17 Dec 2008

Canal gets go-ahead

Last night at a Full Council Extraordinary Meeting on the canal, the Council Chamber at Ebley Mill was full with the public gallery spilling over into the canteen downstairs - mostly canal supporters there to see the Council make it's final approval of the project.

Photo: a view from 'Local Scribbler Russ' re the canal

The canal got voted through with seven objections and one abstention. I have to say this was a particularly difficult decision for me - there were good reasons to support this and for rejecting this project...

As many testified that evening the canal is a bold move - and for me at this time of crisis an investment of this size in the community is likely to have a significant impact on the local economy and perhaps more importantly a positive impact in the business and community confidence in the area. There is no question that some excellent work has been done on this by Stroud District Council.

The benefits by 2020 have been listed - if project is completed within 4 years - as an extra 215,000 visitors, 21 new permanent tourism jobs, 600 other new jobs in private sector, 13,800m2 of new work space, £83m in private sector investment (eg new homes etc), help to rare species plus a £94,000 multi-user trail / towpath...but wow are there risks - huge risks - the Council has spelled those out in the papers that evening - here are some from the report and other areas of concern:

- Iceland borrowing has still not been sorted,
- Brimscombe Port will have to have a developer for the site (not easy in this current climate where many local developments like Hunts Grove have been partially or totally moth balled) and if not then the whole project can't proceed,
- there are strings attached to the Lottery grant that mean we could be liable to repay the grant ourselves - ie Council Tax rises or service cuts,
- complex legal arrangements,
- there is still no agreement or plan as to who will maintain the canal after the works have been completed - ie possible Council Tax rises or service cuts,
- the impact on the project of the economic downturn has not fully been assessed,
- money from the sale of Dudbridge Depot and the planned sale of the Dursley supermarket site are earmarked for the project: my own view is that despite assurances at Council last night that Dursley and other areas far from the canal will get little benefit from the canal yet have to bear the costs,
- projects like this have a habit of costs over running especially where contaminated land is involved (eg Millenium Dome and Bath Spa) - again poss Council Tax rises or service cuts,
- some of the benefits would appear to be overstated - particularly as this is a landlocked canal: 'a 6 mile pond' or as Cllr Lunnon described it last night as a 'palatial if skinny duck pond' - there do not appear to be allowances for this and comparisons of benefits are made with those connected to the canal system
- I still have concerns that the multi-user trail will not be up to scratch - if it is not wide enough it will not be used significantly as a commuting route - see more discussion here,
- the canal route at Capel Mill is still subject to much controversy - see here - but more importantly the way this was handled raised concerns about the whole consultation process - indeed other local groups like a Parish Council have also raised this concern,
- another example of this is that the Green party back in early June submitted a series of questions to the Council re the canal - see questions and discussion here - incredibly despite at least four requests for those questions to be answered they only arrived late Friday with the Green party Cllr Sarah Lunnon who was unable to forward to the rest of the group until Monday - the day before the meeting. I have to say this lack of willingness to engage with elected members gave me very real and serious cause for concerns,
- lastly and perhaps most importantly, while this project clearly would have a positive impact on the community it does not tackle head on the greatest needs of our community or the greatest threats to it. We are using all our capital millions and quite possibly needing to borrow in the future to progress this project yet our priorities should be cutting CO2 emissions
and preparing for the impacts of climate change, it should be tackling the shocking 20% who are now considered to be in fuel poverty in Stroud District (in some local areas that rises to a massive 32%) and of course forecasts show fuel prices are expected to rise significantly and this will impact on all aspects of our local economy and communities.

Hard to treat insulation grant cut

Perhaps one of the most disturbing bits of news on the day before this vote was that the 'hard to treat' insulation side of SDC's WISE Homes grant has fallen victim to budget cuts. This is despite all the hard work to expand and promote the scheme which is key to making homes more sustainable in the future. The renewables part of the WISE Homes scheme will apparently continue as usual but there is no funding for the hard to treat insulation because of reduced funding into the Private Sector Housing Renewal programme. To date SDC funding has topped up regional funding, giving a much larger PSR budget and enabling a more innovative policy. From April 2009 regional funding has been cut and there will be no SDC funding going in either.

This was only £35k funding so it is disturbing to see this important project cut - will we see more of this if the canal goes ahead? Indeed I hope we can reverse this decision but more worrying is that similar vital projects like this will not be possible if all capital money is diverted to the canal.

Free vote

The vote was a free vote and all political parties had their objectors - a handful of Tories did not attend the meeting (two of whom have said in the past they do not support the canal) - I think the final tally at the vote showed 2 Labour, 2 Greens, 2 Lib Dems and 1 Independent against. I abstained. It would have been easy to go with the flow and enthusiasm by some for the project but I have deep reservations that this is not the best way to be spending taxpayers money - indeed more people against the canal than for it have contacted me - equally I can see there are benefits for pursuing this project. I am yet to be convinced by objectors or supporters.

Certainly talking to other councillors I know of at least three who literally made their mind up in the last moments of the vote: I wasn't prepared to do that. Some have called this brave and honest, others cowardly - I leave you to make your mind up if you can!

Green hopes

Greens have said repeatedly that they believe the £20 million cost of the scheme can only be justified if it meets key demands - listed below - we will work to see these become a reality although I fear this is going to be very difficult - particularly as a Green amendment to confirm 30% affordable housing was lost last night.

Key demands:
- 30% of all new housing to be affordable
- No loss of existing jobs and new jobs and training provided
- New buildings to be exemplars of energy efficiency
- Maximum use of energy from water power opportunities
- Provision of new or improved cycle and pedestrian routes along the length of the regeneration area
- Brimscombe Port to be an exciting destination with significant water, imaginative design and multi-purpose community centre
- Canal and river corridor to maximise opportunities for biodiversity and flood management
- Connectivity between the canal and Stroud Town Centre.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Refreshingly honest but don't reckon we should be supporting the canal - we will live to regret this decision.