Jumbo: a response to the British Water Tower Appreciation Society

jumbo_april_2013Who would have thought it?

In a new blog post, the British Water Tower Appreciation Society says it’s glad that the owner of Jumbo, Colchester’s Victorian water tower, has been refused permission to transform it into a restaurant, flats, offices and museum.

Why? In a nutshell, says General Secretary, Nat Bocking:

Colchester should not be held hostage to a developer’s folly.

Yes, it’s the well-worn canard of the evil developer holding a community to ransom so he can line his own pockets.

The only problem is that it’s nonsense. Let’s deal with Nat’s points and arguments one by one.

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Jumbo – and the Coalition of the Unwilling

So the decision is now in. Jumbo, Colchester’s iconic water tower, will not be converted into flats, offices, a restaurant and a museum with a viewing platform.

Why? Because the Colchester Borough Council Planning committee turned it down, seven votes to three.

The seven were all members of our ruling Lib-Dem, Labour and Independent Coalition.

The three who voted for the plans were all Tories.

Who said planning shouldn’t be political?

What galls me about the decision is the way that it reinforces the message that Colchester is closed for business.

Jumbo’s developer had an initial application turned down en bloc by Coalition politicians in 2011.

He didn’t appeal. He went away, revised his plans so they would give greater benefit to the community, and then came back.

Only for the same Coalition of the Unwilling to turn down the plans. Despite Jumbo standing idle for 27 years and despite no other funded, viable plan being on the table.

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Campaigning for Jumbo

Tomorrow the Colchester Borough Council planning committee decides on whether to approve plans to transform Jumbo into a ‘restaurant in the sky’, or condemn it to more years of rot and decay.

Last time similar plans were on the table (2011), all the Lib Dems on the committee blocked them. Of course, this had nothing to do with the fact that our MP, Bob Russell, is patron of a charity that opposes the plans…

Fingers crossed for Thursday. Here are two videos of me campaigning for Jumbo with fellow activist and Castle Ward resident Darius Laws.

Thank you – £750 raised for Colchester Mind

ben_locker_abseiling_jumbo

Thank you to all who sponsored me to abseil down Jumbo in aid of Colchester Mind (that’s me dangling precariously in the photo above). You helped me raise an incredible £750 to support people with mental health issues.

I jumped with Will Quince – who bravely overcame his fear of heights – and the inspiring Darius Laws. Between us we raised £1,250 before Gift Aid.

If you’d like to support this amazing charity, you can still donate via my JustGiving page. Just press the button below.

Donate Now!

Colchester Council wastes £120k on website – and it STILL isn’t working

Back in April, I stumbled across a Colchester Borough Council website called iConnect.

Intended as a ‘self service portal’ for local citizens, it was built by Cambridge-based company Firmstep and went live in 2011.

It was terrible.

Intended to bring together different services in one place – Council Tax, Housing Benefit, bin collections and so on – it was a shoddy-looking site that hadn’t been finished and didn’t work properly.

Here’s a picture of it, as archived by the Wayback Machine, on 2nd April 2013 (or you can check out this test version, still live at the time of writing).

Iconnect - April 2013

Yes, it’s a basic site built on the open source (i.e. free) content management system, Drupal. I could build something similar for a few hundred quid’s worth of my time.

So how much did it cost Colchester Borough Council?

Gentle reader, brace yourself.

It was £120,600. 

Yes. The price of a decent flat or a small house in our increasingly overcrowded borough.

But how do I know?

Back on 2nd April, I submitted a Freedom of Information request to Colchester Council to find out how much the system cost, how few users it had, who was responsible for the project, and whether it would ever be finished.

By some strange coincidence, in the 16 days that elapsed between my FOI request and the answer I received, the iConnect portal received a major make-over.

By 18th April it looked rather more like this:

New iConnect

Hm. That’s a bit better I suppose.

But was it really worth the £120.600 revealed by my FOI request?

In short, no.

The other month I registered and tried to connect my Council Tax account with my profile.

I couldn’t work out how to do it for the life of me.

So I got in touch with the Council who did it for me.

So much for a service that’s supposed to cut down on staff time.

Then I tried to pay my Council Tax.

I couldn’t. When I clicked the link that reads ‘Make a payment’, I got a screen that looks like this.

not found

What that means is that the script needed to create the payment form isn’t on the server – or it isn’t in the right place.

So the system designed to help simplify Council Tax payments won’t let you, er, pay your Council Tax.

So I let Colchester Council know via Twitter that it was broken. That was on 21 June – nearly 3 months ago.

Incredibly, the system still doesn’t work. I tried to use this system to pay my Council Tax this morning. I couldn’t. I got the same error.

Which makes me wonder. How many of the supposedly 3,420+ registered users actually use the site?

Not many. It doesn’t work. Why would you?

It gets worse though. IConnect has a portal that supposedly allows you to create petitions.

That’s important. It’s much simpler to get support from online petitions than the paper versions. But, as I found when I campaigned for the Council to allow its meetings to be recorded by members of the public, petitions created by most free online sites aren’t valid – and aren’t accepted.

So surely the Council’s own system solves that problem?

Maybe it would – if some of the £120,000+ had been invested in a system that actually works.

A couple of weeks ago, fellow Conservative activist Darius Laws attempted to create a petition on the site, calling for people to swing behind plans to turn our water tower, Jumbo, into a ‘Restaurant in the Sky’.

The site flashed up a message saying the petition would be moderated. He got no email confirmation. And has heard nothing since.

Similarly, on Sunday, I tried to set up a petition calling for significant changes to Colchester’s Council Tax Support scheme.

I got the same message about moderation. And have heard nothing. I set up the petition elsewhere.

So what has £120,000+ of our money achieved.

A site for paying Council Tax that won’t let you pay your Council Tax.

A portal for creating petitions that won’t let you create petitions.

Value for money, eh?

And who’s responsible for this appalling waste of cash?

According to the FOI:

The Portfolio holder for ICT is Cllr Paul Smith

Yes. The current Liberal Democrat portfolio holder for Business and Resources.

If you’re as outraged as I am at this waste of public money – which would have more than covered the shortfall needed by Abbots Activity Centre, closed down by the Lib Dem led cabinet last week – I suggest you email Councillor Smith.

His email address is: cllr.paul.smith@colchester.gov.uk

A letter to Mile End Councillors about Council Tax Support

Dear Mile End Councillors,

I was disappointed to read Colchester Council’s Council Tax Support consultation questionnaire, here: http://surveys.essexinsight.org.uk/TakeSurvey.aspx?PageNumber=1&SurveyID=76LInpl&Preview=true

I believe Tendring Council has two pre-conditions to claiming that should be adopted here:

1) A residency requirement of 5 years

2) Further reductions of support payable to those who haven’t worked for 3 years, but who are able to work.

If we were to adopt the same policy, we could offer higher rebates to local people on low incomes. (Currently CBC is consulting on making low income people pay up to 35% of their Council Tax. Tendring is consulting on making them pay up to 20% – the current levy charged by Colchester).

We would also relieve some pressure on housing stock, particularly as the borough would be less attractive to London Boroughs who relocate people on their own housing waiting lists.

Could you let me know if you, as my ward councillors, have any views on this. And whether you are willing to support these changes – and press for a fresh consultation that takes them into account.

Kindest wishes,

Ben

Why Colchester’s Council Tax Support costs us too much

Colchester Council is failing low income local people through the Council Tax support system – and now it is considering ways of making them pay more.

How so?

The Council is currently running a consultation on the way it delivers Local Council Tax Support.

The only problem is that there are important questions it doesn’t ask. Questions that could save us a significant amount of money, and start to relieve pressure on our social housing stock. And help local people with low incomes.

If you fill in the questionnaire, the only substantive questions you are asked are how satisfied you’d be if all working age adults had to pay up to 35% of their Council Tax, instead of the current 20% – and to what extent you agree those unable to work should still pay 20%.

Compare this to a similar consultation being run by neighbouring Tendring Council.

Tendring residents who have very low incomes pay only 10% of their Council Tax. Tendring Council asks whether you think this should be increased and, if so, whether it should go up to 15% or 20%.

So, hang on. Let’s get this straight.

  • Lib-Dem run Colchester is consulting on whether to make low-income people pay up to 35% of their Council Tax
  • Tory run Tendring is consulting on whether to make low-income people pay up to 20% of their Council Tax

Wow. Tendring’s Council Tax charges must be stonking if they’re to pay for that. They’re already shelling out a higher proportion of claimants’ bills.

But what’s this? Tendring charges households less Council Tax than Colchester. Here are the highest and lowest figures for a Band B property in each area.

Council Band B (Highest) Band B (Lowest)
Colchester £1,207.01 (Fordham) £1,143.24 (Colchester/Layer Marney)
Tendring £1,191.65 (Alresford) £1,129.26 (Clacton)

So what is Tendring doing differently that allows it to give more support to people on low incomes, and keep Council Tax bills lower for everyone else?

The clue is in two questions asked in their consultation – two questions missing from Colchester’s.

  • In the current scheme there are residency rules that limit awarding LCTS to those residents who have resided in Tendring for at least 5 years as at the date they apply. Do you agree that the residency rules remain?
  • The current LCTS scheme has the condition that a further 25% reduction of CTS for those who have been claiming JSA for 3 years or more.  Those deemed capable of work by the Secretary of State but who haven’t worked for 3 years or more. Should we retain this LCTS scheme condition?

Currently Tendring will not give you Local Council Tax Support unless you are truly local – having lived in the area for five years or more. It’s a great way to preserve the support for local people who need help, as well as to ease pressure on demand for social housing.

It’s an essential move, given that London Boroughs regularly move people on their housing waiting list to Essex.

By refusing these people LCTS, Tendring becomes uneconomical for them to move to. Colchester on the other hand is a light touch – you’ll get your Council Tax benefit straight away, even if you’ve lived here a week.

Similarly, while Tendring is refusing to shell out for people who are capable of work – but who haven’t worked for three years or more – Colchester happily shoulders this burden on our behalf.

So, if you’re unlucky enough to be out of work, and you’re desperately looking for a job – watch out for a bill of up to 35% of your Council Tax from Colchester Borough Council.

And if you’re paying full Council Tax already, ask yourself why your contributions are funding the people London boroughs don’t want – and the people who don’t want to work. Then ask why your bill is higher than your neighbours in Tendring.

I will be writing to my local councillors, including Anne Turrell – leader of Colchester Borough Council – asking why  questions about residency and the long-term jobless have not been included in the Colchester consultation. You can write to your own councillor too – their details are here.

 

Why Colchester Council really closed Abbots?

I’ve just got back from a meeting of Colchester Council’s Cabinet. 

Every single cabinet member – Lib Dem, Labour and Independent – voted to close Abbots Activity Centre.

In a packed meeting, which saw impassioned and deeply moving speeches from the elderly, vulnerable and community-minded, the cabinet came in for a lot of stick.

They entered to a wall of booing, and they were continually accused that their decision to close Abbots was a done deal.

And so it was. And Colchester’s only DDA-compliant activity centre will be axed.

But why?

The justification was Continue reading

Empty properties cost Colchester £600,000 – and rising

Colchester Council has forked out over £600,000 in business rates on its portfolio of empty commercial properties – and the figure is rising fast. 

These figures have been supplied by the Council, in response to a Freedom of Information request I made recently via Whatdotheyknow.com.

The staggering levels of waste come at a time when the Council is trying to cut costs by slashing valued public services, such as closing Abbot’s Activity Centre to save £74,000 per year.

The lion’s share of the expenditure has been frittered on various commercial premises within the old Keddie’s building on Queen Street. A recent Gazette investigation uncovered this black hole in the Council’s finances, inspiring me to find out how much more money is being wasted on business rates.

If you like your blood pressure on the high side, the results make interesting reading.

Here are some headline figures and stats. Continue reading