Webcasts Update, City Deal & New Housing Strategy

This week sees another round of Bridgend Council (BCBC) cabinet and full council meetings, so it’s time to look at some of the key issues to be discussed.

(Another) New Date Set for Webcasting

As you might remember, a few weeks ago I mentioned that webcasting of BCBC meetings had been delayed yet again due to concerns over translation between Welsh and English as a result of new Welsh language standards for public bodies (Camera Shy).

Cabinet and council are provided with another update this week (pdf) and, for what must be the third or fourth time, another new date has been set for webcasting to start.

BCBC’s Monitoring Officer, Andrew Jolley, now says that “the requirements for simultaneous translation of committee meetings” should enable dual language webcasting to go ahead from the end of March 2016, with the costs factored into the council’s budget.

A test recording will be made next month and, if all goes to plan, the Children & Young People’s Scrutiny Committee meeting on 5th January 2016 will be the first webcast. BCBC have drafted a provisional schedule, and they’re heavily weighted towards the committees, with the only cabinet and council webcasts being those which involve next year’s budget.

Extra training will be made available to councillors and staff, and all webcast meetings will take place in the council chamber.

We’ve heard all this before of course, but considering we’re talking about webcasts being weeks away rather than months, it does look like – at long last – Bridgend is catching up with the rest of Wales.

Although I still believe all meetings should be webcast, I won’t push my luck for now.

Bridgend & The Cardiff Region City Deal

Ten local authorities covering south east Wales are currently attempting to secure UK Government investment as part of the Conservative’s “City Deal” policy, whereby city regions would bid for a money as long as it meets a number of conditions.

BCBC – as part of the Cardiff Capital Region – approved contributing £47,000 towards the bid, and were provided with an update from Chief Executive, Darren Mepham (pdf). Bridgend is considered a key part of the region due to its demographics, commuting patterns and because the county’s a base to major employers in south Wales like Ford and CGI.

The bid is still at a relatively early stage, but one of the key aims is for the city region to generate economic growth of 5% a year for 10 years, which is the equivalent of an extra £200million gross value added (GVA) a year.

The bid’s strategy is focused on five main areas:

  • Connectivity – This includes a regional infrastructure investment fund, coordination of transport policies and presumably includes major projects like the South Wales Metro (Metro a Go Go), electrification and M4 Newport bypass.
  • Digital Technologies – Wales has the lowest turnover and slowest growth rate in the digital sector of the Home Nations. There’s a clear need to improve infrastructure and skills.
  • Innovation – Spending on research and innovation remains low in the region, said to be a third of the UK average, despite a significant university presence. Idea include providing a capital fund for innovation and a collaboration centre where researchers and business would work alongside each other.
  • Skills – Too many people of working age are earning low wages or are reliant on welfare, despite the workforce being skilled generally. To meet the UK average, an extra 31,000 people in the region would need to enter the workforce.
  • Business Support– Things like tourism services and business development could be regionalised, with a dedicated fund made available.

The city region is also expected to make a case for more powers, some of which might include :
  • Regional strategic planning.
  • Tax-Increment Financing (TIF), where major projects would be part-funded through top-ups to business rates throughout the region
  • A Regional Investment Fund.
  • Power to levy Supplementary Business Rates.

At the moment, the estimated value of the city deal could be £1.28billion, with £580million coming from the Welsh Government, £120million in capital from the ten local authorities and another £580million from the UK Government.
The money from the UK Government would actually be borrowed by the ten local authorities. It’s not a grant and wouldn’t be part of usual financing arrangements for Wales.

BCBC will be expected to put £10.8million (of £120million) in capital funding towards the project, and a further £35million in revenue finance to service the (£580million) borrowing over the thirty-five year funding period.

Any risks would need to be set against the expected benefits of the city deal. There’s a timely piece on this from former Bridgend Council leader, Jeff Jones, in the Western Mail.

Those risks are significant. If the ten authorities fail to hit their economic targets, they’ll be lumbered with paying the UK Government up to £493million (85% of the capital funding loaned to them) on top of the borrowing costs. That could, potentially, amount to £80million for BCBC alone over 35 years. Your guess as to where BCBC would get the money from is as good as mine at the moment; we’ll have to wait and see what’s in the next few budget rounds.

So there’s definitely an incentive there for the local authorities to make the “city deal” work, and you presume the UK Government have set the bar high to prevent time-wasting bids. I’m just worried that the targets have been set too high. Maintaining 5% growth across south east Wales (beyond Cardiff) seems far-fetched to say the least.

New Draft Housing Strategy Unveiled

Also on the agenda for the cabinet was a new draft housing strategy for 2016-2018 (pdf), as part of provisions made in the Housing Act 2014, which includes measures to combat homelessness.
Normally these strategies are drafted for timescales five years or longer, but I presume the short timescale is due to the probability that Bridgend Council will cease to exist from 2018 onwards as part of local government reform, with the old Mid Glamorgan set to be resurrected via a merger between Bridgend, Rhondda Cynon Taf and Merthyr Tydfil (Back to the Future).

I won’t bore you with the statistics, but the main priorities for BCBC in the new strategy are :

  • Reduce homelessness – This includes providing housing solutions that are suited to individual needs and to help people access advice services where appropriate, as well as working closer with private sector landlords to improve their perceptions of the homeless.
  • Make best use of existing homes – This will include bringing empty properties back into use and encourage shared housing, particularly for single adults. There’ll also be measures to improve energy efficiency and overall standard of privately rented housing.
  • Deliver the “right type” of housing – They’ll undertake a Housing Market Assessment every two years to provide evidence to support their housing policy. This will include an assessment of requirements for gypsies and travellers. Because 67% of housing requirements in Bridgend are for single people, they’ll encourage the construction of small and medium-sized homes.
  • Help vulnerable people stay independent – BCBC will develop a single contact point for vulnerable people (disabled, elderly, substance abusers, recently-released prisoners, people fleeting domestic violence) accessing housing. The current homelessness hostel will be redeveloped, while policies will favour development of older-people housing, home adaptions, tackling fuel poverty and ensuring community cohesion.
  • Housing-led regeneration in town centres – Included in this is the present scheme under construction at The Rhiw in Bridgend (will includes social housing apartments), while more than 1,000 homes are planned for Porthcawl Waterfront and a further 100 homes for the former Budelpack factory in Maesteg. Brownfield development will be promoted over greenfield development.

Most of it is the usual hot air and buzzword-laden stuff you would expect from a local authority, managing to say a lot without actually meaning very much. As it only lasts for two years it’s hard to tell what impact any of these measures would have, or what any successor authority to Bridgend would do.
For example, “helping people stay independent” is usually code for cutbacks to service centre-based care, while actively encouraging the development of houses of multiple occupation (HMOs) is a backwards step and isn’t going to help anyone. It’s a sticking plaster solution to a serious problem.

At least there’s acknowledgement that the glut of 3 and 4 bedroom family homes built in Bridgend’s suburbs over the last 20-30 years doesn’t reflect local demand; both Parc Derwen and Porthcawl Waterfront will probably meet demand for such homes for the foreseeable future. I would, therefore, expect to see more one and two bedroom apartments/starter homes being built over the next decade or so.

If the cabinet agrees, the draft strategy will be put out for consultation shortly.