News and views from Paul Bull, the Labour and Co-operative Councillor for the St THOMAS Ward of Exeter City Council. Promoted by Dom Collins on behalf of Paul Bull, both of 26b, Clifton Hill, Exeter, EX1 2DJ.
EXETER City Council has submitted planning applications for seven of their own Laings Easiform properties.
The seven homes, on what is known as the Buddle Lane estate, are empty and the proposal is to demolish and rebuild them.
Planning applications for a further 10 of these properties are expected by the end of the month.
Local councillor Paul Bull explained the background: “The Laing Easiform method of construction consists of cast-in-situ concrete cavity walls, most of which have failed over time because of the expansion of steel reinforcement or movement. That said, there has never been any risk to tenants.
“In the 1990s, Exeter City Council formed a partnership with Sovereign Housing and used a trickle transfer agreement whereby the housing association took the properties on a 125-year lease and refurbished them using government grants as and when they became available. “More than 100 homes were renovated in this way.
“In 2010 the grants dried up, and the city council looked to new ways to improve the remaining 21 properties. Three were refurbished by the city council when they became vacant.
“However, pressures on the Housing Revenue Account meant this wasn’t a cost effective way of proceeding with the remaining 20 – one having been sold off in December 2014.”
Cllr Bull added: “The aim of the proposals is to demolish the existing properties which have been structurally condemned and replace them with new properties which comply with modern day standards and are more thermally efficient.
“The front elevation will remain mostly unaffected in terms of appearance and the layout has been developed to provide each property with a ground floor WC, kitchen/diner, lounge, first-floor bathroom and three bedrooms.”
Fellow local councillor, Hannah PacKham added: “With tenders for the work coming soon, work is expected to start in early August.
“The plan is to have a staggered start – one property every three weeks, and it is expected that the total works will take 18 months.
“The whole project is based on the need to have 10 vacant properties at any one time and this is be achieved with a combination of permanent and temporary moves while the new homes are being built.
“It’s good to see progress being made at long last.
“There have been delays to the programme caused by the work needed to remedy the water ingress in some of the council’s properties due to the winter storms two years ago, and I was worried that the government’s planned changes to the housing revenue account might delay the works even more.”
Cllr Packham added: “When the city council has such a robust Empty Homes Strategy in the private sector, it is essential we set an example with our own social housing.”
Earlier tonight, Exeter City Council met in the Guildhall to set the Council’s budget for 2016-17.
There has been a series of meeting that contributed towards the setting of the Budget since the Government announced the provisional Local Government Settlement on 17 December 2015. The Council is to receive £5.802 million in 2016/17, which is £110,000 lower than predicted within the Medium Term Financial Plan. However, it was decided NOT to revisit the budgets as the shortfall could be managed within the budget.
The Local Government Finance Settlement also set the referendum level for District Councils in the lowest quartile of Council Tax rates at no more than £5 rather than 1.99%. Exeter falls into this category and therefore has the opportunity to increase its Council Tax by £5 (3.7%). Along with the increase in the taxbase this will raise an additional £269,000.
It should be noted that in the Government spending calculations, they have assumed that all authorities in the lower quartile will raise their Council Tax by £5 and have set the spending reductions accordingly.
The Council’s revenue estimates for next year were considered during thecycle of Scrutiny Committee meetings and the final budget report was discussed at the Executive meeting on 9 February 2016.
Regulations dictates the Council holds an Extraordinary Meeting of the Council when setting its budget
In the absence of Leader Cllr Pete Edwards [LAB, Whipton Barton], the Budget speech was delivered by his Deputy, Cllr Rachel Sutton [LAB, Exwick].
Thank you Lord Mayor.
I would like to start off by paying thanks to the Officers, especially Mark Parkinson, Dave Hodgson and his team, for their help in preparing these figures, and indeed for their work throughout the year.
I would like to set the context for this year’s budget by reminding everyone – members, officers and the wider public – that the reductions in funding received by local authorities like Exeter over the last few years from central government are amongst the most severe cuts we have faced in living memory.
This Council has had a 12.6% reduction in Government Formula Grant for the year 2016/17 on top of equally drastic cuts in previous years. Last year it was a cut of 15.6%.
Between 2010 & 2015 Exeter’s government grant has dropped from £12m to £7.7m but Exeter, unlike some local authorities has not been sleep walking towards oblivion, we have been working hard to make the necessary changes and plans for a future when the money we get from central government will have been cut to a fraction of what it was if indeed it doesn’t disappear completely.
In the financial year 2014/15 we made £1.5m in savings, and we continue to streamline and modernise the services we offer to residents and businesses by finding smarter and more efficient ways of working like setting up Strata with our neighbouring councils to deliver IT services across three local authorities and gain financial savings of 7m over the next 10 years.
We are working with our partners in the NHS, the voluntary sector and at Devon County Council to offer the Integrated Care for Exeter [ICE] project that will deliver better services that meet the needs of our citizens and which will save money and resources across all the partner organisations.
But in setting the budget for 2016-17, I am proposing a balanced budget with much of the lost formula grant replaced by additional income streams guaranteed long into the future. These include the guaranteed income from the Feed In Tariff payments on solar panels fitted on the rooves of two of our Car Parks, the Museum, the Quay Climbing Centre, The Phoenix and the largest solar array in Exeter at over 7,000 panels at the Livestock Centre, which on its own will generate over £160,000 a year in income for the Council. And in addition to the financial savings we are reducing our carbon footprint .
In addition to these solar panels we have also replaced our inefficient boilers at the Civic Centre and installed LED lighting in our offices and car parks.
These projects have also delivered tangible savings without affecting front line service delivery.
Cllr Edwards joined the leaders of more than 50 Labour-run councils in pledging to make all our towns and cities across the UK 100% clean before 2050, in line with the commitments made nationally and internationally at the Paris Summit on Climate Change in December 2015.
Our new and emerging partnership with Exeter City Futures and our own ambitious plans to be an energy neutral council by 2020 will go a long way to deliver the Leader’s Green Pledge.
We continue to deliver much needed housing:
In the last year we have built 26 brand new council houses for local families and we are about to begin work on providing an additional 26 new flats for older people next door to Rennes House
Since 01 April 2014, 64 affordable homes have been delivered with 235 further affordable homes consented and in the pipeline for national house builders.
In Exeter we have seen 3,468 new homes built since 2011-12 – more than any other district in Devon, Plymouth and Torbay – earning the Council £10.2m in New Homes Bonus with a significant proportion of these new homes suitable for wheelchair users.
However it must be pointed out that the Housing & Planning Bill currently going through parliament might put much of these plans in jeopardy threatening our ability to make decisions about how we run our Housing Revenue Account and plan for future building of council houses
We have provided new floodlights for the new and improved Flowerpots Skatepark so that the young people who use it can get the maximum benefit from the facilities
New businesses are now moving on the Exeter Science Park
Work is now progressing on a landmark building to house the Met Office’s £97m High Performance Computer.
Job creation continues to increase with new businesses relocating to the city – our own team have helped create 476 jobs in the city.
We continue to be an ambitious Council and are determined to ensure that the City achieves its potential and our residents receive quality services. We continue to support the City ensuring it stays at the forefront of economic recovery and will support the delivery of:
• A new Leisure Complex built to Passivhaus standards that the City will be proud of
• A modernised Bus Station fit to meet the needs of travellers to and from the City for many years to come;
• Two major events in and around the City in 2016 have already been announced – the Radio 1 Big Weekend at Powderham Castle and the European Rugby sevens event at Sandy Park. The Rugby sevens event will be held at Sandy Park for the next three years and building on the success of the Rugby World Cup, last year will further enhance the reputation of the City.
And all this is without the need to increase our overall borrowing requirement.
As a Council we have also supported greater investment in the infrastructure of the City.
We have this year agreed to provide:
• £1.3 million towards the delivery of the new railway station at Marsh Barton;
• £1.025m towards the delivery of a fully operational junction at Sandy Park to enable further development in the area;
• Over £200,000 towards the improvement of our car parks and to provide a permanent electricity supply to Exeter Farmers market.
Finally, for next year’s budget we have made further efficiency savings in the region of £1.1m.
We have again managed to achieve this without a reduction in front line services.
Lord Mayor, Councillors – the budget that I am proposing to you this evening aims to deliver a balanced budget that will protect and maintain the services which the citizens of Exeter need the most.
I therefore propose to you the recommendation set out in the papers before you in terms of the approval of both the revenue estimates and capital programme for the year 2016/17 and which will result in the setting of a District Council tax of £140.05 for a Band D property.
This is an increase of £5 a year for a Band D property less than 10p a week and still means that Exeter sets the 4th lowest Council Tax of any district.
I so move.
There was then a debate on the Budget.
The Leader of the Tory Group, Cllr Andrew Leadbetter [CON, St Loye ] agreed that central Government were cutting funding – but at the same time were enabling local authorities to find other ways to raise money to fund revenue budgets
However, he felt that his group would have to abstain because, although there were some good things in the Budget, there were other things in it that he and group couldn’t support.
Cllr Phil Bialyk [LAB, Exwick]said that imaginative leadership is taking this Council forward. He was pleased that the Budget proposed by the Labour Group had no additional cuts to frontline Council services. He pointed out that there was all that extra investment – all for an extra fiver a year.
Cllr Rob Hannaford [LAB, St Thomas] pointed out that the Council were working to best practice. He thought that we are still leading the way in delivering an ambitious programme despite the risks in the future – reduced revenue support grant, challenges to the self-financing of Housing Revenue Account, welfare reform cuts, unexplained programme of business rate retention following a futrure NNDR revaluation, devolution, and more. He concluded that he would be supporting a good, balanced and robust Budget.
Cllr Rosie Denham [ LAB, Whipton Barton] looked at one element of the Budget – the role Exeter City Futures will make in the work of the Council and the impact that will have on all of us, and our residents. She was grateful for the cross-party support for the initiative and hopes that the project, by taking a strategic approach, would tackle concerns over traffic congestion, health and the environment. Rosie was adamant that we should always think carefully over proposed schemes, programmes and policies, and noted that we are in the incredibly lucky position to be able to come up with imaginative and creative ways to balance our Budget but we shouldn’t take any of this for granted. She concluded that other local authorities were so fortunate and was frightened for the state of the roads, the schools, heath and social care elsewhere.
Cllr Stella Brock [LD, St David’s] questioned the no cuts message of the Budget and questioned the spending on the Bus Station development site [having voted against it at the outline planning stage].
In reply, Cllr Sutton said that the changes to services highlighted by Cllr Brock were not cuts per se but changes to work in smarter and more efficient ways. Rachel also pointed out that without the planned interventions from ECC, the Bus Station development site wouldn’t have levered in an investment of over £75m from the Crown Estate and TH Real Estate and would remain a blot on the landscape of the city centre.
In concluding the debate, Cllr Sutton said she was disappointed that NO alternative proposals were coming forward from the Conservative Group, describing it as lazy opposition. Indeed, she pointed out that we know what they are against, but they never state what they are for.
The meeting voted and RESOLVED:-
(1) That the following, as submitted in the Estimates Book, be approved:-
(a) the Revenue estimates for 2016-2017
(b) the Capital programme for 2016-2017;
(2) that it be noted that, at the meeting of the Executive on the 26 January 2016, the Council calculated the figure of 35,429, as its council tax base for the year 2016-2017 in accordance with the Local Authorities (Calculation of Council Tax Base) (England) Regulations 2012 made under Section 33(5) of the Local Government Finance Act 1992;
(3) that the following amounts be now calculated by the Council for the year 2016-2017 in accordance with Sections 31A of the Local Government and Finance Act 1992:-
(a) £103,925,695 being the aggregate of the amounts which the Council estimates for the items set out in Section 31A(2)(a) to (f) of the Act;
(b) £98,963,864 being the aggregate of the amounts which the Council estimates for the items set out in Section 31A(3)(a) to (d) of the Act;
(c) £4,961,831 being the amount by which the aggregate at (3)(a) above exceeds the aggregate at (3)(b) above, calculated by the Council, in accordance with Section 31A(4) of the Act, as its council tax requirement for the year;
(d) £140.05 being the amount at (3)(c) above divided by the amount at 2 above, calculated by the Council, in accordance with Section 31B(1) of the Act, as the basic amount of its council tax for the year;
(e) Valuation Bands
(4) That it will be noted that, for the year 2016-2017, Devon County Council, the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon and Cornwall and the Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Authority have stated the following amounts on precepts issued to the Council, in accordance with Section 83 of the Local Government Act 2003, for each of the categories of the dwellings shown below:-Being the amount given by multiplying the amount at (3)(d) above by the number which, in the proportion set out in Section 5(1) of the Act, is applicable to dwellings listed in a particular valuation band divided by the number which in that proportion is applicable to dwellings listed in valuation band D, calculated by the Council, in accordance with Section 36(1) of the Act, as the amounts to be taken into account for the year in respect of categories of dwellings listed in different valuation bands.
Devon County Council
Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon and Cornwall
Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Authority
(5) That, having calculated the aggregate in each case of the amounts at (3)(e) and (4) above, the Council, in accordance with Section 30(2) of the Local Government Finance Act 1992, hereby set the following amounts as the amounts of council tax for the year 2016-2017 for each of the categories of dwellings shown below:-
Although the amended legislation came into force on 25 February 2014. there was anexpectation of the Government that authoritiesholding their annual budget meeting before this date will adopt the new ruling when setting their annual budget and council tax. ECC used a named vote at their budget setting meeting in 2015.
Cllr Bialyk, Cllr Branston, Cllr Brimble, Cllr Bull, Cllr Buswell, Cllr Choules, Cllr Denham, Cllr George, Cllr Hannaford, Cllr Hannan, Cllr Laws, Cllr Lyons, Cllr Morse, Cllr Owen, Cllr Packham, Cllr Pearson, Cllr Raybould, the Deputy Lord Mayor [Cllr Robson], Cllr Sheldon, Cllr Spackman, Cllr Sutton, Cllr Wardle, Cllr Vizard and Cllr Williams
Cllr Baldwin, the Lord Mayor [Cllr Foggin], Cllr Harvey, Cllr Holland, Cllr Leadbetter, Cllr Mottram, Cllr Newby, Cllr Prowse, Cllr Shiel and Cllr Thompson
The Buddle Lane housing estate [centred around Newman Road and Merrivale Road] in Cowick is made of up 294 family houses built using the Laing’s Easiform building system in the Twenties and Thirties.
The Laing Easiform method of construction was intended to be cutting edge, to be fast and cost effective to build and to meet the nation’s need for housing and consisted of cast-in-situ concrete cavity walls.
These Laing homes were intended to be cutting edge, to be fast and cost effective to build and to meet the nation’s need for housing,
But in the 1980s a number of faults came to light and many have failed because of the expansion of steel reinforcement or movement. That said, there is no risk to tenants.
The homes required a significant investment to bring them up to the required Decent Homes standard and it was not considered cost effective for the council to do this.
So ECC and Sovereign Housing formed a partnership in the Nineties using a “trickle transfer” agreement whereby the housing association took the properties on a 125-year lease and refurbished them as and when they became available.
Around 100 properties, worth more than £10m, were transferred to Sovereign at £1 each as part of the agreement, who then spent between £80,000 and £90,000 carrying out the improvements on each home. The cost of this refurbishment was met using solely Sovereign’s Recycled Capital Grant Fund from the Homes & Communities Agency [HCA].
When the coalition government came to power in 2010, they made changes to the HCA which made it harder for Sovereign to claim the grants to carry out the refurbishments.
In addition, Sovereign would have been required to charge *affordable* rent [80% of market rent] for the properties, whereas ECC could continue to charge the truly affordable lower rent – social rent – at 50% of market rent.
The upshot of all this was that the “trickle transfer” of properties to Sovereign stalled – and by the time I was elected May 2011, 3 of the city council’s 21 Laing homes stood empty [57 Newman Road, 44 Merrivale Road and 40 Myrtle Road]
And despite pressure from me, they stood empty for some considerable time.
In 2012, when ECC were preparing the Business Plan to proceed with a £57m loan to take over their existing social housing stock under “self-financing”, the stock condition of ECC’s 5000+ homes listed 406 non-traditional properties:
and the stock profile noted:
5.11 The Council has negotiated a ‘trickle-transfer’ process for the Laing homes whereby empty homes are given to a housing association to refurbish, along with a small amount of grant. In some cases the Council provides additional grant funding so that the transferred property can be extended to create a four-bedroom house or have extensive disabled adaptations incorporated for a specific family in need. This work costs the Council tens of thousands of pounds less than paying for refurbishment itself. The Council will therefore continue to pursue this approach where possible.
And still the Laing Easiforms remained empty.
That was until a plan was hatched and presented to the Executive Committee on 03 July 2012.
By this time, the tenure mix of the Laing Homes was21 owned by Exeter City Council, 104 transferred to Sovereign Housing Association and 169 purchased under the Right to Buy scheme.
The Executive considered 6 options, summarised below:
The review concluded that the best option for the Council would be to retain the ownership of these homes and refurbish them using HRA funding (Option1). With “self-financing” of the HRA, the Council would have access to the funding necessary to carry out the refurbishment work that it hasn’t had in the past.
This option would mean that the ownership with the Council and ensures that these properties are let at Social Rent levels.
It was recommended that Option 1 be adopted: namely to end the trickle transfer of Laings homes to Sovereign Housing Association, for the Council to retain them as part of their HRA portfolio and for a programme of refurbishment to be put in place as and when Laing homes become vacant.
But still they stayed vacant…until work started in the winter of 2013.
However, the story doesn’t end there…7 more are now vacant and in need of attention.
Pressure on the Housing Revenue Account [principally in the form of £2m needed to tackle the damp ingress that occurred during the winter storms of 2014] has meant the planned programme was delayed.
And new pressures on the HRA, has meant that the refurbishment programme has had to be radically rethought.
This week, planning applications were submitted for 7 of the 20 Easiform properties [one other being sold off in December 2014]:
and it is expected that the planning applications for the remaining properties will be lodged by the end of the month.
Each application is for the demolition and reconstruction of the existing property.
The aim of the proposals are to demolish the existing properties which have been structurally condemned and replace them with new properties which comply with modern day standards and are more thermally efficient.
The front elevation will remain mostly unaffected in terms of appearance and the layout has been developed to provide each property with a ground floor WC, kitchen/diner, lounge, first floor bathroom and 3 bedrooms.
After going out to tender, it is hoped to start work on site at the beginning of August 2016
It is anticipated that the total works period will be 18 months – it will be a rolling programme with a staggered start: 1 property every 3 weeks, with a total works period of 18 months.
To complete this programme there will be a need to have 10 vacant properties at any one time. This will be achieved with a combination of permanent and temporary moves outside of the estate, and then temporary moves within the 17 properties being worked on.
During the period from when I first became interest in this group of Laing Easiform properities, they have always been described as being in St THOMAS rather than COWICK.
Now this past of the old Cowick ward is becoming a part of the new St Thomas ward, it was a shock to read in the Design and Access Statements accompanying the planning applications:
‘The property to which this statement relates is situated in the EXWICK area of Exeter.”
City Council risks losing £8m as government rips up social rent agreement
Exeter City Council’s Housing Revenue Account stands to lose nearly £8m as a result of the cut in Council rents imposed in George Osborne’s recent budget.
Having agreed a rent formula with Councils two years ago that was designed to allow them to plan their housing finances with some certainty for the next ten years, the government has now scrapped this agreement and instead imposed four years of rent cuts. This will wipe £7.9m from the budget the City Council uses to provide services to its tenants and invest in their homes.
Cllr Rob Hannaford, Lead Councillor for the Housing Revenue Account said: “This is a decision that seems to have been taken by George Osborne with no thought or understanding of the consequences. This will force many Councils and Housing Associations to slash the amounts they were intending to spend on investing in their assets and building new homes to ease the housing crisis.
“It will lead to fundamental changes in business plans and, almost inevitably, worse outcomes for tenants and potential tenants – because Councils and Housing Associations will be faced with the loss of massive amounts of income that could have been used for reinvestment to improve existing stock and build new stock to meet housing demand. The City Council will attempt to minimise the impacts as far as it can, but the reality is that we are not going to be able to invest in local housing at the level we wanted to for at least the next four or five years and the blame for that lies squarely with the government.”
Exeter City Council is the landlord for nearly 5,000 homes and is the biggest landlord in the city. The Council is exploring the possibility of a legal challenge to the government in partnership with other local authorities.