This was my first full week back after the Christmas holidays and the first of the New Year.
I did a big catch up on casework, including problems with cold homes and big heating bills – especially in Broomhall, from draughty doors and windows in some housing association properties (Places for People). We ran a successful campaign two years ago and managed to get the single glazed properties upgraded, but it’s going to take another push for the rest. They are “decent homes” compliant: the big problems with the decent homes programme was that there was no extra money for non-council houses; and the energy efficiency standards were not very high. So whilst council house tenants got new kitchens and bathrooms, new doors, windows and boilers, the impact on energy saving was not as good as it could have been.
The main event of the week was Full Council. It was a “Scrutiny” council with presentations about the Health and Wellbeing Board and from the Police and Crime Commissioner rather than motions submitted for debate by councillors. But in fact the meeting was dominated by 12 petitions about the proposed library closures, two of which had been combined to meet the 5000 signatures required to trigger a debate. There was a demonstration on the town hall steps and the gallery was packed with campaigners, many of whom asked questions. Labour repeated their line that the proposals are due to cuts from the coalition government – which is true, of course. But they did not attempt to explain how they have weighed the choices about what to cut, or how they arrived at the proposal put out to consultation in September. Rob Murphy made the point that one choice which could be put to the electorate is whether to raise council tax which would cover some of the shortfall we face; and I criticised the consultation process: the council has known the scale of the cuts which would be imposed during this government’s term of office since soon after the general election in 2010, but these proposals – to keep only 5 fully resourced “hub libraries”, 11 partially supported “community libraries” and the rest to be fully independent or close – were only published at the end of September 2013. What struck me was that speeches by some cabinet members and the relevant cabinet adviser showed that they feel they have worked hard at consultation. If they they genuinely feel this was good consultation, we have a long way to go!
On the Wednesday evening – after Full Council – it was the monthly Sheffield Green Party meeting with a discussion led by two members who have visited Palestine to work as “internationals” supporting farmers harvest their olives. These people are clinging to their lands, under constant threat from settlers and the army.
And on Thursday I set off at crack of dawn to drive to Oxford in order to accompany my mother to an orthopaedic appointment. I used the Park and Ride there and was able to give a personal perspective during a phone-in for Radio Sheffield about the falling use of Park and Ride facilities in Sheffield. I wonder what is responsible – possibly the cost? Certainly residents in Central ward continue to be plagued by commuters parking on “their” streets. In my case, the parking cost £2 and the bus £2.80. Nearly five pounds in all, which would be a lot if you had to do it every day. Thank goodness for living on the edge of the city centre and my bicycle.
Over the weekend – between helping my mother with various errands and wondering if my husband would be able to reach us as the flood waters rose – I read the report from the Academy of Urbanism, reporting on the workshop about the future of the city centre. The follow up meeting is on the 16th, so the report is not finalised yet. But it was interesting to be reminded of the terms of reference, which was to contribute to the master-planning process for the New Retail Quarter. My view is that we need a much wider review of the future of the city centre, to include residential and recreation – a place for all Sheffielders to visit and enjoy, not just for a clone-town shopping experience! A really fantastic living environment with easy access to work, services, leisure facilities and transport links might attract home-building and relieve the pressure on the green belt. Of course we’d have to crack the air quality issues and have a more coherent approach to planning and licensing and the “night-time economy” (i.e. pubs and clubs which are the main growth area in the city centre at the moment). Seeing agricultural land under water in Oxfordshire made me even more aware of the value of our hilly countryside. Another strand in the Academy of Urbanism report was a call for better consultation by the council and more openness about and by potential development partners – I certainly agree with that and look forward to contributing to further discussions.