VIDEO: A round-up of local Wirral and Merseyside politics by John Brace (part 1)
Below is a transcript of a video I’ve recorded about a range of local political matters. I’ve added some extra detail which I don’t say on the video in  brackets and of course links to more detailed stories. I realised when I finished recording that I’d been talking for nearly eighteen minutes. It’s about a variety of local political issues.
At the time of publishing this blog post the video has been uploaded to Youtube, but is still processing at Youtube’s end.
John Brace on local Wirral and Merseyside politics (part 1)
JOHN BRACE: Hello, I hope you can hear me clearly. I’m John Brace and I’m going to be filming a series of videos as due to the half term holidays next week, there’s a shortage of public meetings.
So, I thought I’d start off by looking at one of the bigger stories on my blog this week.
I suppose I’d better briefly explain what the situation is regarding councillors’ expenses and allowances.
Councillors on the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority are entitled to claim expenses for instance for travel to public meetings and each year they’re supposed to publish a table detailing each councillors’ name and how much has been spent over the year in expenses for that particular councillor in various categories.
In fact that’s a legal requirement, a very basic level of transparency.
However unfortunately what Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service was doing was, where they received invoices directly rather than councillors claiming back expenses they’d incurred themselves, where trips were booked through Capita, train travel that kind of thing, Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service were invoiced directly but this wasn’t appearing on the actual annual lists so that about £6,000 or so of expenses were being left off. So I have been pointing this out over the past few months.
There’s also the issue that councillors get paid allowances and on this National Insurance and presumably things like income tax were paid. Now those amounts weren’t included in the annually published lists either.
I did ask Councillor Hanratty earlier, I think it was the day before yesterday whether these amounts would be included in future, didn’t get an answer.
I think they don’t want to give me answers on this, I think they hope I’ll just stop writing about it and move on to other things. After all I think there are far less councillors getting a taxi from home to the public meetings now since I started publishing what these expenses were for.
Anyway, another news story that’s seems to be popular on the blog is that Merseytravel’s Chief Executive David Brown is leaving. I think he’s leaving from some time next month to become Chief Executive of Transport for the North. Obviously that’ll be news for people that work at Merseytravel and I suppose you’re wondering what Transport for the North is!
Well it’s a new kind of regional body that’s been set up regarding transport matters and eventually it’ll become like Merseytravel is and the Combined Authority a statutory body. So I wish him luck in his new job and I think the Deputy Chief Executive Frank Rogers will be Acting Chief Executive until councillors decide on who the permanent Chief Executive should be, which should come to a future meeting in the future.
Anyway, another thing I’ve written about on the blog recently is to do with the whole Lyndale School closure matter. Now for those who have been following this story this is probably going to repeat what you already know, but Wirral Council officers said the reason the school had to close was that from 2016/17 which is the next academic year, that funding that they’d get for education from the government would be based on pupil numbers rather than place numbers.
Now at the moment I think there are about forty places at Lyndale School and about must be a dozen or so pupils. So basically they were saying that from next year, there would be a shortfall in Lyndale School’s budget.
But this hasn’t happened!
The Cabinet still decided to close the School, but the funding changes haven’t happened, Wirral Council will get the same funding as they did the previous year.
However despite them getting the same funding, they have actually made cuts from the SEN budget because there is flexibility at Wirral Council in that they can move money around within the education budget. They’ve still got to spend it on education, but they can move money around from say that allocated for teaching assistants for special educational needs to something else within that education budget and one of the things that’s been causing pressures on the budget is that they have a massive contract, I think it’s about half way through thirty years or something.
I’ve read through the contract and it’d take too long to go into here, but it’s a contract with Wirral Schools Services Limited for basically to rebuild a number of schools, but as well as the payments that relate to that there are also payments of millions a year I think that the schools have to pay this private company for services to do with the schools. For instance I think school meals is part of it, possibly cleaning and maintenance.
So the situation had been that Wirral Council was getting a grant from the government for some of this, but the contract meant that the costs were rising each year for PFI.
What was happening was, this money was being funded outside the education budget by Wirral Council. But then a political decision was made [by Wirral Council councillors] not to do this, which meant that a few million had to be cut out of the education budget elsewhere.
Hence why special educational needs got a cut, but again one of the other interesting twists and turns that came out in the Lyndale School saga is that the whole issue of whether the School should be closed or not seemed to arise around the time there was a revaluation of the land and buildings.
Off the top of my head I think the valuation was about £2.4 million [it was actually £2.6 million]. I’d better make it clear at this stage this is a what they call a technical, what’s it called, depreciated replacement cost value. It’s not a they send in an estate agent and they say how much would would we get for this and how much would we get for the school playing fields and so on?
No, it’s more they have to have on their asset list, a list of how much their assets are because obviously as a Council they have liabilities, they have to offset that with their assets.
But it’s a great shame what happened regarding Lyndale School, it’s not closed yet, it’ll close at the end of the academic year, but I think it could’ve been handled a lot better.
Obviously there’ve been recent revelations come out that the person that chaired the consultation meetings on the Lyndale School closure wasn’t in fact a Wirral Council employee, but is a what do you call it, a temp, a temporary worker because they couldn’t recruit somebody to the post [for £775+VAT/day].
He’s called Phil Ward and the problem was that, there was quite a bit of criticism levelled at him for the way he chaired the consultation meetings. Now obviously you can criticise anybody for chairing high profile consultation meetings. I’m sure there were criticisms of how Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority did their consultation meetings.
But moving back to Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority, the Saughall Massie issue, it was agreed by councillors on the Fire Authority to go ahead, they’ve agreed the four or so million pounds in the capital budget and a planning application has been submitted.
Now I’ve checked on Wirral Council’s website and I can’t see a planning application there yet but obviously they have to scan it in and put it on the website for consultation so people can make their comments and so on.
The other issue is there was a vote recently on whether Wirral Council should give the land or they may get something for it I don’t know, maybe they’ll give it to them, should give this land to Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority for this new fire station in Saughall Massie.
Now obviously it would be better if Wirral Council could make a decision reasonably quickly but I understand the point that councillors made at the meeting, that they felt they were only hearing one side of the argument and that they hadn’t got the information in front of them regarding the emails that had been released under Freedom of Information Act requests, they hadn’t heard the Fire and Rescue Service’s point of view because nobody had been invited along from the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service and basically better decisions are made by politicians when they have the facts in front of them and they don’t like making decisions if they’re going to be made fools of later when it turns out there’s something they should’ve known or was in the public domain.
An example of that New Brighton car parking Fort Perch Rock fiasco. Now that went out to budget consultation, was agreed by Cabinet, was agreed by Council but what wasn’t known at the time was that Wirral Council had a lease for the Marine Point complex and that lease said that if Wirral Council introduced car parking charges at Fort Perch Rock, that they could be introduced in the car parking elsewhere there and Liverpool Echo journalist I think it was Liam Murphy got in touch with the company that runs the Marine Point complex and they said yes they’d have to introduce charges because obviously if Wirral Council had introduced charges at Fort Perch Rock car park then it would’ve displaced some parking to the free parking elsewhere, so then they’d feel they’d have to introduce charges themselves, but once these matters came out then there was a U-turn done on it and they decided they’ll make up the budget shortfall somewhere else.
But that goes back to my point about politicians having the information in front of them so they can make reasonably informed decisions. Now the reports that go before officers, sorry politicians whether that’s at Wirral Council, Liverpool City Council, Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service, Merseytravel and so on are written by officers. That is employees of the particular public body that the politicians are politicians for.
But there’s a question of, officers can have a particular point of view and make a recommendation and therefore ask the councillors to approve it, but officers aren’t actually going to know everything, but where do the public fit in all this?
Because of course in an ideal world, like for instance the Planning Committee yesterday where the public gets to speak for five minutes if they’ve got a qualifying petition. In an ideal world, if you were making a decision, say a major decision about a fire station being built, well that’s two decisions really, it’s a planning decision and whether Wirral Council give them the land. When you’re making a major decision like that, then not only should you have some sort of consultation with the public and by consultation I don’t mean publishing the papers for the meeting a week before, although that does give some advance warning so people can lobby the decision makers.
I’m talking about that people who are affected by the decision should have their say at a public meeting and I know there’ve been consultation meetings, that the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service have run and that’s fine. But what I’m saying is the ball’s now in Wirral Council’s court, there has to be the usual consultation on planning applications, but it’s a very emotive issue.
And I think basically if I can sum up the positions, Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service have received a grant for some of the cost of this fire station and of course with the West Kirby and Upton fire stations being closed, they’ll receive something for the sale of those but basically they want to build it now in Saughall Massie because the site in Greasby has been withdrawn.
But the problem is that this is greenbelt land and there’s a lot of resistance from the residents regarding a fire station there.
Now in the not too distant past Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service did put in a planning application for a temporary fire station in Oxton while Birkenhead Fire Station was being rebuilt. I know that was later withdrawn but that caused a similar level of fuss and outrage and politicians saying they were against it and so on.
But the problem was that was only a temporary ~12 month arrangement, eventually they found some way round finding somewhere else. But the same issues that were brought up then, have been brought up regarding this Saughall Massie issue, you know the issues regarding sirens, traffic and so on but I think the elephant in the room really for Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service is that a number of the fire stations they’ve got are part of the PFI scheme, so they can’t close those without massive penalties.
I mean I think Birkenhead Fire Station is one example of one of the fire stations they’ve got under this PFI scheme.
So there are fire stations they can’t shut, so that leaves if they want to make any budget savings, for instance through cutting jobs and merging fire stations, they’ve only got the ones that aren’t the PFI fire stations that they can choose from.
And that’s part of the reason why Upton and West Kirby got chosen.
But I think one of the things that has currently got the public going, is that after there was pressure put regarding the Greasby site, that the offer of Greasby where there’s a library and community centre there was withdrawn and people are asking why Wirral Council isn’t doing the same thing with Saughall Massie?
Well basically these are decisions yet to be determined, it’s a party political matter because three political parties involved in the last decision on this voted three different ways, but I can see a problem because firstly Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service can’t keep Upton and West Kirby open. They just don’t have the budget for the amount of firefighters that would take.
Now one alternative is, just keep Upton open, now the downside to this according to the Chief Fire Officer is that this would increase response times to the Hoylake and West Kirby area, so that’s why they want somewhere roughly in between the two stations.
However then people raised the issue of Upton’s close to Arrowe Park Hospital, so it’ll take longer to get to there so wherever you have a fire station there’ll be people that have a quick response time and people that have a slow response time.
But the fire engines aren’t always at the fire station all the time, I mean about half the time they’ll be called out on a job, well maybe a bit more than that, they’ll be out somewhere else and that can’t really be predicted where they’d be at, whether they’d be fitting a smoke alarm or something like that.
So there are a lot of issues to do with the Saughall Massie fire station and basically I’ll be reporting on it, but at the same time I think it’s interesting seeing both the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority meetings and the Wirral Council meetings and how this issue has been dealt with at both of them.
Of course if the government hadn’t offered Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service a large grant to build a new fire station there, then I doubt this would’ve gone ahead, admittedly they could’ve borrowed the money or found the money from somewhere but I think that what’s interesting is I did make a FOI for the grant application that they made to DCLG, was told that this information would be published in the future so I couldn’t have it now and I’d have to wait till after the consultations were finished and by that they didn’t just mean the Upton and West Kirby consultations but they meant the other consultations because this grant is not just for a fire station at Saughall Massie, there are similar consultations and mergers and closures happening elsewhere across Merseyside.
So hopefully that will sum up things and I’ll point out that tonight at the Wallasey Constituency Committee, I won’t be there but I noticed because I read through the reports and the agenda, that the Motability, they have a little place in Birkenhead that hires out wheelchairs and things like that are looking to set up a place in New Brighton, so people can hire wheelchairs and that kind of thing.
So that’s a possibly positive move for New Brighton, because I know there’s been a lot of criticism at New Brighton and a large petition over the dropped car parking plans.
Anyway I’d better finish for now, but thanks for listening.
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