Speaking up for Housing in Aberdeenshire

I’ve just come back from a very busy weekend at the Scottish Liberal Democrats Spring Conference held this year in Inverness. Apart from listening to key speeches from government ministers, attending fringes and training sessions, a favourite part of the Conference is in the main hall when party members debate their policy ideas and if voted for by the membership it then becomes party policy. The Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey local party called on the Scottish Government to reverse the 30% cut it recently made to its housing budget and to give proper priority to the construction jobs and affordable homes that are so badly needed to tackle Scotland’s huge social housing and employment problems and reinvigorate our urban and rural communities. On behalf of the Aberdeenshire West local party, I called for the word “affordable” to be amended to “social housing for rent” as explained in the text of my speech below.

“Aberdeenshire West local party welcomes this motion on the housing crisis and congratulates Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey local party for bringing this debate to conference.

They have raised all the points that we must shout about; from the numbers languishing on waiting lists to the Scottish Government’s refusal to invest in jobs and in the people of Scotland.

As you will see from the conference papers, we are seeking to change  the word “affordable” in line 20 to “social housing for rent”, and I will explain why:

The SNP in their 2011 manifesto promised to build 6000 new “homes for social rent” each year for the next 5 years. Only 4 short months after the Scottish Elections the wording of their housing manifesto had sneakily been changed from “homes for social rent” to “affordable homes”.

In the housing world, the term “affordable” includes schemes such as shared equity, shared ownership and low cost ownership – schemes which require an element of purchase by the applicant. Whilst these schemes are laudible, we have two main concerns –

Most people on waiting lists do not have access to a mortgage. In the present economic climate, social rented housing is not just sought after by the homeless or unemployed; it is needed for our young people looking for a fair start; for our older people perhaps looking to downsize; it is needed for our hard working families and our hard working single people.

If I could steal a quote from Gallen Milne from a different debate yesterday “If you’re a local loon working for a low wage for a farmer in oil-rich Aberdeenshire, what are your housing options?”. They are very few.

Our second concern is that these affordable schemes such as shared equity and shared ownership require very little government investment, leaving local authorities and housing associations to find funding to build these homes.

So, it is very important that we change the word “affordable” to “social housing for rent” so that we don’t let the Scottish Government shirk their responsibility on housing.

We all know the Conservatives would like to see social housing dead and buried; it looks as if the SNP do too. I know that the Scottish Liberal Democrats are the party who will stand up for social rented housing and make sure that it isn’t a 2nd class option but a real opportunity for hard-working people to get on with their lives.

I urge you to support this amendment”.

Speakers came forward on both the motion and the amendment. After a rousing endorsement for the amendment by fellow Scottish Liberal Democrat, Peter Bellarby, councillor for Stonehaven and Lower Deeside and a summation by Kristian Chapman, the amendment was carried unanimously.

Are you registered to vote?

With just over 10 weeks until the local elections on May 3rd, make sure you are on the voters’ register so you can cast your vote. Although most people update their details between August and November each year when what is known as the “annual canvass” is delivered to their home address, if you are not registered or have moved home, please click on the link below to register:

http://www.aboutmyvote.co.uk/faq/registering_to_vote.aspx

To make things even easier, why not apply for a postal vote? Unexpected things happen and it may be that you cannot attend the polling station on the day of the elections. The deadline for applying for a new postal vote is 5pm on Wednesday 18th April 2012. For more details and to apply for a postal vote, go to:

http://www.aboutmyvote.co.uk/default.aspx?page=29&terms=postal%20vote

Residents concerned about dog waste

Many residents have voiced their concerns about dog waste on our pavements and paths. Although Aberdeenshire Council provide as many dog bins as possible, some dog-owners choose not to use them. Dog-owners who don’t clean up after their pets can be issued with a Fixed Penalty Notice and will incur a fine of £40. If you can provide details of offenders in your area or would like more information, please contact the dog warden on 01569 768224.

Local issues………………in Budapest!

I’ve just returned home from a fascinating few days in Budapest. I cannot believe I travelled some 1115 miles leaving the mild weather of Elrick to freezing temperatures and snow in Hungary! It’s a beautiful city though and definitely on my “must do again” list. Travelling there is seamless and as in other European countries, they seem to have their public transport system, whether it be bus, tram or train, working. Despite the heavy snowfall, pavements are kept clear and shop-keepers take personal responsibility for keeping the front of their premises clean and safe. The streets are generally litter-free.

I also did some digging on social housing in Budapest and spoke to  ex-pats about their views on the housing situation there. I want to write about that separately and do some comparing though as localism came up in our conversation and that is something being looked at in the Scottish Government’s current housing consultation.

My last day there was rounded off nicely when leaving Vaci Utca to return to base  I chanced upon a student protest. Not being able to read Hungarian, a very kind camera-man offered me a cup of tea and an explanation. The students were protesting against what they see as the destruction of publicly funded higher education. Recent government measures dramatically cut state-funded college enrolment and imposed further restrictions on University students such as the obligation to stay and work in Hungary after graduation. I was beginning to feel more at home and although there are vast cultural differences between our two countries, everyday grievances tend to be very similar.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch – I knew I had a good few thousand campaign leaflets waiting to be delivered,  so it was back down to earth with a resounding thud today! The amount of walking and exploring done in Budapest over the last few days has proved excellent training and inspiration though and it’s now onwards and upwards in my own local area!

Press release: Liberal Democrats announce local candidate for Westhill and District

(Picture shows retiring councillor, Gurudeo Saluja and new candidate, Iris Walker)

Community volunteer Iris Walker is to stand for the Liberal Democrats in the Aberdeenshire Council elections on 3 May in Westhill and district.
Born and brought up in rural Donside, Iris has lived in Garlogie and now Elrick for the last 25 years. She is employed by NHS Grampian.
She is press and communications officer for Westhill & Elrick Community Council, a board member of Grampian Housing Association, and a founder member and director of the Westhill Citizens Advice Bureau. Her involvement in these and other local organisations has brought her into contact with many people from the diverse settlements within the area.
Iris said: “I enjoy meeting people and responding to the issues that affect them. I would like to continue to help implement improvements that people want for our area and being a councillor would extend this opportunity.”
The present councillor, Gurudeo Saluja OBE, is to stand down at the election. He said: “I am delighted that Iris is to be our candidate. She is a very caring and able person who will be ideally suited to the work involved. I know she can be relied on to pick up on the issues that people will bring to her attention.
“Iris knows the towns and settlements throughout the area very well. Her present involvement in various local groups is already appreciated by many.”
Iris said: “I am thrilled to be selected as the candidate for my local area. Although the community groups I am involved with tend to focus on the built-up areas of Westhill and Elrick, I am equally at home in the rural farming communities such as Sauchen, Echt and Midmar, listening to the diverse range of issues of concern for local residents.”
Sir Robert Smith, MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, said: “I have been impressed with Iris’ commitment to take up local issues of concern in the community. She has demonstrated her hard work and energy through a range of local organisations and will be a powerful voice for the community on the council.”

Lib Dem response to the Scottish Budget 2012

Some good news in Willie Rennie’s letter this afternoon. Let’s hope some of the benefits will be seen in our local area soon.

Dear Iris

I am sending this short note to update you on the outcome of the Budget voted on in the Scottish Parliament today.

My colleagues and I have been in detailed discussions with Scottish ministers for some time to secure improvements to the Budget. Today saw some fruits from that work. As a result the Liberal Democrat MSPs were able to support the Budget. It’s not perfect by any means, but good enough to vote for.

You may have seen in the news that the Scottish Government has produced, at the eleventh hour, extra money for colleges to reverse their proposed cut in student support and increase the money going into colleges.

You will know that, week after week since September, I have challenged the First Minister and his government to do the ‘right thing’ for colleges. I have even shown him where he has the extra money available from the UK Government to make it happen.

This year is the year when Scotland’s colleges need us most, and we need colleges most. They give opportunity for all, they tackle social inequality and they work for every community.

That is why Liberal Democrats put them front and centre for support in this Budget. That pressure has paid off. Thousands of students will benefit.

I am also pleased to say that we have had some success in persuading the SNP to increase investment in affordable housing. This is something that many party members have asked me to give high priority to. The same is true for early intervention which has been a longstanding campaign for our party.

It doesn’t stop here. Our challenge over the months ahead is to make sure that the Scottish Government is fully focused on tackling the economy and unemployment.

I will keep you up to date as we go forward.

Best wishes,

Willie Rennie MSP
Leader, Scottish Liberal Democrats

Aberdeenshire Council to set five year budget

Councillors will also meet next Thursday to consider a five year budget for Aberdeenshire Council and agree a balanced budget for the next three years.

Councillors will be asked to agree a budget of £548 million to deliver a range of vital local services to the residents of Aberdeenshire over the next year.

In a report prepared by the Head of Finance, councillors will be asked to agree a series of Scottish Government policy initiatives. If agreed, the Council’s grant will be maintained at the level announced by the Government in December last year, and commit the council to delivering a council tax freeze for 2012/13, maintaining police and teacher numbers, a contribution to Change Funds and a re-profiling of capital funding.

Last year the council agreed to deliver £52 million of savings across all services, which included reviews to make the council more efficient, as well as some reductions to services. The council continues to progress this and these savings will be delivered by the end of 2012/13.

In considering a five year budget, the council will be in a good position to prepare for future challenges and restrict the impact that budget reductions have on local communities. At the meeting, councillors will be asked to consider options for making further savings in future years.

The Scottish Government has announced indicative settlement figures for the next few years, which reveal a £10 million shortfall for Aberdeenshire Council by 2014/15.

The council is making preparations now to relieve the impact on communities of these shortfalls and officers will recommend that underspends that are currently being forecast should be used to reduce the pressure in later years, along with other proposals for delivering service efficiencies.

Councillors will discuss the budget proposals at the meeting of Aberdeenshire Council on Thursday 9th February 2012.

Aberdeenshire Council to set housing budget

Councillors will meet next Thursday, February 9th 2012, to set the council’s housing revenue budget, including rents and charges for the next year.

In line with the council’s main budget, councillors will be asked to consider a five year financial plan to ensure that the organisation is well prepared for the challenges ahead.

They will be asked to support a recommendation to increase council house rents by an average of £2.59 a week, which has been supported by tenants through consultation activity that has taken place. This should ensure that Aberdeenshire rents continue to be below the Scottish average.

It is proposed that rents should be increased by RPI plus 2% for 2013/14 and 2014/15, subject to consultation with tenants and a review of the business plan.

The proposals will contribute towards the implementation of the 30-year housing business plan where there is continued investment in housing stock to meet the Scottish Housing Quality Standard.

Councillors will also be asked to consider a range of other charges including sheltered housing charges, heating and lighting, garage rents and temporary accommodation. Most charges will rise in line with inflation, although increases to heat and light charges in sheltered housing are proposed to be restricted once again.

Since 2006, sheltered housing tenants have been protected from sustained energy increases by restricting increases in charges to 10% a year. With energy prices predicted to increase to 17.5% over the next year, councillors will be asked to restrict the heat and light charge to 12.1% and the council will continue to invest in delivering energy efficiencies across its housing estate.

Councillors will also be asked to support changes to the pricing model at Greenbanks Travelling Persons Caravan site, with a single charge of £64.35 for up to two stances.

Councillors will discuss the plans at the meeting of full council takes place next Thursday 9th February 2012.

Feedback from School Estate Consultation

The feedback from the session at Westhill Academy held on 10 January 2012 can now be viewed here:

http://www.aberdeenshire.gov.uk/buildingimprovements/WesthillPresentation.pdf

It is clear that local authorities do not have the money available to provide all of the services they would like to due to depleting budgets. With increased wealth and quality of life, people’s expectations are also now higher. At the recent School Estate Consultation organised by Aberdeenshire Council, conflict between the two ideals was apparent.

While pupils and parents feel that more money should be spent on upgrading school buildings, toilets being a recurrent complaint, teachers remain committed to providing the educational stability for their charges but at the same time acknowledging that a pleasant environment is important to learning.

A balance therefore must be struck to meet increasing aspirations from a reducing pot of money.

Local authorities must work with local communities to pull out the stops which currently prevent groups such as Parent Councils who are keen to get involved to make improvements to their school. If such groups want to, for example, re-decorate classrooms during holiday periods, current Health & Safety requirements make it impossible to do this. I see no good reason why parents cannot be allowed to help improve their children’s learning environment. In many cases senior pupils are prevented from these activities for the same reasons. Perhaps even helping out with younger pupils’ after-school activities has too much red tape restricting volunteers getting involved.

Closing schools which are not cost-effective is an emotive subject. Every parent wants to choose which school their child attends. While local authorities look to find better ways to spend public money, communities need to be flexible and consider the concept that it might be unfair to other service users that a small group present a higher per-head cost to the education budget. It could be the case that if money is being spent on keeping small schools open, repairs and maintenance will not be possible in other schools. There are also the social benefits of learning within a larger group of peers to consider. Meanwhile, local authorities need to weigh up the loss of jobs for local school staff and the impact of a school closure on that community.

Whichever way the council decides to cut its cloth, it must be tailored with all these things in mind and a “one-size fits all” approach should not shape our children’s future.