HOTSEAT: Swindon Council leader David Renard answers your questions
YOU’VE been sending us your questions all week, and today we put them to Swindon Council leader David Renard, as he took to the Hotseat.
Here’s what he had to say to your burning questions.
Q. You have been leader of the council for almost a year. What are you most proud of in that time and what are you least proud of?
A. The thing I’m most proud of I think is probably quite straight-forward and that’s the UTC. I initiated that when I was cabinet member for children’s services and to see it coming to fruition is very pleasing, and I think will be a huge boost for the town and our young people.
The least proud, well, considering we’ve been managing reducing budgets, I think things have gone reasonably well over the last year. I don’t think there’s anything that we’ve got particularly wrong. I honestly can’t think of anything that I think has gone badly, or worse than it could have done. Perhaps that’s for others to judge.
Q. Given it has taken so long for the mayor to face the standards committee for something he is alleged to have said six months ago, do you feel it needs reforming?
A. It does need reforming and in fact, we’ve been working on that over the last few months, with two independent people who used to work for the Standards Board of England when it was in existence. They’ve done a thorough review and they are in fact presenting their findings to the Standards Board tonight. They’ve made some recommendations, and the most important is timeliness of hearing applications. I think everybody agrees when someone is accused of something, whether they are found guilty or not guilty, it is in everybody’s interests that the outcome is arrived at as quickly as possible and they are making some recommendations in order to improve some of these complaints.
Q. Do you see Swindon getting a university in the near future?
A. I don’t think we’ll get a university in the near future, however, both our city bid and our SEP (Strategic Economic Plan) bid do focus quite heavily on higher education and how we can improve Swindon’s offer. We have a resident population that on average, is not as well qualified as most other parts of the country, ad we do need to do something to address this. Successive governments have not been willing to fund a full blown Swindon university and over the years, we’ve tried a number of ways of encouraging existing universities into the town without much success. We have got a higher education strategy and we intend on delivering that and improving the offer as much as we can.
Q. Do you feel having Eric Pickles as Local Government Minister is a hindrance? I ask as it seems most people who I know who vote Tory are not voting for them again this year because of Pickles’ approval of Ridgeway Farm.
A. I think some of the proposals that have been put forward in terms of local government reform have been positive, however, I have not agreed with many of the proposals and suggestions that have come forward from the DCLG and I particularly dislike central government trying to control local government by dictating the policies they should introduce. I feel 57 councillors are allocated locally to represent the Swindon communities - those 57 councillors should decide how best to run the council and their town, and allocate resources in the best interests of residents.
Q. With more than 20,000 houses to be built in Swindon in the next 15 years, what is being done to enable the roads to deal with the inevitable gridlock which will hit them, especially at the A420 and A419?
A. We are addressing that and again, the bid we’re putting into government makes it clear as part of the Eastern Villages development that improvements need to be made to the roads infrastructure, particularly around the White Hart roundabout. Yes, we acknowledge when new houses are being built the appropriate road infrastructure needs to be put in place before the development is completed.
Q. Do you think the mayor should have resigned when the accusations were first made about what he said?
A. The mayor has addressed the allegations and therefore it’s a matter for the Standards Committee and for the mayor to make a judgement.
Q. Was spending £15m on a car park (Kimmerfields) the best use of public money?
A. It was a very good use of public money because it proposes to open up the £350m development that will be Kimmerfields. Also, it enables us to replace some of our old, aging car parks, which are inadequate and do not meet modern standards, so we can continue the redevelopment of the town centre.
For years, people have been complaining about the Wyvern car park and the Carlton Street car park, and with the Wyvern in particular, people have complained about the access ramps up to the higher levels not being wide enough for large, modern vehicles. People also don’t feel safe in them, there’s a whole host of reasons for replacing it with a modern, brightly lit car park, that will enable the Kimmerfields development to come to fruition. It is being well used - everybody who lives in the sheltered housing scheme has a parking space in there, and a number of businesses have relocated from other car parks because a lot of our businesses buy parking spaces in bulk from us. A lot have moved in there, but I couldn’t tell you on a day to day basis how full it is, but it is well used.
Q. Why was the loss of £400,000 on the failed wi-fi scheme not sent to the police and why has no one been punished or lost their job?
A. The police have been asked to look at wi-fi on two occasions and they’ve looked at the evidence and decided there is no case to answer. The Scrutiny Committee spent many months looking at what happened and came to their conclusions. It’s in the report, I don’t think there’s anything I can add to what was a very thorough report.
Q. Why has the council failed the residents of Taw Hill by not bringing the proposed works by Thames Water and Optimise to the planning committee to ensure that the residents are protected from the hazards of 12 months of heavy traffic in streets that are not suitable for buses let alone HGVs?
A. Representing a ward (Haydon Wick) that has had flooding problems, I know how important it is to protect residents from foul water flooding in the future, therefore, if Thames Water feel they need to carry out works that will prevent future flooding, then I think we should allow them to protect residents in that way. Thames Water do have statutory powers, their only objection is to inform the council they intend to do the works. From what I’ve seen and heard, they are conducting these works in a safe manner and will want to conclude them as soon as possible.
Q. How do you justify that people like us have to pay £4.15 per week for a Homeline Service we do not have, or want, but still have to pay for it, and we are 70 and 68 years old?
A. I suspect this has come from tenants living in a sheltered housing scheme who are reasonably able bodied. If you live in a sheltered council scheme, you have to make a contribution to the communal facilities, whether it be the lounge lighting, the stairwells, or halls, or in this case, the Homeline service. That is just part of the terms and conditions of living in a council sheltered scheme and this would have been made clear in the tenancy agreement.
Q. Lots of local interest exists in your plan to lease off all local leisure facilities. Why are you even prepared to risk losing these to a redevelopment clause, when very simple covenants can be included in leases to ensure these facilities revert to the Borough in the event the private sector cannot make enough profit from any one of them?
A. At the moment, we’re in the tender stage. Any lease that’s drawn up will have suitable wording to protect the best interests of the council and the taxpayers of Swindon. We’ll be asking to protect these interests in any contract that is agreed.
Q. A lot of people have said that the council carries out consultations but after a decision has been made. As a result, are the consultations just a waste of time and money?
A. I would dispute that. I can give some examples of when decisions have been made and changed as a result of consultations. The most recent example is around the green waste charges. Originally, the proposal was to charge £35 for a bin and £35 for a year. The clear message in the consultation and from residents was that £70 in the first year was unacceptable so the recommendations were revised and we introduced a £40 charge for the year and included the bin as part of the first year’s subscription.
In some cases though, the contract is contractually obliged to consult on certain issues and there may not be any choice on what we’re consulting on, but because we’re legally obliged to consult, we have to do so. Schools is probably a good example. If we propose a new school somewhere, the law requires us to consult on it, but if we’ve already identified there is a demand in that area for school places and we’ve identified a suitable piece of land, in all probabilities, we wouldn’t have much choice to alter the original recommendations we’ve gone out to consultation on.