Wednesday 3 May 2023

Belper Leisure Centre in trouble but needs calm, not sensationalism

 Belper Labour candidates for the Amber Valley Borough and Belper Town Council elections had a meeting last week to consider the problem of funding for the Belper Leisure Centre. We had just been made aware that the Leisure Centre financial advisors were proposing to issue a press statement in the next few days and we had to decide how we would respond to this.

Link to: Belper Leisure Centre Press release 

Pleased to see that in that statement is an acknowledgement that Belper Town Council tried to help by doubling their annual £10k grant to £20k. I know, far short of what is needed but as we set the Belper Town Council budget for 2023/24 we were conscious of the fact that local tax payers already pay the borough for leisure facilities and should not be asked to pay twice.

Obviously the discussion between Belper borough councillors and candidates centred around a rescue plan but we wanted to work towards a long term solution for funding and to make the future secure. We chose not to pre-empt any press release even though we were appalled that the Tory party leadership of Derbyshire County Council and Amber Valley Borough Council had chosen not to make the knowledge of the leisure Centre's financial problems known to the Labour opposition. We did not want the leisure centre and also Belper School to suffer from becoming an election football. What was needed was calm deliberation and a coming together of all interested parties to find a lasting solution and, we agreed to work towards a plan that had sustainable energy at the heart of it. We therefore prepared a "just in case" statement but hoped that with voter's support we could become the ruling group in AVBC and then put together a package ........... no, not a rescue package ........... but help create a sound financial basis to secure the leisure centre's long term future. 

So, this is the response from Chris Emmis-Williams, leader of the AVBC Labour Group:

The parlous financial state of Belper Leisure Centre has not formally been raised at the Council and I was disappointed to hear that applications for funding to the Council have been refused without any public discussion or engagement.

While the Council's finances have been left in tatters by 13 years of Tory austerity, if Labour takes control of Amber Valley Borough Council on May 4th we will immediately call a meeting of all involved parties including Derbyshire County Council and Belper School to explore and follow up on all the options. You will have seen from the official press release that both the Tory controlled  DCC and AVBC councils have walked away from this extremely serious situation which especially affects the children of Belper and their educational needs I will thoroughly investigate how this situation has been allowed to occur, and ensure that everyone is fully informed from now on. A Labour-led Council will also explore what discretionary funding options may be open to the Council in order to avert this crisis. In the longer term, the priority must be to work in partnership with all parties to put the Leisure Centre onto a more secure financial footing so that it can continue to provide key services to the town into the future.  

As a borough councillor for Belper I am very annoyed because in March of this year I attended a briefing in the council chamber that detailed the financial situation of the three leisure centres, Ripley, Alfreton and Heanor. I spoke up about the fourth,  in Belper but was told that there was no plan or even an acknowledgement of our centre. To sit there and have to listen to the complacency of spending over £3.2 million plus £800k to make good the hit of energy price rises was galling when at the same time the Tory led councils of DCC and AVBC were cutting back on financial assistance to Belper Leisure Centre ................... in fact, AVBC halving the grant to £40k. £4 million for Ripley, Alfreton and Heanor but only a hundredth of that for Belper. It should be noted that only Tory and Labour councillors attended that meeting.

Finally the statement from Belper candidates for AVBC:

Belper Leisure Centre is a vital facility for the entire community and essential for a town of this size, as well as providing key services for Belper School. We are disturbed to hear that the Leisure Centre is now working with an insolvency partner due to the 400% increase in energy costs faced by leisure centres worldwide. The Labour-led Belper Town Council has done what it can, but more is needed. It would be unforgivable to see our Leisure Centre close because of inadequate support from this Tory government, or from the Tory-led County and Borough Councils.

If elected to Amber Valley Borough Council, we will pursue every avenue to keep the Leisure Centre open. While the Council's finances are severely constrained following years of disastrous Tory austerity and economic mismanagement, we will ensure that all avenues are explored in terms of how Amber Valley Borough Council can support our Leisure Centre through this crisis. We will work with all others, including Derbyshire County Council and possible other funding sources including sustainable energy, in order to find a solution leading to the long term security of our Leisure Centre.

Monday 1 May 2023

Belper Town Council finances - the facts

If you want to know the truth about how your town or village is run then don't rely on the claims made by those seeking to be elected. A simple but effective truth because the last thing that any political party will do is acknowledge the success of their opponents. Whatever the yardstick, their adversaries will fall short. The opening lines of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice come to mind (please forgive me Austen purists):
St. John's Chapel Belper - Our town hall

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an election candidate in possession of a misguided belief in their own infallibility  must be in want of a financial education.”
I suspect that most of you reading this are aware that I am a candidate in an election, now but 3 days away. So do I have a misguided belief? I hope not because financial myths, distortions, downright falsehoods .............. call them what you will, are the province of those who base their campaigns on attacking those they wish to defeat, Thankfully I am a Labour Party member in Belper and we made the decision to campaign on our record and to deal only in facts. Yes that does seem rather sanctimonious but it is far better to let voters decide on facts and once they know the truth they can make their own judgement. The difficulty is trying to get that truth heard against the clamour of what a Trump spokesperson claimed to be "alternative facts".

So what are the facts about Belper Finances

Labour took control of the council in May 2019 and in the 4 years up to April 2023 have a revenue and expenditure account as follows:

All the above information is available on the Belper Town Council Website. The council tax column demonstrates how much of the councils total income is made up of council tax. In the 4 years between 2019 and 2023 the council tax precept paid for 96% of council expenditure. The pandemic limited the amount of income that Belper Town Council would have expected in normal years.

In conclusion 

It has been a difficult but rewarding 4 years. There were some nasty surprises, especially discovering in 2020 that we had to pay tax for our Coppice car park and that there is an anticipated bill for the car park adjacent to St. John's Church, our town hall. It was no surprise that we contributed £100k to the Swiss Tea Room rebuild but it did make a hole in the earmarked reserves which needed to be built back up for future infrastructure expenditures. We trimmed back our general reserve to 37% in light of the cost of living crisis but with inflation still running high in 2023 that reserve is our only buffer to protect future services if we want to keep our town tax at such a low level.

Yes, I write "low level" because, with over 10,200 households in Belper the average Belper Town Council cost per family was, in 2022/23 £1.10 per week or £57 per year. A lot of that money is spent on services that have experienced government cuts in funding via the County and Borough councils. We try to make good the loss of youth services, public transport, arts and culture groups, the Belper Leisure centre and so much more that makes Belper such a great place to live. There is still so much to be done.

Monday 24 April 2023

The Importance of Robert Owen and his links with Belper

Belper Town Council decided to support the plan to place a clock on the fa├žade of the Co-op store in Strutt Street to celebrate the life of Robert Owen and his links with Belper. The idea was supposed to coincide with the 250th anniversary of Robert Owen's birth but in 2021 we were still experiencing the restrictions of the Covid pandemic. Manufacture and installation of the clock had to be postponed. The co-op movement has been commemorating the 250th anniversary of Owen’s birth, and his belief that society could be transformed peacefully and ordinary working people should be able to enjoy education, good health, decent living conditions and recreation.

 So who was Robert Owen?

Robert Owen
(William Henry Brooke)
National Portrait Gallery

Owen advocated a day split into eight hours work, eight hours recreation and eight hours rest – and the clock’s design is split into three segments representing the 24-hour period. He was instrumental in raising the age that children could be employed in mills to 10.

Born in 1771 in Wales Robert rose to be a mill owner and promoted his "utopian socialist" ideals. He went on to promote socialist communities which were a primary influence on the development of the cooperative movement and the creation of unions.

He became nationally important through his influence on the Cotton Mills and Factories Act 1819 which was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, which was its first attempt to regulate the hours and conditions of work of children in the cotton industry. It was introduced by Sir Robert Peel, who had first introduced a bill on the matter in 1815. The 1815 bill had been instigated by Robert Owen, but the Act as passed was much weaker than the 1815 bill; the Act forbade the employment of children under 9; children aged 9–16 years were limited to 12 hours' work per day and could not work at night. There was no effective means of its enforcement, but it established the precedent for Parliamentary intervention on conditions of employment which was followed by subsequent Factory Acts.

What is his link with Belper?

Owen was an associate of William Strutt – the son of Jedediah Strutt, a partner of manufacturer and inventor Richard Arkwright – and his progressive ideas influenced the way the Strutt family developed their mill empire in Belper, making provision for employees and their families. The choice of the Belper Co-op in Strutt Street is therefore a good choice for the clock and recognises the importance of the Strutt family in the social history of our nation.

Heritage is not just bricks and mortar

Mention "heritage" in Belper and immediately people think of the North and East Mills; there is though so much more, the heritage of ideas. The Strutt family were heavily influenced by the philosophy and ideas that flowed from the enlightenment and it was only natural that they would have welcomed the chance to discuss social reforms with Robert Owen. The mills will take tens of millions to adapt and preserve so is way out of reach of local councils although their active support will be needed if a sustainable funding source can be found. It is however possible to promote the importance of Belper and its place in the development of social reforms. Belper Town Council has voted to partner with the Central Co-op to commemorate Robert Owen's birth and we look forward to a nationally significant unveiling ceremony which will bring many visitors to our town.

Finally - a YouTube video exploring Robert Owen's life in more detail

Tuesday 11 April 2023

Belper Town Council - Labour responded to increased flooding risks.

 I became aware of the changing flood risk in the Derwent Valley whilst working on the NP4B (Neighbourhood Plan for Belper link to AVBC Flood Risk Assessment) and it was apparent that Belper Town Council would have to develop a local response to that increased risk. The 100 year flood event was becoming likely every ten years whilst the ten year event was nigh on annual.

Following Labour taking control of the council in 2019 flooding was duly targeted as a prime task and this initiative was led by Councillor Emma Monkman. This is her brief outline of what has been done:

 Flooding work

Councillor Emma Monkman
When we were elected in May 2019 there was no flood policy or group, despite being a river town. In November 2019 Belper and Milford experienced a significant flood event and it was then that we realised how vulnerable we were in this area. I created the Belper Flood Watch Scheme, recruited and trained volunteer Flood Wardens, and created a flood response fund of £10,000 for the people of Belper and Milford.

I have been working with the Environment Agency, Derbyshire County Council and Communities Prepared to develop a Community Flood Plan for the Town. This is a live document and will constantly need updating which is why we need to be re-elected, no other Party can be trusted with this work.
The next step is to link in with other flood schemes and councils along the River Derwent. This will become the Lower Derwent Flood Forum and together we can ensure flooding makes it to the top of the agenda when the Local Resilience Forum meet and designate priorities.
In November 2019 7 residential properties were flooded, and several business properties including our Mill. Since then, we have had 2 other flood events and each time we are more prepared. With the latest flood event in early 2022 our efforts meant that 2 residential properties were flooded. We need to get that figure to 0 and we are the party to do that.

Now that is indeed a brief outline especially when compared with the welter of procedural documentation, notes of meetings and research that I am aware has been produced to make the Belper Town Council response to this threat. Then there is the hours of support given to local residents or standing on the flooded bridge by the North Mill weir to advise motorists of the best diversionary routing.

The River Derwent flooded its banks in Belper in October 2019. This photo taken as Labour councillors inspected the scale of the flood.

It's not just water

When the Derwent floods our valley it will be accompanied by a release of sewage across the land. In a Derbyshire Live article it is stated that the Derwent is the most polluted river in Derbyshire with 4,931 dumps (36,096 hours) in 2021. Further reading on the Top of the Poops website elicits that much of that discharge is upstream from Belper, Milford and Duffield ............ what gets dumped in Matlock can end up in houses, gardens and fields downstream. The solution to this problem is to re-nationalise the water industry and to bring back control of our environment to government. A town council can do very little in the big scheme of things but Belper Town Council has responded to the challenge and does make a difference.

The privatisation of our rivers 

In 1989  our water – something we all owned – was sold off. Privatisation has largely enriched private shareholders who have done little to invest in this essential public service.

When the water companies were sold off, the government took on their historic debts. Since, they have accumulated over £45bn of debt that is ultimately the responsibility of billpayers or governments.

We were told privatisation could do things more cheaply but water bills rose by 40 per cent in real terms, according to the National Audit Office.

We were promised that privatisation would unlock more investment but less was invested in 2018 than in 1990.

We were told that nationalised industries wasted money, but one water boss took home £2 million after venting 4.2 billion litres of sewage into rivers – over which his firm eventually paid £20 million in fines.

Over a decade, the nine large English companies have paid out as much in dividends as they have made in profits.

All for providing a service in a “market” in which they don’t compete for customers, when fines for non-compliance with drinking-water quality standards have exceeded £1.5 million over the last five years, and where we lose enough water for 20 million people to leaks every day.

It’s hardly surprising that support for public ownership of water, at 83 per cent, is higher than for any other utility. 

Labour has laid out plans for what that public ownership will look like; regional water authorities whose boards comprise local-government representatives, employee representatives and representatives of community, consumer and environmental bodies.

The real expertise sits with the workers who ensure our water arrives reliably and cleanly into our homes.

We want those real experts at the heart of making sure we have environmentally sustainable, safe and affordable water.

Thirty four years on from the Conservatives’ historic mistake we can’t wait for the chance to reverse it.

A report in the Independent in 1994

Monday 10 April 2023

Community Transport and Belper Town Council

 Belper Town Council (BTC) has for many years been a supporter of Derbyshire Community Transport (DCT), a charity that, as it says on its website:

At Derbyshire Community Transport we believe that no one, regardless of age, ability/disability, financial status or domestic location should be prevented from enjoying a full life because of lack of access to transport.

To do this we run services aimed at getting people out and about. We are focussed and passionate about ensuring everyone has access to transport that suits their individual needs.

Our ambition is to be at the heart of the community we serve and to act as the means by which local people are able to participate fully in their local communities.

Link to Derbyshire Community Transport website

The Car Club

The Car Club Ford Torneo outside St.Peter's Church
When Labour councillors took control of Belper Town Council in 2019 we realised the potential of community transport for a town that was inundated with private
vehicles and gradually losing bus services. This trend had to be reversed. The pandemic threw a spanner in the works but emerging from lockdown opportunities to improve public transport started to emerge. We had been very concerned that the number of available wheelchair accessible taxis had halved in Amber Valley from 28 to 14 and wheelchair users were reporting problems in getting to hospital appointments or other venues. Because BTC had strengthened ties with DCT with one of our councillors joining DCT as a trustee board member we started a dialogue so that when the possibility of offering transport for people with disabling conditions came up we were fully supportive. What is now known as the Car Club, backed by a group of volunteer drivers and administered by DCT from their HQ in Marehay has just started. Two vehicles have been purchased, one, capable of taking full size powered wheelchairs whilst the other is an electric car modified with swivel front seats to aid getting in and out. Both are based on the Coppice car park and can be hired by the hour for £5, with or without a driver as long as you are registered as a member of the club (annual fee of £20).  A really cheap alternative method of transport. Belper Labour councillors see this as a first step and want to increase the number of volunteer drivers and build up a regular group of passengers and make this scheme a real success. Belper is one of only 4 towns in the country to offer a car club such as this. Details of the Car Club can be found here 

Bus route opportunities

The new 147 service in King Street
Derbyshire County Council has steadily withdrawn support for local bus services and this has brought transport poverty to many in our region. Covid lockdowns did not help matters as bus passengers were forced to stay at home and, with restrictions being lifted the numbers using public transport have been slow to return. Many commercial bus operators felt unable to continue on lightly used services and it is in these circumstances that Derbyshire Community Transport stepped in to keep the wheels turning. They took over the 143 and 147 routes; merging them to operated between Belper King Street, through Ambergate to Ripley Market Place. Labour Councillors entered into consultation with DCT and suggested that the 147 could be extended into Parks Estate. DCT tested the idea and now we have a tree times a day service, as described by DCT:

• Route 143 combines the old 143 and 147 routes creating additional links 
• Improved service between Ripley and Belper – 3 return journeys a day 
• New link between Street Lane, Marehay and Ripley to Belper and Babington Hospital 
• Three new round trips between Belper Town Centre and Parkside via Babington Hospital 
• Improved timetable from Street Lane, Marehay and Ripley to Sainsburys

Belper Labour councillors are already planning more services to provide a "town service" linking all estates to the Leisure Centre, Town Centre and other amenities, from Belper Lane End to Bargate, Laund Hill to Parks Estate ............. and to run in the evenings and all day Sunday.  You can only break free from private car use if you have fully comprehensive public transport alternatives. We look forward to exploring the opportunity to invest in a flexible, on demand electric town bus service fit for the 21st century.

Driverless electric bus as trialled in Inverness 


Wednesday 29 March 2023

Car Parks in Belper

 There seems to be a lot of opinion being aired on social media regarding the issue of so-called "free parking" in Belper. It is important in such matters to distinguish facts from non-researched belief and this post attempts to provide that factual base. The main contentions are that businesses will be harmed and that poor people will be impacted adversely but first let's look at why charges are being introduced.

Coppice car park charges.

Referring to the Belper Town Council website provides us with a succinct account of their reason for introducing charges: We see that the cost in business rates is £22,500 per year (and I know that when these rates were applied by central government the charges were backdated to 2017. So not only does BTC have to pay the current years charge but make good the backdated amount which more than doubles the amount for, I think, three years (though business rates were suspended for one year during the Covid pandemic). The council states, "As a council, we believe it is fairer that users of the car park pay for their usage rather than this cost being supported by everyone in the town regardless of car ownership."

The suggested charges are shown below compared to other car park charges in the town:

You can find the AVBC car park information at:

It should be noted that there is still more consultation required before charges are fixed and conditions applied. I can see that a change to the 4 hour charge on the Coppice may be anticipated because it stands out as the only increase over a charge in the other car parks. There has to be some clarity on the "over 4 hours" charge at the Coppice - does this mean 24 hours? If it does then that is superb value for those who park there and walk down to catch a train. Compare £2.50 with the charge of £14.50 at Derby Railway Station.

There will have to be some thought about season tickets and how they line up with AVBC offer but 99p a day that is hard to beat.

Finally, nearby residents will be offered parking permits as they currently depend upon the Coppice for longer term parking. This is a good step but which streets are referred to as "nearby" needs to be determined.

Will businesses and shops be harmed? 

There is a lot of misinformation being put online at the moment, some claims seeming incredible. I read that 97% of Belper residents were opposed to Coppice car park charges and that 86% of businesses were against it. I don't know anyone who has taken part in such a survey. When offered claims like this the Office for National Statistics advise that all evidence of such a survey should be disclosed. For example, 100% of the people I live with claimed that they were my wife. I think you get the picture.

As to businesses being polled; Belper Town Council invited local shops and businesses to take part in the initial round of consultation and only 2 responded. I can well understand that most shops are not too concerned as the sum total of car park spaces is well over a thousand (600 between AVBC & BTC plus all the supermarket car parks). The figure is probably much more as I have no hardened data for the spaces at Morrisons, Aldi and the Co-op. I estimate that the Coppice car park constitutes about a sixth of the total number of spaces available. If we factor in the AVBC residents permit and the number of folk who access the town via public transport or on foot/bicycle then the percentage impact of Coppice  car park charges on business is negligible. You have to keep a sense of proportion.

There are academic studies that look at the effect of withdrawing so-called free parking from town centres and I link to them here:

Leeds University - Parking Charges

Institute for Transport Studies

OECD - The Environmental effects of parking

These  three studies clearly show that charging for parking does not harm business activity and can offer clear commercial, environmental and health benefits. Below is one of a number of summary panels which are included in the Leeds University study (apologies for the quality of the image - I used screen snip)

Which brings us to:

Impoverished motorists

Sadly, the number of impoverished motorists has grown over the last few years as incomes have not kept up with the rising cost of living, exacerbated by a steep rise in inflation over the past few months. Let's look in more depth.

Pensioners in general have the time to shop and park using their AVBC residents permits and for a modest sum can do so after 14:00. They also have the use of a Gold Card and can travel on buses free after 09:30.

Household deprivation - Referring to the data now available from the 2021 Census we get a range of data to help us assess the number of motorists who may be impacted by proposed Coppice car park charges. For a start, 15% of households do not own a vehicle. Looking at the socio-economic data indicates, (if we assume levels 13 and below could be counted as impoverished) that there is a potential for 22% of people between the age of 16 and 64 could be impoverished. This does include 4.5% classified as students. I know that income data included in NP4B (Neighbourhood Plan for Belper) showed a potential for 14% of households to be below the poverty threshold (below 60% of current median (or typical) household income, taking into account the number of people living in the household. This does of course include all ages.

So how many motorists are impoverished? Sadly, many are but how many impoverished motorists use the Coppice car park ......... that we don't know. There are alternatives as I hope this article has shown however, some form of initiative to assist those dependent on cheap parking to gain an annual season ticket would be beneficial to ......... how many we don't know.


In conclusion

There are so many facts left out of this post. So much data from the 2021 Census or the Department of Works and Pensions area income data ................ or the Department for Transport annual traffic flow surveys  and for this you could look at  the NP4B on the Belper Town Council Website, specifically Addendum 5 Traffic survey and parking or Addendum 6 - Public Transport which does include data from the 2011 census showing that 33% of the 10th or lowest socio-economic households have the use of a single car.

You see, this is the sort of evidenced information that is needed if a true understanding is to be made of issues such as this. We live in the twenty first century and there should be no place for biased and deliberately misleading information to be spread on social media.