“Costs of parking in local car parks will not rise next year” Councillor Chris Whitbread Finance Portfolio Holder reported to the Cabinet meeting of Epping Forest District Council on 6 December. Councillor Whitbread confirmed free Saturday parking in some council-owned car parks would also remain. He also reported £381,000 of savings identified so far in council budgets for the next Financial Year when presenting the main points from the most recent Finance and Performance Cabinet Committee.
The cheapest parking tariff of 10 pence for half an hour will remain in place making pay and display charges in Epping Forest among the lowest in the region.
Councillor Whitbread indicated that he was continuing to search for further budget savings.
Reviewing Cabinet objectives, Councillor Whitbread and Councillor Di Collins, Leader of Council congratulated staff of the Housing Benefits Service on the recent improvements in performance.
Councillor Brian Rolfe Leisure and Young People Portfolio Holder presented proposals for a further £100,000 of savings by reducing the number of Forester magazines produced by the Council each year and cutting three vacant posts in the PR and Arts sections of the Council.
Leader or Mayor
Councillor Collins invited members of the Cabinet to comment on the merits of retaining the council`s current constitutional arrangements of Leader and Cabinet or hold a referendum for residents to vote for or against a switch to the Elected Mayor system.
Ian Willett, Returning Officer responsible for referenda and elections reminded councillors that the recent consultation was to comply with current legal requirements. Only 108 people responded to the consultation and were almost evenly split, 52 in favour of the current system and 56 in favour of a Mayor. Several members of the Cabinet felt that without pressing public pressure for change, the costs of holding a referendum in the current economic climate were not appropriate.
Cabinet agreed to recommend retention of the current system to Full Council for consideration on 14 December 2010.
However, while the Cabinet is recommending no referendum on Elected Mayors, all councils will be holding a referendum on voting reform on the day of the local elections on 5 May 2011. The referendum stems from the Coalition Government commitment to hold a vote on retaining or changing the current Parliamentary system for MPs of `First Past the Post` to a form of Proportional Representation. Members of the Cabinet agreed to recommend setting aside £160,000 for next year`s budgets in expectation that final costs would be reimbursed by the Government.
Councillor David Stallan Cabinet member responsible for Housing pre-empted colleagues by making all the jokes about the three little pigs. He then went on to describe how Epping Forest District Council is set to participate in a radical new form of eco-friendly housing made from straw.
The highly sustainable design would provide four family-sized houses on land owned by the Council but developed by Hastoe Housing Association at Millfield in High Ongar. In exchange for enabling the scheme with land, the Council would gain nomination rights for tenants from its Housing Waiting list.
Straw bale construction of the type envisaged utilises new cutting-edge technology. The materials are very environmentally friendly. Councillors are keen that the raw material is from sustainable local sources.
The houses should have exceptionally high insulation levels, reducing heating costs by up to 85 per cent and related carbon emissions by up to 60 per cent. Researchers at the University of Bath have shown straw houses can withstand hurricane-force winds of 120 mph and are at least as fire-resistant as houses built of conventional materials.
Home Ownership Scheme Suspended
Difficulties in obtaining mortgages have prevented council tenants taking up grants of up to £34,000 to buy homes of their own. Councillors spoke in favour of the principle of the scheme designed to free-up council housing for people on the housing waiting list by enabling existing tenants to buy their own homes in the private sector. However, of the five grants agreed last year, four applicants were subsequently unable to get a mortgage.
Councillors agreed a temporary suspension of the scheme to be reviewed annually when demand and mortgage availability may have improved.
Epping Forest, Harlow and Uttlesford District Council`s are proposing to work together in areas of mutual interest. Epping Forest District Council will receive a report from the Cabinet recommending a joint West Essex Councils` Group Memorandum of Understanding. Councillor Di Collins Leader of Epping Forest District Council emphasised the continuing independence of each council with the benefits of making services available to each other as appropriate.