In the penultimate meeting of NHDC for the current civic year, the budget for 201718 was agreed.  Further savings were identified, as well as a substantial programme of capital expenditure. The council faces challenging times ahead as it has to contend with dwindling revenues from the New Homes Bonus and from Business Rates.

The council’s focus is on making North Herts, in all its diversity, a better place for and working.  It aims to do this by working with partners to provide ‘an attractive and safe environment for our residents’. Currently, we are working towards a joint waste collection contract with East Herts District Council. Waste collection is not the most glamorous of activities, but it is the biggest item in the expenditure budget, accounting for 45% of the total!

The council has an objective ‘ To promote sustainable growth within our district to ensure economic and social opportunities exist for our communities…’. The main driver of this is the Local Plan. It also includes a £1m Capital Enhancement Fund, for community halls throughout the District, to be delivered over the next four years. 

The third and final objective is to ‘deliver cost effective and necessary services to our residents’.  Where these services are charged for at the point of use, such as for planning applications, the fees are also prescribed centrally. However, the council does operate a very successful Careline service. This award-winning service helps elderly and infirm residents to continue living at home. NHDC is also about to launch a building regulations inspection service and hopes that this will be a source of income. 

Of course, NHDC does not have a free hand in most of the services it provides. They are so-called ‘statutory services’, prescribed by the national government. In most cases these are free, for example waste collection. Where charges can be made (e.g. planning applications), the rates are set nationally.

One of the more controversial policies recently has been the one which applies to community halls owned by the council. The policy has been to lease these to local groups on a ‘repairing and insuring lease’. This has put some pressure on some local groups who find that it is difficult to adapt to paying for the costs of maintaining their premises. It does, however, put them on an equal footing with groups in parished areas, like Knebworth. Parishes, such as ours, have always had to bear these costs, especially now capital grants for village halls have largely dried up.

So, by now you’re probably wondering how much your council tax is going to go up in April. The NHDC precept for a Band D property will be £216.96 next year, an increase of £5, an increase of 2.4% in cash terms, close to zero in real terms. Not great, but as low as was reasonably achieveable in the circumstances.  (The rest of your Council Tax is made up of contributions to the County Council, the Police and the Parish Council.) For other Council Tax Bands, see the NHDC website, or just wait for your bill to be delivered.

My experience of the Station Pub in Knebworth is not one that makes me want to go back. The pub is cold, noisy and rarely populated by anyone I know. This is a pity, as it’s a very short distance from where I live. A few months ago, word went out that it had been advertised for sale. There were a few discussions about it in the Parish Council, where we decided that we’d better apply for it to be listed as an asset of community value. Planning applications to develop a very high density development of flats have been received for the site across the road, which have so far been refused, but eventually will result in some residential development happening. In spite of the fact that this is not something that anyone who lives in the village want to see built.

On Thursday, heard that the pub had closed its doors, and the staff had been redeployed in other Greene King pubs nearby. A flurry of activity happened, which resulted in:

  • a new Twitter account was set up to tweet the latest news about the pub,
  • a new Facebook being set up that rapidly went from zero to around 600 members by the end of the weekend,
  • a new website being created, which has received hundreds of hits,
  • a mailing list being set up to collect pledges and offers to help with a campaign.

You can see the website here, where you’ll find links to all the aspects of the campaign’s web presence.

What is quite astonishing is how rapidly the residents of Knebworth could be alerted to the closing of the pub and the existence of a campaign to save it. I have always been an advocate of local politicians using social media, usually in the face of extreme skepticism from the assembled company. Although I’d like to think that this example would persuade them of the effectiveness of the web, my experience is that people can be very obdurate in their views.

The Station Pub, Knebworth

I was contacted yesterday, in my capacity as ward councillor, about the closure of the Station Pub. This is the only pub in the village, and, since it is right in the centre, was very visible.

I recommended creating a Facebook Group. I had a meeting, and someone else set up the group.

Today I found that hundreds had already joined, and a further three hundred were queing up to join today.

The rate of joining this group was astonishing. I am now convinced that mailing lists are comprehensively obsoleted by Facebook.

Some people do not use FB, but the ease of adding someone to a group is so great that there is no other medium that can work so quickly. The problem is that this only works when the campaign is something that people are seriously affected by, or at least interested in. A cause that nobody cares about much will go nowhere.

My experience of the Twittersphere

I’ve been on Twitter for a long time. Since 2007. From a time before Stephen Fry discovered the medium, and many years before Donald Trump did so. I’ve mainly used it passively. I kept my account private, and followed only those authors whose work interested me. A lot of libertarian comment and analysis, some humour, especially the dark side. I have a number of followers, but get virtually no engagement with them. They are either people I follow, and feel that it is only good manners to follow back, or people who somehow have the email address linked to the account in the address book they have handed over to Twitter Inc.

Although I have never tweeted anything very incendiary, and do not follow anyone I wouldn’t want my mother to know I was following, I decided that when I was elected I’d better start a new account for the political me. This happened in 2014, and I’ve been quietly tweeting since, without much traction.

Of late I’ve decided to integrate a bit more automation, using ifttt.com, and simply linking my Twitter account to a FB page. I’d previously auto tweeted from my Tumblr blog, but that never seemed to do any good.

Anyway, for reasons quite beyond me, my follower numbers seem to be accelerating. The threat to close the Station Pub seems a catalyst. Maybe it’s just that my odd retweet is enough to create a sustaining wave. I confess to paying a magnificent £10 to promote one tweet, but I don’t think I’ll be doing that again in a hurry, as there seems to be no way to localize the audience, in contrast to FB.

Rail Services from Knebworth - Timetable Consultation

Consultation has finished.

The consultation for the timetable for Govia Thameslink Railways is on-going but will close at 17:00 on 8th December. The proposals represent a significant change to the current service for Knebworth as the stopping trains will now all come from Cambridge (rather than alternately Cambridge and Peterborough), and become Thameslink services going into St Pancras. Most significantly, this would mean Knebworth would not benefit from the fast services as present, although there are some suggestions that GTR have already had second thoughts about this. Evenings and Saturday services may be significantly reduced and proposals also suggest that Knebworth goes back to having only one train per hour throughout the day on Sundays.

Our MP, Stephen McPartland, has made a formal response, available on his website, and the Parish Council is actively preparing one, which should be available on their website also. Full details on the proposals and how to respond are on the Great Northern Thameslink website: http://www.thameslinkrailway.com/your-journey/timetable-consultation

North Herts Leisure Centre and Council Offices Refurbishment

Work is progressing on refurbishing the North Herts Leisure Centre in Letchworth. Much of this work was essential to keep the facility functioning safely, but a new pool and cafe are included in the works. This centre, which is operated by Stevenage Leisure Ltd on behalf of the council, produces revenue for the Council, which will go up under the agreed contractual arrangements once the work is complete.

The project to refurbish the Council Offices will soon be underway. It is expected that the work will start in the next month or so, and that staff will be relocated to other offices around the area. The work is being project managed by local firm, Wilmott Dixon. All staff will be ‘decanted’ from the existing District Council Offices to Town Lodge over the course of this month. Town Lodge is also in Gernon Road, but opposite the Broadway Cinema.

NHDC Planning Portal

The council’s planning portal is being upgraded, to a more functional system. This will continue to be supplied by Idox PLC., the current operator. A number of you have noticed how unsatisfactory the current system is. I encourage you to try the new one and send your feed back to me or to NHDC at service@north-herts.gov.uk.

you when I have more details.