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Calling 90 year olds – celebrate the Queen’s Birthday at County Hall

Calling all 90 year-olds — your council needs you!

To celebrate the 90th birthday of our longest reigning monarch, Her Majesty the Queen, the Chairman of Durham County Council is arranging a tea party at County Hall for Durham County’s nonagenarians.

Anyone in the county who celebrates their 90th birthday during 2016 and would like to attend the tea party, are asked to get in touch with the council. 

It will be a special day for some of our senior residents. It will be wonderful for them to meet and reminisce and at the same time celebrate the birthday our Queen.

The tea party will take place on Monday, 13 June between 2.00 pm – 4.00 pm.

So if you, or someone you know, is 90 this year and would like to attend the tea party, contact the Chairman’s PA, Mrs Victoria Richardson on 03000 267 202, email: victoria.richardson2@durham.gov.uk or write to her at: Mrs Victoria Richardson, Chairman’s PA, Durham County Council, County Hall, Durham. DH1 5UL.

As places are limited selection will be on a first come first served basis.

How will the new CountyDurham Plan contribute to the climate change agenda?

January 2016 was the hottest month ever recorded world-wide, and no-one can deny that climate change is upon us, even if there is a vociferous minority that refuse to believe the science that goes alongside it.

But planners and developers do not seem to have got the message that they need to do something to contribute to helping to deal with the problem.

Neville’s Cross currently has two housing projects building very expensive executive homes, one on Mount Oswald near Farewell Hall, and the other on Potters Bank at Chevalier Court (what a pretentious name that is). All the houses there are £600K plus (including two at £1 million in the latter development), but even so, none of the houses has solar panels – not one!

This is madness, all developers know that it is vastly cheaper to install photovoltaic panels as a house is built rather than retro-fitting, but instead of behaving responsibly and doing it as standard, they pocket a few extra thousand pounds on each house by not doing it.

The new County Plan is the opportunity to change all this. The council should insist that all new developments over a certain size (5 houses?) include mandatory micro-generation provision. Some jobsworth may tell me that government rules don’t say that the council can do this, but that does not mean it shouldn’t try.

The record of the council in this area is not great. In the final consultation draft of the last effort at devising a County Plan, the council did include a policy “requiring” developers of executive homes to build them to the highest environmental standards, but that didn’t survive to be part of the version that went to the Inspector.

Guess what happened. The owners of Lambton Estates, who want to build many hundreds of executive homes covering a large area that straddles County Durham and Sunderland, objected and the final policy was changed to only “encourage” such standards.

When the last draft was approved by Council to go to the Inspector, I moved an amendment to reinstate the original policy, but was voted down by the dinosaurs of the Labour group.

So this time round, the Council needs to get some backbone and tell the developers who is in charge. The houses will still get built; the developers will still make a bundle; but at least we will be doing our bit on climate change.

County Plan Withdrawn and 3 Years is Lost

The Council has just announced that the draft County Plan that was rubbished by a government inspector has at last been withdrawn and that the Council is effectively going back to square one.

The Council is expecting to get its new draft plan to its Inspection-in-Public in February/March 2018 more than 3 years after the abortive one held in autumn 2014.

While a lot of technical stuff that was done for it first attempt will still be relevant, we can only hope that the criticisms of the previous inspector on key matters such as population projections and the need for by-passes will be given serious consideration this time around.

At least we start from a better place in relation to policy on student accommodation in the city, but the Council has a lot of work to do to convince residents that it is really willing to listen to them this time. Last time, the impression was given that the the words of developers carried infinitely more weight than those of the electors within the county, which cannot be right. The damning report by the government inspector on the first plan backs up that impression in spades.

 

Is Chapel Heights private student hall struggling?

Chapel Heights is a 197 bed privately built student residence situated on the edge of Durham City in Gilesgate by the A690. It is due to be completed for occupation by students this autumn (2016).

One of my spies has been looking at its web site, which generously shows which rooms are still available for renting next year and as of today (9 March) there are 148, which means that only 49 have been taken.

In my experience of running a college, by this point most undergraduates who intend to live out of college accommodation next year will have already signed up to where they intend to live. So where does Chapel Heights expect to find takers for its empty rooms?

One possibility may be new postgraduates who will only materialise in Durham later in the summer, but unlike undergraduates, the vast majority of these will be self-funded (no government loans available). A minority will be on funded research studentships, but not many.

Question: will self-funders pay the exorbitant rents at places like Chapel Heights, especially when there are still a lot of “student houses” around with To Let signs? Only time will tell, but the experience of the Village @ The Viaduct will surely give those running Chapel Heights a lot of sleepless nights…

.. and do I have much sympathy?????

DCC is set to approve a student residences policy – after the horse has bolted!

The agenda for next week’s Council Cabinet meeting has just been published and includes an item to approve a draft policy on student housing in the City. This is the day after the appalling student residence development on the former County Hospital site was approved on appeal to a government inspector.

Some may call this irony. I call the delay in getting a policy in place incompetence.

 

Will the County Hospital student site fail financially?

So the County Hospital site now has planning permission for development as a student hall, but will the business fail financially?

According to the company that bought the site from the NHS mental health trust, building normal housing (e.g. flats) on the site would not have given them a viable economic return on their investment. This is why they are going for students.

The plans envisage 281 normal study bedrooms and 82 larger “studios”, and if the rents being asked by the other new private developments are anything to go by, a place at the County Hospital site will cost upwards of £8K – £10K a year, way more that living in university accommodation or sharing in a house in the city.

OK, there is a market for hi-spec accommodation from students of rich families from overseas (Middle/Far East) who want to know that their sprogs are “safe”, but the number of such students is rather limited. The fact that The Village @ The Viaduct is half empty and that Chapel Heights appears to be struggling to fill its beds must surely be ringing warning bells.

On top of that the DLI Gilesgate development and Sheraton Park are also ahead of County Hospital in the building phase, so maybe the market will be swamped when they are completed.

So if the developers at County Hospital still plough on with their project, I won’t have much sympathy if it fails financially. They have been warned!

Tragically, if my prognostications prove correct, we will have the cityscape of Durham blighted for years by sites that have been developed for a purpose that will not work. If I am wrong it will be blighted for other obvious reasons.

Whether I am right or wrong, the centre of Durham will be a wasteland for half the year when students are away leaving shops and businesses struggling.

The only people to blame for this will be the short-sighted Labour-controlled County Council planners who refused to see the obvious.

Tragedy as the County Hospital appeal succeeds

The appeal by the current owners of the former County Hospital site to allow its conversion into student accommodation (363 beds) has unfortunately succeeded.

The inspector’s report allowing the appeal pointed out that the council still has no agreed proper policy on student accommodation (it is only in draft at this stage) and that there was no policy on “need”. This gaping void at the heart of planning for the City means that another 363 student beds are being foisted on the inner city area where no permanent resident wants them.

It may be that there will be a proper set of policies in place in around 2 years time, but at the moment, all I can hear is the loud crash of stable doors closing.

My Student Accommodation summary page has been updated

Following another application for student accommodation my web page on the subject (nigelmartin.mycouncillor.org.uk/new-student-accommodation-in-durham-since-2012/) has just been updated to take account.

The new application is by East Durham College for a 232 bed development on its Houghall College campus just across the A177 from the University’s Maiden Castle sports complex. While Houghall College runs horticultural courses for a wide range of students, it does not do this on a residential basis, so the beds must be aimed at university students. Ho hum!

Conversion of homes to student housing to be controlled from September

What is known as an Article 4 Direction is to come into effect in much of the City in mid September this year (2016). This will have the effect of imposing planning restrictions on houses changing from normal family occupation into Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs) so that the council can prevent this happening when the density of HMOs in a location becomes too great.

The introduction of the Article 4 is something I and the other Lib Dem councillors in Durham City have been campaigning for over many years, with the County Council planning officers seeming extremely reluctant to take it forward. The thing that changed the situation appears to have been the abortive public inspection of the County Plan in 2014, when the Inspector told the Council in no uncertain terms that they should proceed with the Article 4 in order partially to fill the planning void that has been failing to control student accommodation in the City.

During the public consultation on the proposal, there were many requests to extend the area of the Direction to include other parts of the City, and as a result there is now a proposal to include Framwellgate Moor, Pity Me and Newton Hall in the area (which I guess shows the Council can respond positively to public consultation when it wants to!). This is being done as a separate exercise in order not to delay the one just agreed.

Here are two maps showing the areas concerned:

(a) City area with Article 4 to be in place from mid September 2016

A4 City

 

Note: this includes all of Old Merryoaks (the area is just cut off the bottom edge of the picture

 

 

 

 

(b) Framwellgate Moor, Pity Me, Newton Hall being consulted on now.

A4 Fram PM NH

£50,000 a day into Council reserves

Between 1 April 2015 and 31 March 2016, Durham County Council’s reserves are expected to rise by around £20 million, that’s well over £50K for every one of the 366 days (leap year, remember). Indeed the total of council reserves is now approaching £250 million.

Why talk about this now? Well, today was the annual performance of the county council setting its budget and council tax level for the new financial year that starts on 1 April next, and the Lib Dem Group decided that it was time to make a point about the way in which reserves have risen over the past few years.

The proposal from the Labour Group this year was to raise council tax by 3.99%, comprising 2% specifically for Social Care (the government is telling councils to do this in recognition of the pressure that we are coming under in this area) plus another 1.99% tbexause of government cuts that are certainly causing all councils to squeal ever more loudly as the years of austerity go by.

The Lib Dems accepted the necessity of funding social care and so did not object to the 2% for that, but we proposed a freeze on the remaining council tax by moving an amendment to remove the additional 1.99%.

The argument goes like this. Every year the Labour group goes on about the iniquity of the cuts and how difficult it is to deal with them (in principle I agree), but on the other hand it keeps stashing away more and more cash into so-called “earmarked” reserves . In 2012-13 it put Almost £8m into reserves, in 2013-14, it was almost £64m, in 2014-15, it was just over £49m and as I said above, in 2015-16 it will be around another £20m.

So here we are with shedloads of cash in the bank, increasing by the day, and there has been no real plan set out as to when these earmarked reserves will be spent. We just get general statements like “well, it will help us soften the blow of the cuts to come”. The trouble is that they have been saying that now for several years while the numbers keep rising.

So, on the evidence of recent years, we think that there is scope to give some relief to the council tax payers this year without undermining the serious long-term issues (such as elderly social care) that the council has to deal with.

Naturally we were outvoted and so, I’m afraid, you will be getting an increase of 3.99% next year for the County Council’s part of your council tax demand.

But I still want to know what the detailed plans are for deploying these earmarked reserves over the next few years. Don’t you?