Chesterford Research Park: Brexit Risk Threatens Council Finances

Saffron Walden Labour Party has questioned the wisdom of Uttlesford district council’s finance chiefs in committing £47 million of debt towards an investment in the Chesterford Research Park (CRP), via the council-owned subsidiary Aspire (CRP). They are neither spreading risk nor considering the effects of Brexit on the biotech and pharma sectors.

Labour warns that if the CRP starts losing tenants due to economic problems in these sectors, it will put in jeopardy the council’s long-term finances as well as the plans for the North Uttlesford Garden Village, which forms a crucial part of the proposed local development plan.

The annual directors’ report filed at Companies House in early September stated that “once the country has got past March 2019, the likelihood of new tenants coming to the park, with some requiring new buildings, will significantly increase.”

Following a fact-finding meeting between Saffron Walden Labour Party representatives and UDC cabinet member for finance Cllr Simon Howell and UDC finance officer Adrian Webb, who also serves as executive director of Aspire, party spokesman Daniel Brett said: “Uttlesford is wrong to have all its investment risk linked to one asset in one sector and we are extremely worried that their future plans seem to be more of the same initially, rather than spreading risk.

“UDC is basing its investment policy on a blind faith that everything will be alright in the end. It is incredible that UDC have, in the Companies House filings, reached completely the opposite conclusion to the conclusions of a report published in May by parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee on Brexit risks to the pharmaceutical industry. The committee concluded that the UK may become a less attractive place to launch new medicines, particularly with regulatory divergence, and found that ‘any small gains would be hugely outweighed by additional costs or the loss of access to existing successful markets.’

“There is a very real risk that businesses will quit the CRP, potentially leaving the council with a large hole in its finances and sending its plans for the North Uttlesford Garden Village into chaos. We were told that the average remaining length of tenancy is eight years, but we are concerned that some of the larger tenants approaching the end of their tenancies may plan to quit for Europe or other research clusters.

“There are also specific risks to CRP. It is likely to lose business to nearby Hinxton, where companies are likely to cluster around an expanded Wellcome Genome Campus. Unlike Hinxton, the park remains outside the proposed Oxford-Cambridge technology arc with Uttlesford excluded from potential infrastructural benefits.

“Astonishingly, the council is not only wedded to investing everything in CRP, it is considering buying Aviva’s 50 percent share and expanding the park in the future. This will involve more council debt committed to an increasingly risky investment. If Aspire starts to struggle with interest payments, the council will have to deplete its reserves and cut local services.

“Even if the risks were totally mitigated, Uttlesford has placed all its eggs in one basket and opted for a low return asset. The council could have achieved higher returns in other sectors. It continues to ignore the tremendous commercial opportunities offered by Stansted Airport.”

UDC decided three years ago to set up a subsidiary, Aspire (CRP), and loan it money to acquire a 50 percent stake in the CRP. The funds were raised by council borrowing from the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) and other lenders at a low interest. Aspire would then repay the interest on the loan to UDC at a rate of 4% over the 40-year period of the loan, plus any dividends. The differential between the interest rate paid by the council and by Aspire is being used to plug the £2.5 million funding gap caused by the end of central government core funding and cuts in the council’s New Homes Bonus.

Under-45s are Turning to Labour Due to Tory Failure – Labour Housing Spokesman Tells Local Meeting

John Healey in Mountfitchet estate, Stansted, with local Labour Party members

Labour’s Party’s Shadow Housing Secretary John Healey attacked Tory policies for failing to build enough social housing for local people during a visit to Saffron Walden constituency on Thursday (12 July). With the number of households on Uttlesford’s council house waiting list approaching 1,000, he said Uttlesford District Council “should deal with those at risk of being made homeless, because it offends people no matter how they vote that we have people without homes, particularly children.”

After meeting residents on the Mountfitchet estate in Stansted, Mr Healey told a packed local Labour party meeting, “The average monthly rent in this area is over £1,000, yet the average full-time weekly wage is under £500. No wonder that people with no family wealth behind them are struggling. No wonder that young people who grow up here and want to stay here simply can’t afford to either rent or to buy.

“The Tory record on housing is one reason why they did so badly in the last general election. Since they got into government, home ownership has declined to a 30 year low with a million fewer under-45s owning their own home than in 2010. No wonder so many under-45s turned against the Tories and switched to Labour at the last election.

“It’s Conservative ideology as much as Conservative policy that is failing to produce the answers that are needed. It’s only Labour that can come up with the ideas and the alternatives, the programme of action that’s going to be needed to help solve the housing crisis.

“For private renters, the situation is urgent. There’s 1.3 million households with families trying to raise children in houses in which they could be kicked out with less than two months without having breached the terms of their tenancy. This is the single biggest cause of homelessness.”

In addition to Labour’s national housing policies to freeze right-to-buy and support massive investment in council housing, Saffron Walden Labour Party is calling for realistic policies at Uttlesford District Council:

  • Create a voluntary landlords’ register so that private renters can choose to rent their homes from responsible landlords.
  • Establish a private tenants’ association to give private renters a voice and the ability to collectively organise for better conditions
  • Set up a landlords’ co-operative so that landlords can avoid the high charges from private lettings agencies and tenants can get a fairer deal. Uttlesford District Council should also establish a not-for-profit lettings agency.
  • 60% of housing in new garden communities in the local plan should be genuinely affordable by indexing them to average local wages, with council housing making up half this target.
  • All affordable housing should be based on modern “zero carbon” and safety standards.
  • Viability assessments for all housing developments should be publicly available.
  • Covenants should be put on the leases of all future properties sold under Right to Buy, prohibiting leaseholders from renting them out at anything above affordable rent.
  • Set up a local commission to examine innovative debt models, such as social housing bonds, as well as Public Works Loan Board borrowing and co-investment with asset managers to invest in social housing stock under council control.

Labour believes that by adopting these policies, by 2033 the planned garden community developments alone should yield 570 new council houses in North Uttlesford, 540 in Easton Park and 290 in West of Braintree with a similar number of affordable houses with different tenures and ownership options. This would ensure that garden communities would deliver affordable housing for 2,800 households with local families given the highest priority.

Daniel Brett, Saffron Walden Labour Party housing spokesman, said: “Labour believes that strong communities are based on families. Nationally and locally, the Tories have failed to deliver. Uttlesford is now dialling down its affordable housing target for garden communities in the local plan from 60 percent to 40 percent, subject to viability assessments that could drive the numbers down further.

“Our community’s young people are being pushed out of the district due to soaring housing costs and low wages, which is breaking family and community bonds. While other parties are arguing with each other over where to put housing, only Labour is arguing the case for building communities for the many and not the few and putting forward policies that are both radical and credible.”

Uttlesford has seen a net loss of more than 60 council properties since 2010 as right-to-buy has eroded the council’s housing stock. In 2017, despite 21 new social houses being built, 16 council homes were sold and 12 were demolished – a net loss of seven council houses. The proportion of the district’s housing stock in UDC ownership has fallen from 9.0 per cent in 2009 to 7.8 per cent in 2017. The number of social houses is increasingly provided by private registered providers who often sell what is supposed to be social rented housing on the market at a profit.

Tackling Declining Council Housing Should Be At The Heart Of The Local Plan

Now that the Local Plan is moving to the next stage following a council vote to go to public consultation, Saffron Walden Labour Party has called on Uttlesford District Council to put social housing at the centre of its housing strategy.

Uttlesford has seen a net loss of more than 60 council properties since 2010 as right-to-buy has eroded the council’s housing stock. In 2017, despite 21 new social houses being built, 16 council homes were sold and 12 were demolished – a net loss of seven council houses. The proportion of the housing stock in council ownership has fallen from 9.0 per cent in 2009 to 7.8 per cent in 2017.

Social housing is increasingly provided by ‘private registered providers’ who often sell what is supposed to be social rented housing on the market at a huge profit. An example is Hill House in Saffron Walden’s High Street, which consisted of low-rent housing association flats but is being turned into luxury apartments.

Daniel Brett, Saffron Walden Labour Party housing spokesman, said: “Labour believes that well-planned new towns with sufficient local employment opportunities are crucial to building genuinely affordable housing. Uttlesford must resolve its own broken housing market, address years of failed council policy on employment and do its bit to address the national housing crisis. The new garden communities are the best option and can help reduce the unplanned urban sprawl along arterial roads that cut through villages such as Newport, Takeley and Little Canfield.

“Local income growth is falling behind both inflation and local housing costs due to Uttlesford District Council’s failed economic development strategy. In 2017, the median wage paid in Uttlesford was £29,493, which represented a massive decline of nearly £1,100 since 2013 after accounting for inflation. Add into that local house prices with average housing prices roughly 12 times average local wages. Uttlesford needs a strategy to help deliver higher wages, more local employment and lower house prices to improve standards of living.

“Our community’s young people are being pushed out of the district due to soaring housing costs and low wages while those in retirement on fixed income pensions are also struggling. Local statistics show that 60 per cent on the council waiting list require one-bedroom accommodation with more than half of these eligible for housing for the over-60s. Yet, just a fifth of council stock is one bedroom. This imbalance needs to be addressed.”

Saffron Walden Labour Party is calling for the following measures:

  • The Tenants Forum – an elected body representing local tenants and leaseholders at the council’s Housing Board – should be at the heart of discussions in the next stage of the local plan.
  • The local authority should develop affordable housing that reflects local wages and universal credit and not indexed to market prices.
  • The Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) definition of garden cities should be included as policy, which means a commitment to most new houses as affordable (60-70 per cent), half of which should be socially rented.
  • All social rented accommodation delivered in these garden communities should be owned by the local authority.
  • Ambitious Development Planning Documents (DPD) for distinctive garden settlements including high quality housing with low carbon, low water consumption, as well as plenty of amenity land and cycleways that directly connect with public transport.
  • Our member of parliament should be active in campaigning for changes to planning laws that ensure: viability assessments do not undermine affordable housing targets; the council can expand its housing stock without attrition from right-to-buy; and that other agencies have the funds to deliver the healthcare, education, roads and public transport that new communities need to be sustainable and successful.

LABOUR CALL FOR AFFORDABLE LOANS FOR CHILDCARE

Saffron Walden Labour Party is calling on Uttlesford District Council to partner with a local credit union to introduce an affordable childcare loan for local parents so that they can return to work without ending up out of pocket.

Currently, parents who meet the qualifying rules may be able to get up to 85% of their childcare costs with a maximum of 85% of £760.42 per month for one child (£646.35) or £1,303.57 (£1,108.04) per month for two or more children.

In Saffron Walden Labour’s proposed childcare loan scheme, Uttlesford could act as reinsurers, protecting credit unions from the risk of loan default to maintain their involvement. The council could also contribute towards the administrative costs of running the scheme as well as act as intermediary between claimants and the lender.

Labour spokesperson Jane Berney said: “We want to incentivise work and support parents. Many women want to go back to work after having children but find local childcare too expensive. A low-cost loan with a long repayment period would help local working families. We believe this innovative, yet common-sense approach should receive cross-party support at UDC.

“The advantage of using credit unions as opposed to commercial insurers is that they emphasise best value for stakeholders, whereas commercial operations seek to maximise profits for shareholders and investors. A partnership between Uttlesford, a credit union and parents requiring childcare loans would emphasise meeting needs, as opposed to profit chasing.

“While non-performing loan rates are likely to be higher than the market average due to the insecurity of work and low incomes, such a scheme would pay for itself in the long-term by helping working parents to get back into work and raise their income levels. Ultimately, this would reduce the welfare costs and create a net benefit in terms of tax revenue.”

In Uttlesford, according to the childcare.co.uk website, average nursery costs are around £750 per month for children in full-time childcare, so the maximum that a Universal Credit claimant can receive in support is £637.50 for one child. This leaves parents needing to find £112.50 per month in costs, equating to over 14 hours work per month on the minimum wage. It amounts to an annual cost of £1,350, a cost that some low-income families would struggle to meet. Families with more than one child would be even worse off with a family with two children in childcare requiring an extra £392 per month, the equivalent of over £4,700 per annum.

Uttlesford Response Raises More Questions Over Tory Councillor’s Council Tax Affairs

A set of new questions over Cllr Goddard’s non-payment of council tax has arisen since Saffron Walden Labour Party first highlighted the matter, casting further doubt on his future as a council portfolio holder and committee vice-chair at Uttlesford District Council (UDC).

Saffron Walden Labour Party submitted a Freedom of Information request to UDC on 1 March and received a prompt response which indicated that Cllr Goddard had been summonsed for non-payment in the 2017/18 tax year in addition to the non-payment for 2015/16 and 2016/17.

In the light of facts revealed by UDC’s FOI response, we believe that some of Cllr Goddard’s statements to the press lack clarity and contradict information now on public record.

Saffron Walden Labour Party has produced a dossier, including corrections to Private Eye‘s report, questions over Cllr Goddard’s statements to the press and UDC’s FoI response.

Failure to pay council tax can result in a prison sentence of 90 days, which underlines the gravity of the offence. If his personal administrative affairs have been in such a chaotic state over a three-year period, how can voters have confidence in him to carry out his responsibilities as a councillor, particularly in the light of his non-attendance on council business?

Ordinary people are often shamed by councils over prosecution for council tax non-payment. When it comes to Cllr Goddard, it was only the Private Eye investigation that brought the matter to light, not any effort by the council leader to demonstrate transparency and accountability.

Cllr Goddard puts his council tax arrears down to postal and direct debit problems

While £80 court costs are typically charged in such summons, the cost of UDC pursuing the matter in terms of staff time is likely to be more. Councillors persistently going into council tax arrears set a poor example to the community and undermine public faith in the council. Paying council tax is the basic duty of any household. Timely payment is crucial to maintaining our local public services and councillors must set a good example.

UDC leader Cllr Howard Rolfe says the issue of Cllr Goddard’s repeated non-payment of council tax has been concluded through the appropriate channels, suggesting it is no longer a relevant issue. We do not believe this is a sufficient response to repeated failure by a councillor to pay council tax on time. Moreover, we do not have confidence in Cllr Goddard’s ability to hold the sports portfolio and fulfil the duties of vice-chair of the licensing and environmental health committee, two roles that confer authority to the holder.

Labour does not yet have representatives on the district council, so we call on councillors from other parties to debate a vote of no confidence in Cllr Goddard in relation to his council roles.

Government Reforms Must Free Uttlesford To Invest In More Council Housing

Government plans to reform the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) will not resolve the yawning deficit in genuinely affordable housing in Uttlesford, said Saffron Walden Labour Party this week.

Theresa May has pledged to end the abuse of the viability assessment by developers, which has enabled them to negotiate down their affordable housing commitments. This would not be an issue if Uttlesford was not reliant on the goodwill of developers to leverage housing commitments for local need.

Uttlesford needs the power to build more council houses, instead of forever being at the mercy of profiteering developers. Tinkering around the edges of the planning system is far from the change needed to provide sufficient homes for local need.

Daniel Brett, Saffron Walden Labour housing spokesman, said: “Due to massive rises in local housing costs, there are just under 1,000 households on the Uttlesford council housing waiting list. Despite some limited council house building in recent years, the council housing stock still fails to meet the quantity and pattern of demand.

“With the average housing price at 10 times the average salary in Uttlesford, the area is rapidly pushing out local families from the community. ‘Affordable’ housing at 80 per cent of market rates, which is the standard definition, is still out of the reach of many local households. The council can’t meet current demand for social housing, let alone future requirements.

“If the government really wants to address the housing crisis, it should end right-to-buy and relax restrictions on council borrowing for investing in council housing.

“Instead of relying on Section 106 agreements with developers, Uttlesford must be free to borrow the money to build a new generation of council houses that are truly affordable, as recommended by the Treasury Select Committee.

“The benefit of local authority building is to have a long-term plan that would enable Uttlesford to control assets and recoup costs, rather than being always at the mercy of developers who prioritise profits.”

In February, there were 993 households on Uttlesford’s waiting list. Of these, just over 60 per cent require one-bed accommodation with over half of these eligible for accommodation designated for people over 60 whether that be a bungalow or sheltered housing. However, the social housing stock does not match demand with over three-quarters being two- and three-bedroom houses, according to local authority housing data published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government.

Tory Councillor Should Be Stripped Of Position Over Council Tax Issues

Note: Since this article was published, further facts have come to light over a court summons for non-payment in 2017/18 and Cllr Goddard’s comments to the press. Click here for our latest article and here for our dossier on the issue.

Private Eye has revealed that Tory Councillor and Uttlesford cabinet deputy for sport Thom Goddard was taken to court by the council for a second year running for non-payment of council tax in 2016/17.

Following a successful motion by Tory council leader Howard Rolfe to remove Cllr Tina Knight as chair of the Standards Committee over her controversial remarks on the Presidents Club dinner, Saffron Walden Labour Party has called on action against Cllr Goddard.

In 2016, Cllr Thom Goddard (Stansted South & Birchanger) was told to pay £2,548, including costs, when Uttlesford took him to court for non-payment of council tax after he ignored a reminder from UDC. The matter came to light after Private Eye staged an investigation into councillors convicted of council tax non-payment, using Freedom of Information requests to councils throughout the country. Uttlesford Tories appear to have taken no action in response, beyond preventing him from voting on the 2016 council budget. He apologised for a “genuine error.”

On 28 February 2018, he told the Walden Local the error was caused by “a simple mistake while moving bank accounts [which] has not hindered my work for the Council.”

Last month Private Eye‘s latest investigation stated that Cllr Goddard was summonsed again for non-payment of council tax in 2016/17, this time owing £2,637. [Update: On 8 March 2018, the Saffron Walden Reporter reported Cllr Goddard’s claim that he had not received the 2016/17 reminders as his post had been mislaid due to a postcode mix-up. His subsequent moving of bank accounts affected his direct debit, which led to a further “legal notice” in 2017/18. He denies being taken to court, being fined or being barred from voting on the budget.]

Cllr Goddard is deputy cabinet member with responsibility for sport and vice-chair of the licensing and environmental health committee. Despite being a portfolio holder, Cllr Goddard’s attendance record is one of the worst at UDC. Since he was elected in May 2015, he has attended well under half of the meetings he was expected to attend. Between May 2017 and January 2018, he attended just two meetings at UDC out of the nine he was expected to attend.

Council tax non-payment saw 4,800 people in England and Wales summonsed to court with at least 62 jailed in 2016/17. In many cases, legal action by councils has seen people shamed in the local media.

Saffron Walden Labour Party believes it is hypocritical for Cllr Goddard to maintain his portfolio and committee positions. This is a fundamental issue of standards and values and if he does not face the same measures as Cllr Knight, Tory double-standards will erode public confidence in the council.

Legal action taken by UDC over 2015/16 council tax bill. Source: Private Eye
Legal action taken by UDC over 2016/17 council tax bill. Source: Private Eye

Tina Knight Debacle Highlights Need for Cabinet Equalities Post

Saffron Walden Labour Party is calling on Uttlesford leader Howard Rolfe to appoint a Cabinet Member for Equalities to address issues arising from the controversies around Cllr Tina Knight’s comments to Radio 2 on the Presidents Club.

Said Alexandra Routledge, Saffron Walden Labour Party’s Women’s Officer: “Many members of the public were rightly upset by Cllr Knight’s comments and we are pleased there is cross-party determination, both nationally and locally, to confront abusive behaviour towards women. Condemnation of one person’s misguided statement is not enough. We need to tackle harassment and abuse of women and the attitudes that are contributing to the problem.

“Saffron Walden Labour party believes we all need to take ownership of these problems and create practical solutions. A member of cabinet dedicated to equalities issues can help promote standards in public life and inclusiveness in policy-making.

“Many councils have created this portfolio and it has helped in their role as service providers and employers as well as improving the overall quality of local debate.”

On 29 January, UDC published its latest guidance on equalities, covering discrimination based on sex, age, disability, race, religion, sexual orientation and other matters. This is an obligation on the council under the Equalities Act 2010, which seeks to strengthen the laws preventing discrimination and the inequalities that still exist in society today.

The council is required to conduct equality impact assessments and implement equality policies. An Equalities cabinet portfolio would help put this strategy into practice.