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”!

https://www.midsussex.gov.uk/revsandbens/council-tax/

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.

New pathway means no more wet feet!

West Park Nature Reserve, Malthouse Lane

The paved pathways at West Park Nature Reserve are now open for use, albeit without markings to separate pedestrians from cyclists which have still to be added, but it represents a welcome all weather route between Malthouse Lane and the Rugby Club (particularly remembering the last time I walked the route and came away with soaked ankles!) .  Walking locally has taken on a new context in the last year, and whilst covering any of our woodlands with tarmac should never be taken lightly, the level of use of these routes demands it, particularly as it confines users to the path as opposed to any ever widening muddy trail that it replaces.  The improvements are part of the Place and Connectivity Programme putting in a number of new pathways or enhancements around the town, not least the new pathway from St Wilfrids Road to Wivelsfield Station where work started this week.

Its time to reopen all our play areas

We are lucky to have so many play areas in Mid Sussex, the Council manages 123 formal play areas and whilst these were all closed in the first lockdown, the largest play areas were reopened in the autumn and with suitable modifications where needed there has been no issues with their operation.  With the current lockdown and home schooling we all appreciate having somewhere local to exercise, and for our children to play.  However, 66 Council operated local play areas are still closed and there has been no further progress in reopening these, with the Council claiming the cost of enhanced cleaning as a barrier.  Yet most of these play areas have no more risk factors than the larger sites and are often those most conveniently situated for children to play.  I think its time the Council reopened them and have asked what this would cost as it needs to be a higher priority.

Clair Hall legal fiasco

The decision last year of Conservatives on Mid Sussex District Council to close Clair Hall without regard to a public consultation and their failure to heed Liberal Democrat concerns about the closure was revealed to have cost taxpayers £27,000 in legal advice. As a result the Council has had to commit to new public consultation on its future.  The Council’s Conservative administration ignored Liberal Democrat requests for the Council’s Scrutiny Committee to review the decision which could ultimately have saved some of these costs.  Conservatives didn’t follow Council rules, and cost the Council dearly, yet don’t want the Council to consider what lessons can be learnt from the debacle.  The venue is currently being used as a vaccination centre, but the Council needs to make clear in any consultation that there is a realistic option of reopening the hall to the public.  The Council needs to engage with Haywards Heath residents interested in running the hall as a community asset which could secure its future.   Conservatives have form here, they shut the Martlets in Burgess Hill without establishing a replacement, and now most of Mid Sussex is without any major performance venue.

Parking and congestion problems

I know congestion and parking is increasingly a problem in our area, parking can easily reduce a road to one lane, causing problems (although some people see a potential positive when not unduly obstructive as it slows traffic down).  Fast roads such as Rocky Lane can be particularly dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians, and this has been highlighted as an issue which the District Council needs to address as it is currently considering safe cycling and walking routes between Burgess Hill and Haywards Heath. 

There is no easy answer to these problems, however it is important that people using the road act considerately whether they are parking or transiting the road.  We can all help by reporting issues that we come across as immediate reporting makes more explicit action more likely, and the number of reports will be monitored, and may highlight the need for a more calculated response.  At the same time new building activity increases pressure on local roads, particularly on the eastern side of Burgess Hill and the Town Council is particularly concerned about the cumulative impact of new development on local roads and makes this point when new planning applications are considered.

Vehicles parking in contravention of existing waiting restrictions (yellow lines) should be reported to the District Council Parking Service who can take action.  If a Civil Enforcement Officer is nearby, they will visit the location and assess the situation to see if a Penalty Charge Notice can be issued.  You can report such illegal parking via parkinginfo@midsussex.gov.uk.

You can also report vehicles parking in a hazardous position on an unrestricted section of highway to the County Council via https://www.westsussex.gov.uk/roads-and-travel/make-an-enquiry-or-report-a-problem-with-a-road-or-pavement/parking/ or download the “Love West Sussex” app for your smart phone to make reports whilst you are out.  However, the Council is not be able to intervene in cases of dangerous or obstructive parking which is a police matter. If vehicles are causing a dangerous obstruction, preventing access for emergency vehicles, parking on the pavement or blocking driveways, report it to Sussex Police – see https://www.sussex.police.uk/contact/af/contact-us/. Please use the non-emergency number 101 or email at 101@sussex.pnn.police.uk .  But they can only issue a fixed penalty or take other action in certain circumstances, for example when an obstruction is likely to endanger life.

Report to the County Council specific incidents to highlight there is an issue with parking in the area that requires a more coherent response or if there is a specific traffic accident, these reports are monitored and can influence policy making.  Requests for new road markings such as yellow lines require a Traffic Regulation Order (TRO).  These are prioritised based on a number of criteria, including safety, pollution and congestion, and would require a sustained campaign to reach the necessary criteria including contacting our local County Councillor to get their backing – see https://www.westsussex.gov.uk/roads-and-travel/traffic-regulation-orders/about-tros/apply-for-a-tro/.

Call to safeguard Family Centres and for better mental health facilities

At last Friday’s Council meeting Liberal Democrats on the County Council pressed for services to combat the huge impact of COVID on families, children and teenagers. The Tories all voted against the Liberal Democrat amendment – which was fully costed and signed off as financially sound by the finance officer –  and which would have seen the Children and Family Centres threatened with closure saved.

They also turned down fully costed plans to provide mental health support in every one of West Sussex’s 286 schools as we recover from COVID, and keep important day services for elderly residents open after the pandemic as well as investment in more resources for walking and cycling.

Liberal Democrat county councillors proposed funding these prudently, through a small 3% rise in fees charged for services, such as those we ask of developers sitting on billions of pounds of cash, and cuts to back office budgets only.

Not a single Conservative councillor, including all of those in Mid Sussex, voted to save our Children and Family Centres or provide much needed support in our schools.

Mid Sussex District Council Conservative mismanagement costs £26,000 in legal advice

The decision of Conservatives on Mid Sussex District Council to close Clair Hall without regard to a public consultation and their failure to heed Liberal Democrat concerns about the closure has now been revealed to have cost council taxpayers £27,000 in legal advice.  Yet the Council ignored Liberal Democrat requests for the Council’s Scrutiny Committee to review the decision which could ultimately have saved some of these costs.  Conservatives didn’t follow Council rules, and cost the Council dearly, yet don’t want the Council to consider what lessons can be learnt from the debacle.  The venue is currently being used as a vaccination centre, but the Council needs to make clear in any consultation that there is a realistic option of reopening the hall to the public.  The Council needs to engage with Haywards Heath residents interested in running the hall as a community asset which could secure its future, yet it seems they are unwilling to even meet with the campaigners working to save the hall.   Conservatives have form here, they shut the Martlets Hall in Burgess Hill without establishing a replacement, and now with their latest move on Clair Hall  most of Mid Sussex is without any major performance venue.

Footpath delays explained

Following resident complaints about the apparently sporadic nature of the work on some of what are welcome improvements to foot and cycling paths in the Burgess Hill, the following message was received by the Town Council from Nathan Spilsted, Lead Officer for the Place & Connectivity Programme, MSDC:

“Firstly my apologies for any inconvenience you may have experienced whilst improvements are being delivered via the £22.8m Burgess Hill Place and Connectivity Programme. The programme of works were scheduled to be spaced out but unfortunately start was delayed due to Covid and delivery has been further delayed due to the exceptionally wet winter weather. This has compressed delivery and whilst the usual practice would be to pause delivery, we are required to continue to deliver at pace in order to meet Programme funding requirements set by central government.

The risk is that we would lose funding it these requirements are not met. The team are working as hard as they can to reopen the recently closed section of Green Circle between Malthouse Lane and to the north of Burgess Hill burial ground but this will be closed for up to 8 weeks and there will be further closures further along the Green Circle over the coming weeks to deliver improvements.

Further on-site signs advising the public of closures and the work programme will be put in place. I can advise that the section of the Green Circle between Gatehouse Land and Malthouse Lane is scheduled to reopen by the end of February; the path through West Park Nature Reserve should reopen by the end of next week and the route through Holmesdale Woods by the end of this week. I hope you will understand the reasons for the number of closures and I am sure that when the paths do reopen, you will find the schemes a vast improvement to what previously existed.”

Programme details are available at: https://burgesshill.net/transport/sustainable-transport

Finally demolished but what happens next?

Finally, the old Library is being demolished, but only after pressure for the District Council to complete the job by Liberal Democrat Councillors last year. This site has been an eyesore for too long and is thousands over budget after delays and extra work to remove asbestos.  The District Council had no strategy when it insisted the Martlets Hall should close without making any alternative arrangements for users of the venue.   The original reason for closure was to hand the site to New River Retail to jumpstart the redevelopment of that part of the town centre, however against the current downbeat environment for retail this seems unlikely to start anytime soon.   What must happen is to creatively use the site for something meaningful until any development commences, one suggestion is an urban garden to open up that corner of the town centre and encourage recreational use – and its important Mid Sussex District Council is held to account to see something positive come from this.