Sunday, 30 June 2013

Coalville may be in the doldrums (but with bravery and big decisions there is a way out).

No matter who you speak with you will find agreement with the title of this short piece.

Coalville is, or has been, suffering.
Our town has suffered for many years and sadly (despite the valiant efforts of independent retailers, local residents and our council) the waves of dilapidation have rolled tirelessly on.
Everyone you speak with will acknowledge that regeneration is needed.
But there is no simple answer in delivering it, along with the aspiration of prosperity for all. If there was it would have been carried out years ago.
To stand any chance , I believe , of planning for and delivering meaningful improvement we must fully understand the answer to a fundamental question.
What has gone wrong with Coalville?
The answers are many and they are influenced by both local and national considerations.
Out of town shopping
Nationally, over the past twenty years, we have seen a great increase in out of town shopping parks, not only the likes of Fosse Park at Leicester but also locally at Morrisons in Coalville, or Tesco at Ashby. Not only have we witnessed a massive increase in the number of these stores just as worrying has been the expansion of the lines that they offer.
Whilst at one time it was ‘just’ local food traders who were in competition we now regularly see the likes of the major supermarkets undercutting local clothing, hardware and electrical retailers.
Of course saying that ‘all out of town shopping is bad’ massively oversimplifies the matter. We cannot forget that the likes of Morrisons and Tesco have bought many jobs to the area and not least, for the most part, have driven prices down – something most hard working and hard pressed families are grateful for.
Many people have put the case to me that several years ago the Council should have approved a large Asda in Coalville and maybe they should.
Let us not be under any misapprehension that Asda would have been a panacea to regenerating our town. Yes, we would have seen jobs created and bargains available but let us make no mistake (as was also the case with the Tesco application, which was approved) we would have seen a negative impact on our town centre - because we have seen the impact that major supermarkets have on smaller independents before.
Internet and developing technology
I, like many others, love to read. I love to listen to music or when time allows watch a TV box set.
When I was younger I would have gone to What Records in the precinct or, at a push, over to WH Smiths in Loughborough.
There is simply no need for me to do this any longer, and I couldn’t even if I wanted to!
I can get purchases delivered free of charge the next day by Amazon, I can immediately download books to my Kindle or music from iTunes – all at a price significantly cheaper than from a traditional shop.
Of course most people who are into digital products are technologically astute. Which one of us is ever going to choose to pay more for a service and have to face the inconvenience of travelling to a store?
Let us be clear the Internet (and out of town shopping) have had major effects on the high street of EVERY small town in our country.
That is why the Government established Portas Pilots, it is also why those towns who were selected as a focus of the project haven’t seen an immediate boost to regeneration.
Simply put, the rules of the game have changed massively.
Absentee landlords
Not every impact however is national. In Coalville we have a shopping centre which is owned by an absentee pension fund and managed by a company called Workman Retail.
I hear time and time again that the state of Coalville is ‘the Council’s fault’. But the Council don’t own the shopping centre.
If the owners cannot, or choose not, to redevelop the centre or let units then that is entirely up to them.
I can say, without fear of contradiction, no one at the Council whether manager or either of the political parties who have lead the authority have not consistently sought to bring pressure to bear on the centre owners to take a more ‘hands on’ role.
Sadly, so far, that pressure has so far not brought fruit.
Parking
Paid for parking has been in operation in Coalville now for approaching ten years.
There is no doubt that parking charges have had an impact on our town and in an ideal world we would get rid of them but we should not overestimate the impact they have had, and most will testify that Coalville had begun to suffer long before their introduction.
Let me be clear. Parking Charges were introduced by Labour into Coalville and Ashby. What is less well known is that when they were introduced both Conservatives and LibDems proposed to introduce them throughout the district.
I am not trying to say ‘it wasn’t us’ but I do want to make clear all of the political parties were calling for parking charges of one form or another.
The question must be why were charges introduced?
And the answer is simple.
Car parks cost the council many thousands of pounds a year to operate in business rates and maintenance. Even ten years ago the Council were starting to plan for financially tough times and were having to question where cuts could be made.
The Council had to ask if the vast amount spent on car parks, essentially for no return (remember they do not own any of the retail properties in town - or get rent from them) was worth it?
If it came to spending a couple of hundred thousand pounds on car parks, or cutting it from another service, or increasing council tax which was the right decision?
Of course we must now ask, having seen the impact of parking (amongst other factors), how could the charges ever be reversed? How could the council take on a new liability of hundreds of thousands in existing budgets?
The answer is simply realistically they cannot.
So where do we go from here?
I have painted a bleak picture and indeed we must be realistic – it is.
But we should not be despondent.
For a start Coalville has some great independent traders who want to work hard for our town.
We have local people who are only too eager to want to spend money and leisure time here – but the offer must be right.
We have Councillors who want to act as a catalyst for regeneration and who I believe are dedicated to delivering it.
But for all the good will and hard work we face a tough battle.
I hear time and time again it would be great to see Next in Coalville, or Marks and Spencer, or an Odeon.
Does anyone for one minute honestly believe that any of these companies (or any one of many others) have not been approached or are not aware of every empty unit or vacant piece of land in town?
Every one of the national multiple retailers have teams dedicated to acquisition and they are all acutely aware of the possible opportunities that are available.
But their decisions are not brought about by anyone asking for a cinema to be built they are based on cold, hard data.
Demographics are everything to the national multiples and we must face the fact that right now Coalville isn’t attractive to them. We neither have the size of population or, for the most part, the disposable income to make opening higher end stores profitable to the degree they require. But that doesn’t mean we will always be in that situation.
I believe over the coming years we have a real opportunity to regenerate our town but it will take big decisions.
We must appreciate that the major multiples will only come when we have a larger and more affluent demographic to offer them. That can only be delivered by significant numbers of new homes being built which will serve both those commuting to nearby major centres and new jobs being created locally.
We also need to be acutely aware that the nature of town centres must and will change. We simply don’t need, with the changing face of retail, the number of shopping units we currently have.
We must embrace change to our town centre. Coalville must be a town where ultimately we want to spend our leisure time, to go out for a drink or a meal in the evening.
We need to have an offer of shops which compliments those things we can’t get on the internet or at big box stores. We need to have the tactile experience of being able to buy speciality clothing  through great local independent stores, or even something as simple as the opportunity to handle the fruit we want to buy.
But we also need to say we probably have at least 15 units (of differing sizes) more than we actually need, or will ever need, in the current climate.
I believe we need our landlords, and the council, to say get rid of those units and bring homes back to our town centres.
With new build on our town centre brownfield sites we bring a vibrancy back of an area which is lived in and where not only the residents of that immediate area will want to spend their time in.
But all of this takes big decisions.
I don’t subscribe to the view that anyone is failing in delivering regeneration, in fact I've been massively impressed by some recent developments - the new Thringstone Co-op, the rejuvenation of McDonalds or yesterday's Motorfest.

We all want to see our town thrive, whether that be the Coalville Town Team, Councillors or lately (and very welcome too) local residents expressing a view through Change Coalville.

But we must realise that as our economy, and for that matter our world, changes Coalville must go forward and embrace those changes and grow stronger.

I know that the people of our town can deliver just that.
You may not agree with me about my vision for the future of our town and that is more than OK.
But it would be great to hear more views because only by working together can we deliver real regeneration.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Coalville Twenty13 - Your Views

Stilt Walkers and Music
Yesterday witnessed Coalville's now annual party in the park, Coalville Twenty13.

As Chair of the Committee which organises the event I hope, despite the weather, you had a fantastic day.

So much hard work goes into putting on the event, not least from our wonderful team of council staff who put so much effort into making sure everything goes smoothly. I am so very proud of them for the work they did yesterday.

There was so much going on, local groups holding stalls, craft tents and community mosaics, fairground rides, circus big top, RAMPZ, stilt walkers, and a fantastic range of musical acts on our main stage to name just a few.

We always try to put on a range of food and drink outlets, whether it's savoury crepes, hotdogs and hamburgers, right through to our licenced bar or Rotary tea tent.

But we always know that we can improve.

So what can we do better?

Your constructive comments really are appreciated. Unless we know how to make things better we can't make things better!

(P.S. unfortunately there's not a lot we can do about the weather!)

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Catholic Tax - the threat returns.

Local Government is facing tough, tough times.

Councils throughout the country have to cut their spending by millions and millions of pounds.

Leicestershire County Council is in no different a position to any other. To simply balance the books the Council will have to make draconian cuts the likes of which have never been seen before.

Just like every other local authority Leicestershire County Council are looking at services which they provide that they don't legally have to and they are questioning 'should we provide those services in the future?'

One of those services is school transport to Faith Schools.

Last year the County Council looked at this issue, an issue very close to my heart, and after a great deal of campaigning and mobilisation from people around the County, including (at that time) the largest e-petition ever submitted in Leicestershire the issue was quietly dropped.

Now it is back and the only difference is that instead of the charge of £490 that was being talked about 18 months ago the cost to parents at Catholic schools will now go up to £640 a year.

Information on the current Faith School consultation can be seen by clicking here.

Last year I wrote:

'Now, whilst I do not mind paying a fee so our children are not subsidised I do very much mind when our children do not receive the same basic service that children in catchment area schools receive.'
My sentiment hasn't changed. Removing equitable access for children to attend faith school is morally wrong.

Yet I fear that this time around a petition will not be enough.

Parents with children at Faith Schools MUST take action. If we do not voice our concerns there is no doubt that these proposals will go through.

Please respond to the consultation.

But more importantly I would urge parents to write directly to the Conservative Cabinet members at County Hall who will make the final decision on these proposals, let them know as parents what you think about them.

In particular I would suggest parents write to the Cabinet Member responsible for Children and Young People, Mr Ivan Ould CC, at County Hall to let him know about your concerns.

Let Mr Ould know what you think about limiting your child's education. Let him know that you may not be able to afford to follow your faith. Let him know that these proposed measures will erode faith school education for all denominations. Let him know that if approved children being removed from faith schools will have a knock on effect on catchment areas schools. Let him know.

You can write to Mr Ould at:

Mr Ivan Ould CC
County Hall
Glenfield
Leicester
LE3 8RA

or e-mail: ivan.ould@leics.gov.uk


Thursday, 20 June 2013

Could you be a School Governor?

Education is changing.

Over the past three years every secondary school in Leicestershire has become, or is in the process of becoming, an Academy - an 'independent' school free of local authority control.

Many primary schools have followed suit.

Only around half of the schools which were part of our Local Education Authority just a few short years ago continue to remain as such.

But everyone of those schools continue to have one thing in common.

They all still have Governing Bodies.

Governing Bodies are so important. They set the strategic direction of the school. They appoint and hold the Headteacher to account. They stimulate the schools position in the community. And increasingly they are setting the curriculum, performance monitoring and pay policies for staff.

Yet Governing Bodies are not staffed by education professionals. They are made up of ordinary people like you and I who want to give the best opportunities to young people and who don't mind giving up a few hours each month to deliver just that.

Governors come from all walks of life and that is their strength. They bring their life experiences to education, life experiences that enhance the academic management skills of educational professionals.

And yet their is a significant shortage of school governors.

Many schools have vacancies on their governing body, whether they are an Academy or under the control of LEA, and are having difficulty filling them.

The very best schools have outstanding Governing Bodies and the simple fact is that to be successful schools need people like YOU.

If you feel that you have a few hours to spare and want to make a real difference to the life chances of local children then please consider becoming a school governor.

If you are interested why not contact Leicestershire County Council Governor Recruitment, they would be more than happy to hear from you.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Grass Verges - Update

I have once again been speaking with officers at Leicestershire County Council about the state of grass verges in Whitwick and Thringstone.

To try and get problems resolved officers have agreed to timetable the next cut for the area earlier than had previously been scheduled.

The grass cutting gang will be reminded of the importance of a consistent finished appearance, paying particular regard to the 'tufty' areas, notably around Hall Lane, which remained uncut after the last round of mowing.

I can also confirm that mowers have also been sent back to Booth Road, Thringstone, which was left uncut in the last mowing round.

As always, let me know if you have any issues with Grass Verges.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

County Councillor Surgery - 21 June 2013

I will be holding a County Councillor Surgery at 3:30pm on Friday 21 June 2013.

If you have an issue you would like to chat with me about, or maybe a project you're trying to get off the ground, come along to the Whitwick Community Coffeeshop.

If you want to talk about something that can't wait until the surgery then don't hesitate to drop me an e-mail at leon.spence@rocketmail.com or telephone me on 07828 194768.

It's always great to meet up with local residents to talk about how we can make our community a better place to live!

Friday, 7 June 2013

The Fox Site, Thringstone - Update

Back in June 2011 the planning committee at North West Leicestershire District Council approved the building of a care home for elderly people on the site of The Fox Public House in Thringstone.

The approval was given subject to the applicants signing a Section 106 agreement, otherwise known as money payable by a developer towards local infrastructure.

Unfortunately the Section 106 agreement was never signed by the applicant and consequently legally planning permission has never formally been granted.

Two years have passed and I am sad to see that the site still stands in a derelict and unsightly condition.

However I am pleased to let local people know that a new planning application has now been received by the District Council to demolish the Fox.

Whilst the application is a standalone one which will be determined directly by officers I am able to let you know that officers have also been asked to provide pre-application advice on the possibility of a residential development on the site.

At this stage I am unable to provide further information about the pre-application advice but will obviously do so as and when information is put in the public domain.

Hopefully we will see something done on this unsightly mess in the near future.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Derek Howe - Honorary Freeman of the Parish of Whitwick

Councillor Derek Howe
 
Tomorrow night, Thursday 6 June, Whitwick Parish Council will hold a special meeting during which the title of 'Honorary Freeman of the Parish of Whitwick' will be conferred on Councillor Derek Howe in recognition of 40 years faithful and devoted service as an elected Councillor for the village.

It is the very first time such a title has been awarded to anyone in Whitwick and comes in recognition of a lifetime of service.

For 40 years Derek has been returned by local people to represent them at the District Council, indeed he was present at the inaugural meeting of North West Leicestershire District Council in 1973, and during that time he has helped countless local residents who have experienced problems.

Derek has been a member of many council committees and on the boards of numerous local bodies - schools, charities and housing associations to name just a few - and has gained immense experience over the past four decades.

As a relatively inexperienced Councillor I have been so grateful to  Derek since I was first elected in 2011 for his advice and counsel which never fails to be of great value.

It's true that there is nothing new under the sun and when problems arise invariably Derek has experienced something similar before and can tell you the best way of dealing with them.

Over the past 40 years Derek has been a devoted servant of the Labour Party, but more importantly Derek has been a devoted servant of the village that he calls home, Whitwick.

It is a privilege to serve alongside Derek, I hope I will continue to work with him for many years to come.

The special meeting of Whitwick Parish Council to recognise Derek is open to all members of the public and will take place at St John the Baptist C of E School at 7.00pm tomorrow.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Grass Verges Update

Over the past couple of weeks I have received a number of calls about the state of grass verges in Whitwick and Thringstone.

Just going around the villages we have all seen how high grass has been growing.

At the very least it's unsightly, in a worse case scenario it could be dangerous.

Consequently I have been in contact with officers at the County Council asking for our grass verges to be cut.

I have been informed by officers that the grass is cut up to 9 times a year, usually between March and October. However, this year, due to the late snow cutting did not start until April.

This year the first cut in Whitwick and Thringstone took place around the 25th and 26th April.

The next cut was due to take place around 27th and 28th May, although that date could be - and was - delayed by a few days depending on weather and other factors.

It's good to see that the mowers have been out around the villages over the past couple of days and although the verges don't look as good as most of us would like they are an improvement over recent weeks.

Obviously the mowers don't take away cuttings and understandably due to so much growth over the past few weeks at the moment some of the grass looks unsightly.

If, however, any verges have been missed please let me know and I will take this up with officers.