this was not the case.  The Council’s online form does not give a receipt and feedback is not provided to those that report fly tipping incidents on whether their request has been accepted.  This would be particularly the case if fly tipping is not on public land and therefore the responsibility of the landowner to clear and not the council.

I have been reassured that the bulk of responses to removing fly tipping are within 24 hours but it needs to do better in providing feedback to residents that take the trouble to report fly tipping and improve its digital approach to reporting such issues.   I have been promised a review is taking place to remedy some of these issues so look forward to improvements.  Mid Sussex has one of the lowest reported rates of fly tipping, it needs to ensure this is not because of reporting issues.

Burgess Hill litter pick

We participated in the Great British Clean Up this morning organised by Keep Britain Tidy. The Town Council has arranged seven public clean-ups between 28 May and 13 June, covering your nominated ‘Grot spots’, details here. All equipment will be provided by Burgess Hill Town Council and clean-ups will be led by Ward Councillors.  Thanks to Anne Eves and everyone else who participated in the Leylands clean-up this morning, and I would particularly highlight the need for dog walkers to take their poop bags home if they don’t pass a bin.

Council votes down more openness in Scrutiny

At a time when sleaze and dodgy deals are in the headlines as our Prime Minister battles questions of who paid for his curtains and why Conservative donors with his private phone number were far more likely to receive untendered contracts, Johnson’s commitment to improving standards in public life has been undermined by his appointment of a new standards adviser who cannot initiate his own investigations and can be overruled by the PM.  

At tonight’s Mid Sussex annual council meeting we had our own version of this where attempts to elect opposition councillors to become Vice-Chairs of the three Scrutiny committees were voted down by the Conservative administration.  Scrutiny needs to be conducted openly and honestly, on the District Council we saw the decision last year to close Clair Hall where the Conservatives tried to close down debate, and which ended up leaving the Council taken to court for making an unlawful decision, and facing legal fees of £27k. 

Liberal Democrat leader Alison Bennett also raised the need to reinstate later start times for council meetings given issues for those with children or in work to attend early meetings.  Typically one Conservative didn’t see the issue as he managed three companies and didn’t have a problem attending meetings !!! We need councillors in touch with ordinary life not millionaires with their castles in the sky.

Moss away?

Following concerns that I raised about the state of some of our smaller play areas I have been reassured by the District Council that work to improve some of our smaller play areas like Forge Way is underway, the extended closure due to the pandemic left it and some other play areas covered in moss and with minor repairs needed.  I understand the moss and toadstools has been treated and the hard areas will be swept this coming week .

Freeks Lane tidy up

Its good to see resident efforts to tidy up Freeks Lane, Liberal Democrat candidate Stuart Condie and myself took some time off from County Council election campaigning to clear up some plastic netting which was apparently left by contractors several years ago and become intertwined with vegetation, so we put some time into removing it this morning. Where possible we would prefer to hold the relevant authority to account but given the time that has passed this is not always possible.

Update on road works

I have been asked how long the roadworks in Leylands Road near St Peters Road will continue, and can confirm they will complete by the 16th April, a colleague who contacted them has confirmed they have completed the main works and will make good the road surface next week. I’ve also been asked about the blockage on the upgraded footpath parallel to Blackstone Way, and understand completion was delayed by legal issues which have now been resolved and therefore the work should be completed soon, just waiting for a specific deadline.

All play areas are back open but did they have to close at all?

It’s excellent news to hear that all our playgrounds are reopening but why did Mid Sussex District Council interpret government guidelines so differently to their colleagues in Horsham?  Does cleaning playgrounds once a week really make them Covid secure? Did they need to be kept shut in the first place, and was £44,000 wasted on extra cleaning costs?  

Freedom of Information requests submitted to Mid Sussex District Council and Horsham District Council have revealed two starkly different approaches to ensuring children’s playgrounds were ‘covid secure’ when Government advice allowed them to be reopened following the end of the first lockdown in July 2020.

Horsham District Council reopened all fifty-two of its play areas last summer, spent no money on additional cleaning, and just £100 on signage.a Other councils have taken a similar approach.

Mid Sussex District Council decided upon a very different course of action. In the response to the Freedom of Information request they say, “We undertook an initial cleanse prior to opening each facility in July 2020, and since then have carried out a weekly cleanse of all play areas and outdoor gyms that have re-opened. In addition, we have purchased and installed permanent A3-sized signage at each entrance point, providing guidance on social distancing, hand hygiene and the safe use of the facilities.”b The cost of this up to the week commencing 25 January 2021 was £44,152. When asked how those costs were arrived at, Mid Sussex District Council responded, “The costs were obtained from the Council’s existing cleansing contractor, so were based on a commercial assessment of the operational requirements associated with a weekly deep clean.” b

However, Mid Sussex District Council only opened 57 of its 123 play areas last summer despite Liberal Democrats raising concerns about the impact of keeping so many closed, and stated on its website that it would be too expensive to open them all stating that it would cost more than £220,000 a year to clean them regularly to ensure that they are COVID safe.  A weekly cleaning regime was not required, as demonstrated by the approach of Horsham District Council and other local authorities. In addition there is no evidence that this is more effective in reducing coronavirus transmission than no cleaning regime given the number of people who would use the playgrounds between cleans.

Play Charity, Play England wrote to all local authorities in England in January 2021 asked that all playgrounds remain open “to reduce the catastrophic impact of COVID and lockdown on children’s physical and mental health and wellbeing”.c Their letter also highlighted the impact of playground closures on the most disadvantaged children – those with limited space at home, no access to a garden or disabled children – to which access to these playgrounds are “often a lifeline”. Mid Sussex District Council failed to carry out an equality impact assessment to understand the impact of their decision to close play areas on the children in our community.

Residents in Burgess Hill have been especially hard hit by Mid Sussex District Council’s decision to keep over half of its playgrounds closed. When the location of the closed playgrounds is plotted on to a mapd, it is clear that the playgrounds in Burgess Hill were much more likely to be kept shut with 79% shut in Burgess Hill, 50% shut Haywards Heath, 36% shut in East Grinstead and 19% shut in the outlying villages.

A sustainable economic growth strategy?

Tonight ’s scrutiny meeting focused on Mid Sussex District Council’s sustainability strategy or rather the sustainable economic strategy, as it wishes to merge economic strategy with its sustainability strategy.   It will be challenging to ensure that economic issues do not dominate – I still have my doubts about combining these targets given the different and sometimes conflicting aims – the details now need to be gone through by a working party. 

I was pleased to see the Council take on my suggestion of getting environmental issues explicitly considered when the council makes a formal decision, in terms of a section on any relevant report to outline environmental considerations.   However, the existing Council policy of carbon neutral by 2050 is somewhat unambitious, particularly as West Sussex County Council has committed to being carbon neutral by 2030, and my original attempt to get a similar commitment from the District Council in 2019 was not supported by the Conservative administration. 

The Coronavirus has had an impact across all council services including recycling and I highlighted the Council’s current performance on the percentage of domestic waste going to recycling, this has fallen back slightly to 42% when comparing with the target in its strategy of 50% by 2020 and a national average of 45%.  More time spent at home and charity shop closures have perhaps meant more rubbish being generated.  However, the Council has languished at near this rate for several years so further work needs to be done to promote reuse and recycling. 

That is not to deny that positives such as the small electrical waste collection on the same day as the refuse collection, and the possibility of an expansion to include textile recycling would be a good addition, as well as a separate food waste collection, which was timetabled for a pilot to begin last year, but delayed due to the pandemic.   However, there may also be painful decisions to reduce the frequency of refuse collections if the council is to find savings to finance the current gap in its income, although these have not been muted yet.

Unfair Council Tax needs reform

Mid Sussex District Council tonight agreed a budget which means total council tax for the average band D tax payer is increasing by 4.9% or £92, and is now over £2,000 for some parishes in Mid Sussex! However most of this is levied by the County Council and Police Authority and the element for Liberal Democrat controlled Burgess Hill Town Council did not increase at all.

Whilst I support the District Council precept this year as Covid has put big holes in the budget, particularly relating to the cost of our leisure centres, where it agreed to use £500,000 from reserves to pay towards a shortfall in running costs, the Council’s share comprises just 9% of the total precept, but the total cost levied by all authorities is equivalent to a third of what the average employed person living in Mid Sussex pays in income tax.

I put forward an amendment to highlight the gross unfairness of Council Tax and the need for reform, and to urge the leader of the Council to write to the government making the case for reform.

Unfortunately the Conservatives voted against it despite their national so called levelling up agenda and it was defeated.

Low earners pay a much greater proportion of their income as council tax which can often be more than they pay in income tax yet not necessarily qualify for any discount – although you should always check your entitlement for council tax benefit if you are on low income or for the various discounts that exist. It is also possible to request payment over 12 months rather than the standard 10

Council tax bands in England are still based on property values in 1991 –30 years ago. Since then the average house price in the South East has risen by over five times. The most valuable property (band H) attracts just three times as much tax as the least valuable, despite being worth at least eight times as much. Because there is no further increment after H, a person in a £600,000 house pays the same as a person in a £5 million house.

There are growing disparities between those who have maintained their incomes during lockdown, and those less fortunate who have suffered financially or are in the squeezed middle or “not quite poor” who don’t qualify for any benefit. It is younger people, those who are just starting out that it hits the hardest, paying a much greater proportion of their income.

The unfairness will only continue to get worse as time elapses, solutions such as revaluation, adding more tiers at the higher end or replacing with a more progressive tax system are all viable options. Yet for Mid Sussex Conservatives their main objection to the proposal was encapsulated by Cllr Webster – “on the clear basis of fairness I can’t support this at all”!

All Mid Sussex play areas to reopen

Following Liberal Democrat pressure to ensure all play areas were reopened, I am pleased the Council has now announced it will be reopening all playgrounds from 29 March. In the light of the government announcing its roadmap out of lockdown the Council has now committed to reopening all play areas, outdoor gyms, skate parks and ball courts from this date. Further they plan to reopen the Council’s three leisure centres- initially for individual exercise (including gym and swimming) from 12 April, before phasing in group exercise in line with the government’s roadmap. The Council had previously claimed it would cost £212,000 to provide additional cleaning resources to enable them to open all play areas in order to justify their previous decision to only keep half open during the lockdown.