25 Sep 2017

Wirral councillors reject fair votes


I recently submitted a motion to Wirral Council calling on it to support the campaign for a fair voting system for local and Westminster elections. You can read my motion here.

The motion was discussed at a council committee meeting last Thursday. You can watch the debate courtesy of John Brace's video link.

Although six councillors backed my motion, a similar number opposed and it was voted down on the casting vote of the Chair.

First past the post is manifestly unfair and not fit for purpose. It will be replaced. It's just a question of when. Thankfully there is a growing campaign within the Labour Party to achieve this and a new report has just been published in conjunction with the Make Votes Matter campaign group to that end. It's a shame that a majority of Wirral's Labour councillors voted for the few, not the many and failed to back that campaign.

The six councillors who supported my motion were;
  • Chris Carubia (Liberal Democrat)
  • Adam Sykes and Bruce Berry (Conservative)
  • Mike Sullivan, Anita Leech and Tony Smith (Labour)
The six who voted against were;
  • Ian Lewis (Conservative)
  • Steve Foulkes, Tony Jones, Tom Usher, Louise Reecejones and Paul Stuart (Labour)
Christina Muspratt (Labour) abstained.
Below is a transcript of my address to the committee.

Notice of Motion: Fair Votes

I trust the motion speaks for itself in terms of highlighting the manifestly unfair allocation of seats in the recent general election. Once again, our outdated First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system is shown to be completely unfit for purpose for a population that is more diverse, better educated and far less tribal than in the past.

While it's easy to identify the failings of FPTP as a voting system the broader consequences for society are less well understood. I'm going to highlight some of these consequences all of which are supported by relevant academic reports:

More people vote under proportional representation (PR) systems. Turnout for PR elections is typically 5-8% higher than under FPTP. This is hardly surprising as the wasted vote syndrome synonymous with FPTP is a huge disincentive to vote. At the last local elections in Wirral, turnout was just 35%. In Scotland, where the single transferable vote system has been in use for local elections for a decade, turnout is 12% higher than in Wirral.

PR voting systems, which encourage consensual decision making, tend to reduce income inequalities. Among the 35 OECD countries the only three that use FPTP - Canada, the UK and the USA - all rank poorly on the income inequality index. The UK ranks 29 out of 35.

FPTP is the world's worst electoral system for gender balance in politics. The share of women in parliament is only 32% and falls way short of countries with proportional voting systems. Every country in the world with more than 40% female MPs uses a form of PR. Across England, only 33% of councillors and 17% of council leaders are female.

FPTP is bad for the environment. Studies have found that countries using proportional voting systems have higher environmental standards and scored, on average, six points higher on the Yale index which measures a range of environmental outcomes.

FPTP encourages conflict. Military expenditure is consistently higher for countries using FPTP and almost twice as high as for countries with fully proportional voting systems. Furthermore, countries with PR tend to have significantly less involvement in armed conflict. PR countries require broader consensus before being lead into conflict by the executive.

And finally, under FPTP, elections are determined by a small number of swing voters in a few marginal seats. Financial resources are targeted at such voters which means money talks far more loudly in our disproportionate system than under PR.

There are a few common myths about FPTP which need to be addressed:

It is promoted as leading to stable government. In fact, we have averaged one unplanned election every ten years over the last century. Countries with FPTP have elections slightly more frequently than those with PR.

Secondly, it is entirely possible to retain a constituency link under PR. The Electoral Reform Society recommends larger constituencies electing 4-6 MPs under a single transferable vote system. In this case, Wirral would be a single constituency returning four MPs.

Thirdly, the AV referendum vote in 2011 was not a referendum on proportional representation. AV is not proportional and produces similarly perverse outcomes as FPTP. In fact, opinion polls consistently show overwhelming public support for a voting system where seats match votes.

Councillors, FPTP is way past its sell-by date. It is a dead weight stifling our democracy. As the excellent Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform report into PR puts it:

"It is no exaggeration to say that proportional representation is a prerequisite of a properly functioning democracy in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few."

I hope you agree and urge you to support my Motion.

16 Sep 2017

Proposed McDonalds for central Birkenhead

A planning application for a new drive through take away on Milton Pavement in central Birkenhead has been submitted to Wirral Council. The Wirral Globe has run an article on this. The plans can be viewed via this link and inserting the application number: APP/17/00982.

At this stage, I have submitted the following comments to planning officers. I will be following progress on this application very closely.
  • It seems that access into the shopping centre has to be made by walking through the car park which is hardly ideal.
  • it would appear that vehicles would cross pedestrian routes not once but twice and this might not be clear to anyone unfamiliar with the area. I think there are highway safety issues here.
  • The landscape proposals are extremely modest and could be greatly improved.
  • Reallocating land from retail/pedestrians to vehicles would seem to contradict council policy in terms of sustainable/active travel. This is particularly relevant here given the proximity to rail and bus services.
  • Are colleagues in regeneration being consulted on this? A development with questionable scope for linked shopping trips may not sit well with existing plans/aspirations for the area.
  • There are already McDonalds outlets at Charing Cross and Rock Park. Perhaps you could clarify any cumulative impact policies that might be relevant here?
Furthermore

If the restaurant were to be be moved to the east side of Milton Pavement mall and mirrored so that the access faced onto the mall, the drive thro' access could then be taken from the car park roundabout and leave by the Birkenhead Market Service Road. 

The building would then screen the ugly back view of the market, the waste storage would be at the back, the pedestrian mall would have no dangerous cross circulation with traffic. The proposed parking would now be sited on the present footprint of the restaurant, and would be accessed from the service area behind B&M.

Doing this avoids the poorly arranged access to the roundabout, all the nebulous and conflicting circulation, maintains Milton Pavement as a way into the Pyramids, and would allow some much better landscape detailing to enhance the maintained Mall access. 

Given that there is so much parking around the Pyramids I would have thought that the surplus land would be much better used to create an attractive landscape setting for the restaurant and entrance to the shopping area. Some of the coffee houses in the precinct have used their external space for sitting outside, admittedly for smokers, but it does make the precinct look more welcoming.

13 Sep 2017

Notice of Motion: Fair Votes

A fair voting system is essential for a healthy democracy. Everybody's vote should count equally and it is a massive injustice that Britain operates under a manifestly unfair and outdated voting system. I have therefore proposed the following motion which will be debated next week at the next meeting of the relevant scrutiny committee:

NOTICE OF MOTION: FAIR VOTES (as referred by the Civic Mayor to the
Environment Overview and Scrutiny Committee)

Proposed by Councillor Pat Cleary
Seconded by Councillor Stuart Kelly

Council believes that a Parliament that more accurately reflects the views of the
nation, enabling people to feel that their votes count, is more likely to develop an
economic, social and environmental agenda that benefits Wirral's residents.

Following the recent general election, this Council agrees that the 'First Past the
Post' voting system:
 has again failed to live up to its reputation to provide strong and stable
government;
 has again yielded a wildly disproportionate allocation of seats with, for example,
the Democratic Unionist Party gaining 10 seats from 292,316 votes compared
with 12 seats from 2.4 million votes for the Liberal Democrats;
 has spectacularly failed to match votes to seats with 27,930 votes required to
elect one MP from the Scottish National Party compared with 525,371 votes to
elect one Green Party MP.

This Council:
(a) recognises that a robust democracy must include a fair voting system and that
nobody should be disenfranchised because of where they live;
(b) applauds the many groups and organisations campaigning for fair votes including
the Electoral Reform Society, Make Votes Matter and the Labour Campaign for
PR;
(c) notes that the Single Transferable Vote system is already used for local elections
in Scotland and in both Northern Irish local elections and the Northern Ireland
Assembly while proportional electoral systems are used to elect the devolved
parliaments and assemblies in Scotland, Wales and London;
(d) therefore calls for the introduction of a proportional voting system
(i) for local elections in England and Wales;
(ii) for Westminster elections; and
(e) directs that a copy of this motion be forwarded to the Leaders of all political
parties represented in the UK Parliament.

11 Jul 2017

Conway Street land: petition to Wirral Council

At last night's full council meeting I presented a petition regarding the ongoing disgrace that is the vacant land on Conway Street adjacent to the Wirral Multicultural Centre. 75 local residents signed the petition which reads:

Re: open land bordered by Conway Street, Simpson Street and Parkfield Avenue, Birkenhead. 

Since this land was sold by Wirral Council it has become a source of blight and embarrassment to the local community. We are dismayed at the council's failure to control the actions of the land owner and restore the condition of this land.  We, the undersigned, therefore call upon Wirral Council to use all appropriate powers, including compulsory purchase, to bring an end to this situation.

28 Jun 2017

Charing Cross HMO kicked out


A planning application for a 12 bedroom house of multiple application at the former pub at No. 1 Oxton Road has been thrown out. Planning officers at Wirral Council recommended the plans for approval. However, I had major concerns about this application so took it out of delegation so it would be considered by the planning committee. Thankfully councillors agreed with my arguments and refused the plans.


No. 1 Oxton Road is a fantastic building with huge potential for a high quality residential conversion. Lets hope the next application for this site reflects that potential and helps to lift up rather than drag down Charing Cross.

Wirral Leaks has picked up on this story which you can read here.

You can read my arguments against this application below. The original planning officer's report can be accessed via this link

APP/16/01372: 1 Oxton Road, CH41 2QQ. Change of use from public house with residential accommodation above to two commercial units (A1 - Retail and A3 - Restaurant) at ground floor and 12 HMO bedsits on first and second floor.

1. Precedent. While we need to consider each application on its merits there are clear parallels between this and several previous applications most recently the former police station on Laird Street. That application was for 10 bedrooms over two floors. This one is for 12 bedrooms over two floors. The Laird Street application was rejected due to its
  • insufficient size
  • over intensive use of the property
  • inadequate number of washing/toilet facilities
2. External Environment. Even before we consider the internal layout of this application its fair to say that any future residents face significant impediments to a good quality of life:
  • noise and air pollution from the busy town centre junction
  • anti-social behaviour hotspot
  • above a take away open till 11.30pm
  • complete lack of outdoor amenity space
As councillors do we want the standard of housing to reflect the existing problems within the area or do we want it to help lift the area and signal its potential for improvement. The answer I'm sure is obvious particularly as in this case we are dealing with a building of "architectural merit" as it is correctly described in the officer's report.

3. Internal Layout. In terms of the internal layout we have on the first floor:
  • two small kitchens
  • split level flooring which effectively separates bedrooms 3&4 from bedrooms 5-9.
  • long way from the single lounge to bedrooms 6,7,8 & 9.
  • bedroom 3 is an odd, irregular shape.
On the second floor:
  • also split level
  • one bathroom for five bedrooms
  • single kitchen open to small lounge
Wirral Churches Ark Project is currently renovating Mary Cole House for the homeless in Birkenhead. In that case shared bathroom facilities are being designed out. Should we be facilitating designing back in such facilities?

4. External environment. As for the back yard I wasn't the only one to notice the poor condition of the fire escape. I would also strongly question whether the rear area could possible accommodate the required bins plus the conditioned bicycle storage.
There will very soon be a new supermarket opening nearby on Oxton Road which is likely to significantly increase foot fall in this area. I know that existing businesses are very keen to see improvements in the street scene that will give a much needed boost to the commercial environment.

5. Number of occupants. Some of the bedrooms are very large. It seemed from the furniture already in situ that some rooms are intended to accommodate more then one person. Clearly this would further undermine the ratio of bathrooms and kitchens per person. I have therefore asked for a condition to be added that, should the application be approved, limits the number of occupants to 12.
This building has huge potential to provide attractive residential accommodation and would really suit conversion into apartments. I would encourage the applicant to look again at plans for the building.

6. Reasons for refusal
The National Planning Policy Framework paragraph 9 states that:
"pursuing sustainable development involves.....improving the conditions in which people live and widening the choice of quality homes."

I think this application clearly fails to meet both those aspirations. I would therefore move refusal on the following grounds:

Having regards to the number of bedrooms proposed, the property is considered to be of insufficient size to accommodate the proposed development.  The development would result in an over-intensive use of the property by creating 12 bedrooms for which, given the potential number of occupants, the proposed number of washing/toilet facilities is considered to be inadequate, resulting in a standard of accommodation that the Council considers would be substandard contrary to the objectives of Policy HS14 of the Wirral Unitary Development Plan and the principles of the National Planning Policy Framework, which seeks to secure high quality accommodation and a good standard of amenity for all future occupants of land and buildings.

26 Jun 2017

Woodlands planning application rejected

With Peter Bolt from Conservation Areas Wirral
and Maureen Moore from the Clifton Park 
Conservation and Residents Association
I am pleased to report that a planning application to convert 50A The Woodlands into four flats has been rejected. As a member of Wirral Council's planning committee I supported the views of local residents and argued that the application, if approved, would:

1. undermine the character of the area
2. make parking problems worse
3. have a negative impact on the Clifton Park conservation area

The plans included a dormer window in the roof space at the rear of 50A The Woodlands. This clearly breaks the rules that apply in conservation areas such as Clifton Park. I was pleased that a majority of councillors on the committee accepted my arguments and voted to refuse the application.

I would like to congratulate all those residents who signed the petition of objection and the Birkenhead and Tranmere Neighbourhood Planning Forum who made a strong objection to the application.

This is very good news. It sends a clear message to developers and will help protect the conservation area in future. I am very keen to see Clifton Park improved. I have been in talks with Conservation Areas Wirral about their plans to protect and enhance Clifton Park. I am supporting their calls for new "conservation area" signs at key entry points into Clifton Park.

You can read a summary of my address to the committee below.

Planning application APP/17/00126: 50A The Woodlands. Conversion of dwelling into four self-contained flats and construction of rear dormer window.

The planning officer's report is available here.

I have several concerns about this application.
Character of the area
The Woodlands is a mix of very large properties suited to flat conversions and family homes. The vast majority of homes have been retained as single family units. We need to recognise that converting these properties into flats does alter this balance and impacts on the character and feel of the area.
As Conservation Areas Wirral has pointed out; "Clifton Park is becoming seriously at risk because of the ever increasing number of flats being created in the area"
Parking
Parking is a particular concern in this area due to the narrowness of The Woodlands which is one-way along its entire length and its proximity to the town centre. A residents parking scheme is in place which reflects the long standing issues relating to parking.
Clearly the conversion of three additional residential units has the potential to add significantly to these pressures.
Impact on the conservation area
From a conservation view point the key impact of this application would be the proposed dormer window in the roof space. This would dramatically alter the view of 50A The Woodlands when viewed from Lowwood Grove.
I agree with the point made by the Birkenhead and Tranmere Neighbourhood Forum which states;
"the proposed dormer window would appear alien and horribly obtrusive in this sensitive design environment"
and Conservation Areas Wirral when it says it would; "alter the whole roof profile from the road and is not appropriate in this setting"
Even the council officer's report says "the proposed dormer is not considered to be a positive contribution."
What surprised me about the officer's report is that it goes on to say; "the location of the dormer will not have a detrimental impact onto the balanced appearance of the terrace of houses as it will not be visible when viewed from The Woodlands".
It seems from the report that nobody has considered the visual impact from Lowwood Grove. Clearly the new dormer would have a massive impact on the street scene when viewed from Lowwood Grove.
Also, I have checked, and there have been no applications to install dormer windows in Clifton Park within the past five years. Therefore, there is no precedent for such an application to be approved.
The application clearly breeches council policy
Wirral Council policy CH2 states that developments within conservation areas must "preserve or enhance" the area.
By radically altering the original design of 50A The Woodlands this application fails to preserve both the character and appearance of the conservation area.
For the reasons outlined above and, particularly, the negative impact on the conservation area, I am voting to refuse this application and urge fellow members of the committee to do likewise.

18 May 2017

Borough Road demolition begins

I've pressed hard for several years now to see an end to the eye-sore
buildings on Borough Road by Birkenhead Library.

It's therefore very pleasing to see that demolition has commenced on
schedule.

Hopefully this area will have been transformed by the end of this year
to the benefit of everyone who lives in and visits Birkenhead.