11 Sep 2018

Wirral's green belt: under threat from Labour

Last night there was a special council meeting on the threat of wide scale development on Wirral's green belt. Below is a copy of the speech I delivered. You can also watch it via this link starting from 52 minutes in.

The threat to Wirral's Green Belt

Green Party response to full council meeting, September 10, 2018
I know I speak for many when I say how grateful I am to Professor David Gregg for the work he has done in interrogating the government's assessed need for housing in Wirral over the next 15 years.

He has systematically demolished the assumptions used to generate these targets, especially those around the economy and population trends.

Moreover, the very latest population projections dramatically reduce the likely demand for new housing in Wirral. Professor Gregg has shown that the council's own forecasts for brown field housing on top of Peel Holdings medium range expectation for Wirral Waters plus a modest reduction in our many empty homes is more than enough to meet likely future demand.

His analysis on its own provides compelling evidence to robustly challenge the government's target.

And that is the least the people of Wirral should expect from those elected to represent them and preserve our precious green belt.

But that's not what we are getting and, frankly, this council has form when it comes to undermining the green belt.

As we speak, a new fire station is under construction on green belt land in Saughall Massie. The fire services' own figures as part of that planning application clearly showed that response times from the new station would, on average, increase

If labour councillors are prepared to sacrifice green belt for a new fire station in a sparsely populated village that increases emergency response times then they clearly have a very elastic view of what constitutes "very special circumstances".

And then there is the proposed golf resort in Hoylake. The economics of this scheme are so questionable it requires 160 executive homes on green belt land. If the cabinet thinks council tax receipts from these new homes is reason to sacrifice our green belt then people will quite reasonably form a view that no green belt land is safe under this administration.

If the monies already spent on the golf resort had instead been spent on vital infrastructure for Wirral Waters then we would be much further down the road in providing the kind of new housing that everyone in Wirral would support. 

Don't forget our empty homes and commercial buildings
Officially, Wirral has 4.650 empty dwellings. Almost 2,000 of these are classed as "long term". But this is an underestimate. I regularly report empty properties in my ward. Many are unknown to the empty properties team. 

I have nothing but praise for the empty properties team. Their response to my enquiries is always constructive and comprehensive. But, with just three full time members of staff there is clearly massive untapped potential to reduce the number of empty properties. This should always be a priority to increase the housing stock. Additional investment can be recouped through increased council tax never mind the obvious social benefits.

And its not just empty dwellings. Last year, Wirral Council submitted planning applications to demolish two of its own office blocks by Hamilton Square and convert them into car parks. Just what Birkenhead doesn't need. One can only hope the new arrangement with Muse will bring more enlightened thinking and recognise the obvious potential to convert such assets into new residential accommodation.

The government's targets are unreasonable and unrealistic
The rate of housebuilding required under these government targets is more than double the actual delivery rate in Wirral over the past decade. Where is the evidence that underlying market conditions indicate such a rapid escalation in demand for new housing? How on earth would the supply chain cope with such a rapid escalation in construction activity?

We already have some of the worst standards for new homes in the EU. Our new homes are smaller and colder than our European peers. If these targets are accepted and implemented we will inflict acres of low quality, high carbon housing, with poor access to public transport. Few if any of these houses will be affordable to those on low incomes.

A council truly concerned about climate breakdown, poor air quality and inequality in housing provision would react with horror at these targets. They would mount a principled, reasoned and robust defence of our green belt. 

All of that is absent from the Labour motion. It raises the white flag and meekly accepts the surrender of our green belt. 

For the sake of our current and future generations that simply isn't good enough.

22 Jul 2018

Claughton Road flat conversion rejected as "unacceptable"

At this week's planning committee, I brought forward an application to convert an end-of-terrace property on Claughton Road into three flats. I did this because I strongly believed the proposal was an over development of the site. In particular, squeezing two flats into the first floor was unacceptable and would create very cramped living conditions for any future residents.

I was pleased the committee agreed with me and voted unanimously to refuse the application.

I am very concerned that Wirral's failure to adopt minimum room sizes is preventing officer's from refusing applications like this. I made this point forcefully during the debate and I will continue to press Wirral Council to address this and do more to stop a race to the bottom in living standards for private sector tenants.

 You can read my speech below and watch the debate via this link (starting at 2.05.50).

APP/18/00324 – 276 Claughton Road, Birkenhead

This traditional end of terrace property is located opposite the former Cole Street School. It is already operating as two flats despite having no planning history and is known to the council due to previous reports of anti-social behaviour.
I have three main concerns about this application. Two of these relate to the first-floor plans which would see this floor split into a one bedroom flat plus a studio flat.

Firstly, and as noted in the officer's report, the Private Sector Housing Team has raised concerns about the size of the studio flat. Specifically:

In relation to the 1st floor (rear) studio flat the combined floor area is approx. 16m2 (excluding the bathroom and lobby). Having viewed the Housing Act 2004 and the Housing Health and Safety Rating System, I can advise that this flat would be deemed too small to be considered an adequately sized unit of living accommodation.
The closest floor area to that being suggested for a self-contained flat is contained in a CIEH (Chartered Institute of Environmental Health) document, which provides for:-

One person flatlet with separate kitchen
Bed/Living room                               14m2
Kitchen                                                 5.5m2
Total habitable floor area             19.5m2
 One person flatlet with separate bedroom
Bedroom                                             7m2
Kitchen/Lounge                                14.5m2
Total habitable floor area             21.5m2
 Bathroom and lobby floor area are not counted from a housing perspective.

So, the CIEH recommended minimum size is this type of flat is 19.5m2 and what we have here is 16m2.

Secondly, the one-bedroom flat on the first floor includes an extremely small bedroom – just 5.1m2. 

Bedroom 2 of flat 2 measures 5.1 square metres and is approximately 1.98m wide.  The government's technical housing standards require that: 

in order to provide one bedspace, a single bedroom has a floor area of at least 7.5m2 and is at least 2.15m wide.
A link to the standards is here:

Now from the case officer's point of view, the concerns raised by the Private Sector Housing Team relate to non-planning related legislation while the government's technical housing standards can only provide a guide line. As the officer's report says:

At present, Wirral Borough Council does not, as local planning authority, have adopted policies that regulate the size of rooms within new dwellings, including those formed through conversion. Nonetheless, the applicant's agent has been informed of the concerns raised by the Private Sector Housing Team. 

Now the way I read that is the officer telling us, as councillors, to adopt a policy that gives officers the ability to refuse applications like this. We now have a long and considerable case history of refusing applications for reasons of inadequate bedroom size with mixed results in terms of subsequent appeals. It's totally unacceptable that we have failed to address this issue and it has to be a priority in terms of the new local plan.

My third concern is that the outside amenity space is simply too small to meet the conditioned requirement for bin and cycle storage.

I would therefore suggest the following wording to refuse this application: 

The development proposed, having regard to the size of the building and by reason of the number of units proposed, would result in an over-intensive use of the building resulting in cramped and unsatisfactory living conditions that fall short of the good standard of amenity for occupants of buildings sought by Paragraph 17 of the National Planning Policy Framework.

18 Jun 2018

Why Wirral should dump Kingdom

News today that Wirral Council plans to renew its litter enforcement contract with Kingdom Securities. A bad move in my opinion and further evidence of the authoritarian streak that runs through the Labour-led administration. Witness the current consultation around proposed public space protection orders aimed at dog owners.

I have written previously about the use of Kingdom Securities to enforce littering offences in Wirral. Recently, some updated figures have been published:
These show that nothing has changed over the past 18 months. Most fines are issued in the Birkenhead area and the overwhelming majority are for cigarette litter. 

This month, Kingdom's contract is up for renewal. Here are the main reasons that Wirral Council should dump Kingdom:

1. It's clear that Kingdom continue to target smokers who account for over 90% of the fines. The contract is therefore mainly about maximising revenue rather than tidying up Wirral. I have noticed no reduction in complaints about litter in the three years that the Kingdom contract has been in operation. Has Wirral Council provided any evidence that this contract is leading to significantly cleaner streets? 

2. If there are any benefits they need to be set against the huge amount of stress caused to specific individuals who have been aggressively and unfairly targeted. The internet is awash with complaints about Kingdom's heavy-handed tactics and Wirral became a national laughing stock when Jeff Hughes was targeted for depositing three cherry stones in the bushes outside Birkenhead library (later dismissed) and Leonora Brace was threatened with a fine after dropping her disabled blue badge (Kingdom was forced to apologise). The figures speak for themselves as the overwhelming majority of appeals have resulted in fines being quashed and we are given no figures for cases that went to court but did not result in a fine. Our Labour-run council is in denial about the hurt and distress caused to many innocent and/or vulnerable people by Kingdom. 

3. How much of the revenue generated is draining out of Wirral? Labour promise that their new Growth Company will prioritise local labour but, in this case, money is being extracted from the poorest parts of the Borough straight into the hands of wealthy, private shareholders who live elsewhere. Administering environmental crime should be part of the public service. 

Why is a Labour-run council using poorly regulated private operators to aggressively target the poorest areas of Wirral with a scheme with few if any environmental credentials? Wirral should join the growing list of local authorities that have dumped Kingdom in favour of in-house enforcement.

Below I detail nine cases reported to me about heavy-handed and, sometimes, ludicrous, behaviour by Kingdom.

Case #1
B is an elderly lady who lives in Tranmere. She was accused of dropping a cigarette butt near the bus stop on Borough Road by the junction with Whetstone Lane. She denied this claiming she always stubs out her cigarettes and takes the butt home. She was able to show the Kingdom officer a cigarette butt but he insisted on issuing a fixed penalty notice (FPN).
B appealed the FPN but was sent the standard letter of rejection. She was adamant she had done nothing wrong. She appeared in court to challenge the FPN and, inevitably, the case was thrown out as Kingdom had no evidence to support the FPN.
I know from speaking with B how stressful this entire experience was and that is lasted for many months while she waited for the court case. She had never been in a court before and found the whole experience extremely intimidating. I know that many people would have paid up to avoid the stress and feel she was incredibly brave to withstand the pressure.

Case #2
F is an elderly lady who lives in a sheltered housing unit in Rock Ferry. During the bitterly cold winter weather she was concerned for a neighbour whose flat was cold and lacked sufficient heating.
She went to Birkenhead to buy a portable heater. As she was placing this in the boot of her car she attempted to remove the price sticker as she didn't want her friend to know how much she had paid. Part of the sticker was caught by the wind and blew away (this was the day of Storm Emma in late February).
A Kingdom officer approached F and issued her with a FPN for littering. She was incredible distressed by this as she never intentionally drops litter, is a keen gardener with a great love of nature.
I advised her to appeal. Again she received the standard rejection. Ravely, she said she was refusing to pay the fine and would contest the FPN in court.
The case was dropped before it went to court.

Case #3
Jeff Hughes is a committed environmentalist who previously worked for the Wirral Environmental Network. One day, he was eating some cherries outside Birkenhead Central Library. As any green minded person would do, he dropped the cherry stones in some nearby bushes so they would compost naturally.
A pair of Kingdom officers approached Jeff and issued him with a fine.
I know from speaking at length with Jeff how close he came to paying the fine as he found the whole situation incredibly stressful. Thankfully, he stood his ground, refused to pay the fine and insisted he would contest the FPN in court.
The case achieved coverage in the local and national press. Needless to say, it made Wirral Council and Kingdom look ridiculous.
The case was dropped before going to court.

Case #4
Perhaps the worst case of all when a disabled lady was issued with a FPN for dropping her blue badge. Again, this made the national press and painted a very ugly picture:
Kingdom apologised for its behaviour but how many similar cases have occurred where no cameras were present and the victim was able to publicise the case via her journalist husband?

Case #5
We had a nasty altercation with Kingdom officers regarding 2 dog fouling FPNs. I have all the relevant paperwork, including details of our appeals. 
We pleaded not guilty and it was our word against Kingdom. The 'officers' involved did not show up in court after we requested them to do so. The magistrate set another court date so that Kingdom could provide video footage. 
The two Kingdom officers followed us home and turned up the next morning shouting through our letterbox. Obviously they had no evidence, as our dogs had not fouled. The case was eventually dropped but it was a worrying few months as we would have all the court costs to pay if found guilty, which as you can imagine has caused us a massive amount of stress. 
I have limited mobility so I don't own a dog and both dogs belong to my partner who was about to walk them. I at no time ventured onto the field but was issued an FPN. I later learned that they are only allowed to issue one FPN per alleged incident which surprised the magistrates, so Kingdom decided that I owned one of the dogs which enabled them to issue an 2 separate FPNs. I hope that this company will be removed from the Wirral as they have no place in our society. 
We can prove everything we say and are happy for our story to be published minus our names. 

Case #6
A colleague told me about his stepson's run in with a Kingdom Enforcement Officer. His stepson suffers with Asperger's syndrome and was given a fixed penalty notice at the end of March for allegedly dropping a cigarette. It has taken a while to get the full account of what happened due to his condition, this is his account:
"I was walking along Grange Road West in Birkenhead and stubbed a cigarette out on top of a bin just outside Hurst's bakery, then deposited it inside through the top opening and carried on walking towards home. I continued along Grange Road West and turned right into Cole Street, then left onto Park Road South.  All of a sudden I was tapped on the shoulder and confronted by a man (who turned out to be a Kingdom officer) who informed me I had stubbed my cigarette out on the bin and it had blown off onto the street. I hadn't realised I was being followed and was quite shocked to be approached like this. I said that hadn't happened and that I had put it in the bin but he said he saw it blow off the bin and I had to give my details. I was feeling intimidated and didn't want a confrontation so I gave my details to him. I paid the fine as soon as I could, I didn't appeal as once again I don't like confrontation. I didn't even want my mum to know.

It wasn't until after I paid the fine that I noticed the printed off slip said I had put a cigarette down the drain in Cole Street. This is not what happened. I didn't tell my parents about what had happened until I had to borrow money from my mum as I had no money left to get to work. She asked me why I had no money, and It was then that I told her what had happened."
Evidence to substantiate this account is available via the young man targeted and both parents, payment receipts are also available.

Case #7
Mr X is currently undergoing investigation for ADHD and Autism, and as you can imagine this is a stressful time for him. He also suffers from learning difficulties and mental health issues. One of his problems is suicidal thoughts, due to manic depression, and he is under the care of a Community Psychiatric Nurse. Finally, he has suffered dyspraxia from childhood, and has requested a medical certificate to submit as evidence. 
At the beginning of May Mr X was fined for dropping a cigarette butt. He maintains he ordinarily disposes of his cigarette butts responsibly and has no recollection of committing the offence. He does remember that he was actually smoking a cigarette when approached by the Officer.  He advised the issuing Officer of his problems, which I feel classify him as a vulnerable person. This however was ignored. He emailed an appeal – he thought to Wirral Borough Council but the email address provided for appeals is actually to a Kingdom employee using a WBC email address. This appeal was unsuccessful. 
Several days after his first alleged offence Mr X was fined again by the same Officer. Mr X understood the offence he was being accused of to be spitting. He concedes that following a coughing fit and having no tissue he did spit. He spoke to the Officer at length and refused to give his details, to which the officer responded "it's ok, we've still got them from last time". This response made Mr X feel very nervous and somewhat targeted. When the Fixed Penalty Notice arrived in the post the offence noted was for "littering with a cigarette butt". Mr X'Neill again refutes this and has appealed again. He has also written to Phil Davies and had the standard "I'll get back to you response". In addition to this he has made a complaint to Merseyside Police regarding harassment by this Kingdom Officer and is awaiting an interview to give his statement. 
Fortunately, Mr X has been able to speak to his CPN about this matter and is supported, however he has told me that the two fines by the same Officer within such a short time period have made him feel very insecure and caused him distress. What may have been a throwaway comment from the Officer regarding having Mr X's address has been perceived as a threat. He is now very nervous about going out locally, feeling he is being watched by Kingdom. 

Case #8
It happened last year, but I'm still upset about it now, it was all a big con. I'm a female pensioner and I was alone with my two dogs. I was picking up after my male dog when a young man approached me and told me my female dog had pooped, and I hadn't picked it up. I told him she had already had a poop in my garden, so I asked him to show me where it was. He took me a few yards away and there was a large man standing over a round dried up poop that must have been there for hours. I pointed that out to them and the large man said he had seen her do it and that there were flies on it. I had a doggy bag so used that to pick it up and asked them to feel that it was cold (and therefore not freshly done) and they refused. It was only when they then asked for my name and address that they showed me a badge, which he pulled out of the neck of his top where it had been concealed. I was taken to court twice as I refused to pay the fixed penalty notice as I knew I was innocent of their accusations. I was told there was video evidence against me which I therefore asked to see, and I was told I had to apply to see it, which I then did. When I saw the video it showed them asking me for my details and showed a used doggy bag in my hand. The screen then went blank for a few seconds and when it came on again it showed a piece of grass with a hand covering what was alleged to be the poop. My daughter said the video had been edited – the woman I spoke to at Kingdom said it was impossible but at our insistence she showed it to a colleague who said it WAS possible the video had been edited. I was due back in court for my third appearance when about 10 days prior to the court date I received a letter, saying they weren't going ahead with the case. The whole ordeal was so stressful that my GP put me on anti-depressants, but there was no way I would plead guilty to something that was false. 

Case #9
It was about 3 weeks ago when I was with my daughter, walking down the road and she was on her scooter, we came to a four-way crossroads on Heygarth Road. I had my bag in my hand and my phone in the other I had a cigarette, but my daughter went straight into the crossroads and I dropped my bag, my keys, everything and grabbed her on her scooter as a car was right in front of her.  It was so scary, natural instinct is to save your child I had to drop everything as I have osteoarthritis in my hand, I would not have been able to grab her and keep hold of everything. Also, unsurprisingly, I was terrified, everything happened in seconds.
After we got across the road and were a bit further down a very big man walked past us with his hood up and then turned around and stood in front of us and said, "Can I just say something to you" then started reading me this big statement, I actually thought he was going to ask how we were. But I stood there, and my head just went blank, I didn't even know what to say as it was not purposely done he must have witnessed the whole thing and used it as his chance to issue a fine. I do also suffer from brain fog, due to my fibromyalgia, so all he was saying to me was like a big dream. I just saw his mouth moving and feel he used my confusion and my daughter's upset to get information, by saying he can get the police and during all this my 5-year-old was so upset. I did give him my information but when I got home and had a chance to calm my child and work out what had actually happened, I thought "I am going to complain" as even he could see I dropped everything including my personal possessions and he must have seen her in the middle of the road in front of the car. He must have realised what exceptional circumstances had occurred and how distressed we both were. 
Having decided to complain, I sent an email to the address given on the fixed penalty notice. I believed this email would go to Wirral Borough Council but have since found out it is actually a Kingdom employee with a Wirral.gov.uk email address.  Since I emailed the complaint I have had him following me, both on his own and also with another man, even to the school and waiting there and hiding around the corner. On one particular day I waited outside the school and at 9.11 they were still there, I looked right at them and the other man with him patted him on the back 3 times, then they got in the car and did a 3 point turn in the road and drove back to where I was, so I got my phone out and took pictures on one of the photos he tried to cover his face but I have his reg number. I am very scared and distressed, I feel they are purposely harassing me because I complained about the circumstances in which he ticketed me. I ordinarily walk home on my own past two big fields and because I am now scared something bad is going to happen to me or my children, my neighbour has been accompanying me anywhere. I know I gave them my address details for the FPN, but I never thought my personal information could or would be used against me in this way.