In Council July '23

31 Jul 2023

Throughout July various committees have been discussing the parts relevant to their focus of the Biodiversity and Climate Change Action Plan Update. Coming in at nearly 60 pages it had been hoped that Maidstone Borough Council had achieved significant progress on the many action points to help achieve “Net Zero” by 2030. This unfortunately wasn’t the case with of the 38 actions set out only 2 had been completed, 9 underway, and the remaining 27 points either under investigation, planned, or not even started. This obviously begs the question of how seriously it is being taken.

With progress hampered, many of the actions running behind schedule, and certain elements of reporting, particularly financial, set out to encourage inaction (e.g., estimating prices to migrate council owned vehicles to green alternatives being reported as the total figure rather than going for another 100% petrol /diesel), more needs to be done if we have a hope of hitting these targets.

Planning, Infrastructure and Economic Development

The primary business outside of the Climate Change Action Plan would have been to discuss the proposals to expand the quarry on Hermitage Lane into an adjoining 50 hectares of woodland at Oaken Wood.  However, with new documentation being presented that day this discussion has been deferred until the next meeting. 

Housing, Health, and the Environment

This meeting saw the first of two reviews into the renewal of the Public Space Protection Order (PSPO), to guard against begging and drinking within the town centre which has been in place since 2017.  Your Lib Dem Councillors in and around the town centre are more than familiar with the good work the Town Centre Taskforce does in this regard with bringing vulnerable people into schemes that can help them off the streets and back into safety, only using the PSPO as a matter of last resort, and as such provided this approach remains the same, we are supportive of renewal.

One area that was of concern was the matter of legality raised by the Liberty organisation and their concern PSPOs and their use in criminalising behaviours associated with poverty.  Whilst sympathising with Liberty’s concerns we know through the application of the PSPO for the past 6 years it is only used as a matter of last resort.  On noting that any appeal once passed would be at the High Court and likely very expensive Cllr. Richard Conyard asked when the last legal advice was received given challenges to other councils since this was implemented in 2017 in relation to a proposed amendment to approve provided the legal team used by the council felt everything was still legal 6 years later to mitigate risk and potential costs.  The amendment was defeated with the Conservative councillors and Chairman Denise Joy voting against proposing that the legality be double checked.

Corporate Services

The Mid Term Financial Strategy report provided the rather sombre news that projections for 2024/25 are a £925,000 funding shortfall and 2025/26 this increasing to £4.5 million.  Whilst the proposed council tax rises have been widely reported, these projected deficits have not.  Since there is a legal obligation to “balance the books” depending on any new funding from central government (generally released in December), there may be a need for significant savings.  We shall be keeping a close eye on this and doing our best to ensure those most vulnerable are protected.

In the meeting it was formally announced that the proposal to turn the Archbishop’s Palace into a wine destination had been shelved when the commercial partner dropped the project.  It has now been proposed to pursue turning it into a wedding venue from a split vote.  Cllr. Richard Conyard who abstained said:

“I think this would be a fantastic venue for weddings, and as proposed would also keep access open for members of the public.  My abstention unfortunately is because of the private papers where I am uncomfortable with the figures and route proposed.  Given the deficit we have seen from the previous point I am unsure that the financial detail of the proposal is in the best long-term interests of the residents of Maidstone, and it is a pity that more time could not be given over to this.”

Overview and Scrutiny

The PSPO against drinking alcoholic beverages and begging in the town centre had a second outing in Overview and Scrutiny, where it was proposed and voted for that the additional legal review is sought before enacting the PSPO. This was passed by all members apart from Cllr. Hastie who voted as previously not to seek additional legal advice.

Cllr. Clive English said: “I am glad that we were able to move, and this time get approval for the additional legal advice from our in-house team.  It makes complete sense to spend the tiniest of extra time now than face the potential of expensive legal battles in the future.”

Full Council

The largest discussion at full council was the motion by the Green Party to create a “Declarations of the Rights of the River Medway and it’s tributaries”, by 2025 and the amendment by the Lib Dems to pick on the tributary with which Maidstone Borough Council has most control, the River Len, and create a programme of improvements starting almost immediately.  The detail of which can be read in our news article on the alliance between the Green Party and the Conservatives dash hopes of cleaning up the River Len.  After many different votes this has now moved through to the Overview and Scrutiny committee, we have created a petition that can be signed here.

Audit, Governance, and Standards

The biggest talking point was the (as of the time of the meeting), still unsigned audit of the 2021/22 accounts.  This led a little life into potentially the driest committee meeting (approximately 240 pages of accounts, audits, treasury statements etc.).  Presently the council and the members of the committee are at odds with the auditors over paying additional funds to carry out non-required steps that the auditor wishes to carry out.  Members voted to send a response demanding that these were dropped by senior management from the auditors and to provide an answer within 14 days.

Cabinet

To close of the month Lib Dem group leader Clive English attended the cabinet meeting as a visitor.  Since the previous cabinet meeting was cancelled there were a backlog of decisions to be made by the Conservative executive. 

Cllr. English spoke in favour of the allocation of CIL funding as suggested by the committee for the St Faith’s Community Centre and highlighted that there may be a shortfall and topping up funds were agreed if required.  The cabinet rejected the proposal for improvements to Linton Crossroads, despite being supported by KCC and forming part of the Local Plan review; this decision is being called in (challenged for further discussion).

The proposals for the Archbishop’s Palace were also approved by cabinet.  This decision will also be called in, not because there is an issue with it becoming a wedding venue, but because the figures proposed by Maidstone Borough Council, but kept private from the public, need further examination.