On Thursday, Shropshire Council rejected plans to invest in upgraded LED streetlights. There is a danger that many streetlights will go out as old sodium lamps fail. The rejection by Conservative councillors also means that street lighting will cost taxpayers more in the long run. The Conservatives also rejected proposals to work with parish councils on environmental improvements.
Last Thursday, Shropshire Council agreed its financial strategy for the next five years. It also agreed the budget for 2018/2019 and a near 6% jump in council tax. These are tough times. There is a lot of uncertainty about the council’s future budget. The Lib Dem group on the council put forward amendments to the budget which would have saved money and improve the environment. They were rejected by the Tory leader and Conservative group, though not all Tories were happy with doing that.
Our first amendment concerned streetlights. Shropshire Council maintains nearly 19,500 streetlights. Of these, more than 8, 500 are low pressure sodium (SOX) lamps – the ones that glow orange when lit. These are being replaced by LED lights but it will take 20 years to complete if the current council policy for replacement continues at its current pace. We want to speed up the replacement programme and complete the conversion of 7,500 lamps in three years.
LED lights consume up to 70% less electricity and cost less to run. They have a working life of around 25 years. In contrast, SOX lights are energy hungry and can fail after just three years. Worse, SOX lights will not be manufactured after the middle of next year. It obviously makes sense to replace our SOX lamps right away.
Our proposal was to either use money from Shropshire Council’s huge capital reserves to replace the lamps or borrow the cash at a low interest from the Public Works Loans Board. The council’s finance officers reviewed our case and agreed that our sums made sense. It was estimated that our proposal would save about £49,000 a year. The council could get as much as a 7.5% return. It would also give the council greater control over when the lights are turned on and off.
Our proposal asked the Cabinet to draw up a business case before a final decision period but Peter Nutting would have none of it, saying “it was a lot of money” to spend.
The proposal was voted down by the Tory group. They simply don’t want safe low cost investments like this. They prefer high risk, expensive investments like shopping centres in Shrewsbury.
Our second amendment sought to restore funding for Environmental Maintenance Grants. These are grants to smaller parish councils for the smaller improvements to highways and public areas that don’t get dealt with by Shirehall. A recent council working group concluded that the grant scheme should continue. The working group found the council’s money was amplified two or three times over by parish council funds. The grants also encouraged and enabled local councils to do projects that otherwise could not be realised.
The working group recommended a budget of £110,000. Our amendment argued that this should retained for the next financial year to support the parish councils. During that year, the future of the grant could again be reviewed. Some Conservatives supported this but Peter Nutting wasn’t having it. He said there should be another review and we can see what happens afterwards. That means no money for the parish councils next year and no realistic prospect of funding thereafter.
Our amendment was voted down along with the amendment on LED lighting. This is the second time that Shropshire Council has preferred to keep money to itself rather than help parish councils. The decision will force parish council precepts up in the future if they are to maintain their local environment.
Thursday’s council was not good for the environment. Neither did the council demonstrate it was prepared to use council tax wisely.
. We put forward three amendments but the speaker ruled that these were to be taken as one amendment. We challenge that in the meeting and continue to challenge it. It is trick as old as the rulebook but doesn’t happen to be supported by Shropshire Council’s constitution. If three disparate proposals are voted on as one, the likelihood is that some member will dislike one proposals, others two and yet others three. That increases the chance of the amendment being rejected. Our third amendment, not reported in this article, was increasing the youth budget. We planned to use savings on councillor’s allowances to boost the declining youth budget but the proposal to change councillor’s allowances was thrown out earlier in the meeting, so the amendment had to be dropped.
. This will leave 1,100 SOX lamps. These are fitted to concrete rather than metal columns. The concrete columns have a design life of 30 years and are approaching 40 years old. These must be replaced with urgency. We didn’t include these in our proposal as it doesn’t give a financial return and must be replaced by the council on safety grounds anyway.
. The current system for turning lights on and off is somewhat bizarre and antiquated. As lamps are replaced, the council is installing a remote control system. This will allow the council to turn individual or groups of lights on and off at will. That means the council can be more responsive to local needs, such as all night lighting for areas causing concern for antisocial behaviour.
. Ludlow Town Council does not receive Environmental Maintenance Grants.
. This Task and Finish Group was cross-party and chaired by the Conservative chair of the Communities Overview Committee.