Richard Webber Oxfordshire County Councillor

Come on Oxfordshire Highways – sort it all out!

Spare a thought for hard-pressed Highways Officers – mostly themselves residents of Oxfordshire, but as likely to get caught up in traffic as any of us. The pressures they are under are immense…..
…from Government, hell-bent on growth, particularly in economically successful Oxfordshire, demanding that ways are found of coping with tens of thousands of extra houses and the car journeys they generate.
….from District Councils, themselves under pressure from Government to find places for all the houses.
….from residents, tired of early morning and evening gridlock.
….from businesses, from environmentalists and from local councillors – all with their own interests and motivations – some admirable, some less so.
Then there are calls for new roads and by-passes, calls to fix potholes, calls for more buses and cycleways, and a Council with only a fraction of the money needed to do any of it.

 

But things are changing…
Faced with housing applications, one on top of another, all pouring vehicles onto a stressed highway system, options for local, small-scale traffic solutions are running out. The implications of an application on a wider area are now being reflected in Council responses. Recommendations to reject housing applications are beginning to happen where they would have been accepted a year or two ago.
Thus the 500 houses destined for Marcham have now been reduced to 90 on the basis of traffic and air Quality impact. The OC traffic survey in Sutton Courtenay has resulted in recommendations to refuse applications in Sutton Courtenay on the grounds of cumulative impact on congestion at Culham. The 900 houses allocated for North Abingdon have only been allowed because of the guaranteed long-awaited funding to make Lodge Hill a 4 way junction.

 

So where are we going?...
And with this change of emphasis, even more interesting conversations are taking place. Is more road building going to solve the problem? New roads generate more traffic.
The hard fact is that there are too many cars on our roads already.
So how do we get people out of cars?
Would our money be best spent on better bus services, better cycle ways and better trains?
What about in and out trams to Oxford City centre with a car free zone, and make all Park and Rides multi-storey?
Electric cars replacing all petrol cars? It is no longer a pipe dream – I expect to live to see it. Even a society where people no longer own cars but call up driverless vehicles when they need them. With a fixed number of publicly owned vehicles on a road system no more complex than the present.
It was all science fiction 10 years ago – our children and grandchildren may well know nothing else..


On Elections. . . generally!

It may surprise some to hear that I do not like the whole business of elections. I don’t like cold-calling. I don’t like trying to persuade people who do not want to be persuaded. I don’t like invading people’s privacy. I don’t really like any of it and yet I have been doing little else since the beginning of February. So thank you to all those who voted for me on May 4th and thank you to the overwhelming number of people of all political persuasions who were pleasant and gave me some time on the doorstep.

 

Brenda from Bristol summed up the general election on day one, but where Brenda got it wrong was in assuming, as many of us did, that it was all going to be a bore and a foregone conclusion. However you may feel about the outcome, “boring” it most certainly wasn’t.

 

Trying to predict the impact of the general election result on local politics is almost impossible. For example, how will it affect the likelihood of Oxfordshire going Unitary? And how will it affect the government’s approach to austerity and the funding of local government? How will it affect the process of Brexit, the funding of scientific research and the position of Oxfordshire’s EU nationals? How will it affect housebuilding and growth?

 

I fear that until the answers to some of these questions become clearer, local government is going to find itself in a state of semi-paralysis. As I write, it seems that one way out would be another general election. But as I said, I hate elections.


Monthly Newsletter

No sooner have we finished one election, we are into another.

 

"Not again!” has already gone down in the political annals of 2017. The purdah period rules (where what can be said is strictly limited during elections) mean that I will keep my comments to generalities and, for the next 3 weeks, keep my opinions to myself.

 

“Spoilt papers “

How these are decided is down to the Returning Officer who makes his decisions based on whether or not the voter has made his/her intention clear. Of the dozen or so spoilt papers I saw, one artistic voter had 3 miserable faces in my opponents’ boxes and a smiley face in mine. A clear intention displayed? Not so, said the Returning Officer. And the lesson? Full marks for creativity but if you want your vote to count, better to put a cross like everyone else.

 

“Catching up”
I have a sizeable to do list which has built up over the last few weeks and am starting to make some inroads into it. Please be patient, but if you have any concerns, ring or send an email and I will make sure you are on the list.

 

“Thanks”
Thank you to everyone who voted for me. And to those who voted for my opponents, please be assured that I will be working for everyone for the next four years. Although, if I have my way we will have gone “Unitary” well before then. At which point, we will be back for yet another election!


Fair Deal for Sutton Courtenay – (and Appleford!)

The new Forum set up between residents of Sutton Courtenay Action Group. the Parish Council and the District Council is beginning to show signs of bearing fruit. Whilst we wait for the East Sutton Courtenay application to return to the Planning Committee, the Local Plan Part 2 is published which for once holds no unpleasant surprises for Sutton Courtenay. It seems that there is a growing realization by County and District Council that the village has had a tough time of it for some years and the cumulative impact of all planning developments is being taken seriously. The County Council is about to embark on a detailed traffic analysis at Culham Bridge to try to understand the impact of any development on that pinch point.

 

The calm, reasoned approach of all those behind Sutton Courtenay Action Group has certainly been a major contributor to this change in approach. With the continued pressure for ever more house building, they will need the continued support of all residents in coming months.

 

Didcot Garden Town
One of the perceptions around the planning process – be it District Housing or County Highways and infrastructure - is that planning is something that is “done” to people by authorities behind closed doors. If the Didcot Garden Town project is to succeed, it is surely essential that the authorities listen carefully to the needs and aspirations of all residents in the surrounding villages. “Consultations” must be just that and not used as a box ticking exercise as authorities do exactly what they wanted to do in the first place.

 

As a passionate supporter of Neighbourhood Planning as a way of taking out some of the angst around planning, it is essential that authorities listen to local people. They have information on how their villages and towns function as communities that no authority could possibly be expected to know. By allowing local people into the conversation at an early stage, better functioning communities will result. I am not sure that traditional County and District planners really “get” that message. Didcot Garden Town has potential benefits as well as threats to surrounding villages. It is important that residents stay involved to make sure their voices are heard.


OCC Budget.

It is a sad fact that the voices that speak up to defend Adult Social Care(ASC) are fewer and quieter than those speaking up in defence of Children’s Services. Compared to the army of protestors lined up outside the OCC offices on budget day 2016, this year was peace and quiet.
Yet, as so many of us are living to extreme old age, the pressure on the ASC budget is increasing fast. As a proportion of the overall budget ASC is already much the largest component. This is why Government decided to allow Councils to raise an additional 3% on Council Tax per year for two years. OCC, in their wisdom, have used some of that money to support the general budget – an opportunity missed - in my view. A suggestion that by borrowing £10m while interest rates are low, so that many of the potholes in our roads could be fixed quickly was defeated as “too risky”. The administration’s budget proposals were passed – albeit narrowly (31/29) and with the support of 2 of the independents.
In an otherwise calm and uneventful budget day, one piece of potentially exciting news is the likelihood that a major review of the County’s property portfolio will yield many millions – something many of us have been asking for, for a long time.

 

Unitary
It seems that Government has effectively ruled out a Combined Authority (with Mayor), is no longer interested in a 3 Unitary solution for Oxfordshire, and that Devolution deals are not likely to be on offer. This is behind the apparent U turn by the Leaders of VWHDC and SODC who are now in full support of the single Oxfordshire Unitary solution. The pressure is building on those still resisting to join the table for fear of missing out on the benefits. As you may imagine, I am delighted.


Unitary Government – time for Oxfordshire residents to decide.

It was confirmed by both sets of the expensively-commissioned experts that Oxfordshire’s local government is badly in need of improvement and that unitary government in some form is the obvious way forward. The estimated savings from forming a single Unitary Council (replacing the present County and 5 District Councils) amount to more than £20m every year.

 

When the issue is explained to residents, almost all I have spoken to respond “Surely. It’s a no-brainer. So why are we not getting on with it?”

 

There seems to me to be two types of argument that are raised against a single Oxfordshire unitary solution. The first type all boil down to Councils and Councillors desperately arguing for self-preservation. The second group of objections is more worthy of an answer.

 

With large councils comes a reduction in democratic accountability. But how many of us know our District or County Councillor? How many of us even know what the different councils do? I certainly didn’t before I got directly involved. At present there are 63 County Councillors. The experts reckon there would be 120 Unitary Councillors in a one Oxfordshire Unitary Council. In other words, each Councillor would be responsible for half the number of people. Councils would no longer be able to pass the buck between each other. There would be one council responsible for all local services, one council to make the big necessary decisions and one council to blame if things go wrong. In my view, that would give local government more not less democratic accountability.

 

Every day we delay in going Unitary wastes public money – that is the money that you and I pay in our council tax. £20 million of savings every year is the equivalent of £60,000 every day – the equivalent of what it takes to fill many potholes and to support a Children’s Centre or two of the bus services we are about to lose. Can we really afford to delay further? As someone who has spent the past four years facing the dreadful choices that austerity has offered, I have to ask - is the prevarication any longer morally justifiable?

However you feel on this issue, I very much hope that all residents of Appleford, Milton, Sutton Courtenay, Drayton, Marcham and Shippon will join me on entering their views on the OCC website where a consultation is about to begin. It is about time that ratepayers rather than councils or councillors should be allowed their say.