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Bristol Post
Bristol Post
Alex Seabrook

Labour promises new home insulation scheme and subsidised buses if they win South Gloucestershire Council

Labour is promising voters extra support for home insulation and subsidised bus routes if they take power in the upcoming local election. Voters will head to the polls on Thursday, May 4, to choose who should run South Gloucestershire Council.

The Labour party is currently the third largest party on the council and could play an influential role if the Conservatives lose their narrow majority of five seats. The group’s deputy leader, Councillor Ian Boulton, pledged to support renters to cut heating bills.

The Labour group’s current leader, Cllr Pat Rooney, is stepping down at this election after 30 years on the council. In an interview ahead of the election, Cllr Boulton set out his party’s five key pledges, including a new minor injuries unit and action on climate change.

Read more: May local elections: What each party in South Gloucestershire is promising to do

“We have five key pledges: working with landlords to make rental properties warmer and cheaper for tenants to maintain; increasing our transport levy to improve bus services; continue our campaign for a minor injuries unit at Cossham Hospital and extra community beds at Frenchay Hospital; having a high level and dedicated lead member for climate change action; and working with a future Labour government to bring back our successful children’s care.”

New home insulation

Having a cabinet member for climate would help the council focus on acting on global warming, Cllr Boulton said. At the moment, climate change comes under the wide brief of council leader Toby Savage. Some of this action could include helping landlords better insulate their homes, cutting heating bills for tenants and reducing carbon emissions.

“At the moment,” he said, “the way Toby has run it is that he has been the lead member as leader of the council. But we think that as leader of the council there are too many other things that are calling on you and actually what we need to have is somebody dedicated to climate change action.

“One of the things we tried to get in the budget this year is trying to support landlords in making their homes more fuel efficient and bringing them up to standard. Now this will be coming in, we anticipate in the next five years, because of the national government — but we want to be ahead of the game. That’s a win-win and it’s a shame that the Conservatives weren’t supporting us on this.

“If we can get rental properties more fuel efficient, it makes it cheaper for people to live there, it obviously helps with the climate issue because we’ll be using less fuel, and also I think it makes the properties more attractive for people to want to go in, in a difficult market at the moment.”

Cutting emissions

Another potential way to cut carbon emissions from heating and gas boilers is using geothermal processes from old coal mines, of which there are many in the district. The Conservative administration has launched a study of mines in the area and is planning to test the water, to see if it can be used for heating and cooling homes and businesses. Cllr Boulton said his party would back the innovative plans.

“One of the things that we have in South Gloucestershire,” he said, “particularly around here in Staple Hill and Kingswood is a lot of mine workings. There are really interesting propositions that we’re supporting that could extract warmth from the mine workings as direct heat supplies into houses in the area. I live on top of a mine shaft. With Coalpit Heath, there’s a clue in the name that you have lots of mine workings around there.”

A major issue for the district and the wider West of England region in these elections are the buses. Passengers have been left stranded after a shortage of drivers, and inflation leading to many subsidised routes getting cut. Labour would increase the council’s transport levy, which goes towards subsidising unprofitable bus routes, which many people rely on.

“We’ve committed to increase the bus transport levy that subsidises local buses,” he said. “That would protect existing bus services. The West of England Combined Authority has been really successful in getting government funding for bus transport, but that’s for newer novel schemes rather than existing schemes. So [West of England mayor] Dan Norris’s hands have been a bit tied by what he can do.”

Bus crisis

One solution many people are now proposing for the region’s bus crisis is franchising. Bus franchising would see the bus network brought back under public control, and is how the buses are run in London. Franchising is also being explored in many other parts of England. Cllr Boulton said one problem with this would be a lack of income to pay for the changes.

“It would depend on the funding,” he said. “This is the difference between here and up in Greater Manchester, they have a different funding scheme there that allows for that, which we don’t have. We would have to work with Dan on that. I’ve known Dan for decades and so we have a good working relationship.”

After the election, the Labour group will vote to choose their new leader, with the results expected on Friday afternoon. The party currently has 11 seats, behind the Conservatives with 33 and the Liberal Democrats with 17.

Cllr Boulton criticised the current Tory administration for carrying out public consultations but then “doing what they wanted to anyway”. He gave the example of the upcoming introduction of parish councils in Staple Hill and Kingswood, which he said was opposed by local people.

“One of the things I would like to see is actually working with residents to deal with consultations properly,” he said. “I’ve jokingly called our consultations ‘judicial review avoidance schemes’. They do a consultation and they do exactly what they wanted to do anyway.

“Locally in Staple Hill and Kingswood we’ve seen that with parishing that has been imposed on us. All of South Gloucestershire has parish councils, except for Staple Hill and Kingswood which have always resisted having parish councils. They have had numerous consultations over the decades to try and introduce the parish councils and the consultations have come out resoundingly that no we don’t want them.

“They did a consultation last year and had the same response, no we don’t want them. But the administration has imposed them onto us. So we’re now getting parish councils and they’ll be appointed after these elections against the will of the residents. In Staple Hill we’ve got quite a lot of community groups that have been doing the job the parish councils do elsewhere, without the imposition of a precept which is a cost to the taxpayer.

“The thing that really sticks in the craw for me is that the Conservatives have not entered any candidates to stand on these parish councils that they’ve imposed on us. In Mangotsfield parish council they’ve put up one candidate out of 13 possible spaces. In Kingswood the Lib Dems put one candidate forward. Apart from that we’ve found ourselves getting elected unopposed onto these new parish councils, so they will be Labour parish councils.”

“Absolute madness”

Another example he gave was a new one-way system along Staple Hill High Street, that was “absolute madness”. The council scrapped the new system shortly after it was introduced.

“We’ve seen where the current administration has imposed things without winning hearts and minds”, Cllr Boulton said. “We’ve had it in Staple Hill. At the beginning of Covid they introduced a one-way system along our High Street that was absolute madness. We told them at the start that this is not going to work and it lasted weeks but cost thousands of pounds.”

Similar changes in Thornbury to the High Street also proved controversial. The council has decided to make temporary changes, introduced at the start of the pandemic, permanent. Motor traffic will be made one-way, and parking spaces will be removed, sparking fears from drivers about parking — although there are many other free parking spaces in the town.

“We would have had a proper consultation and listened to what the residents have to say,” Cllr Boulton said. “At the moment it’s so heavy handed and it shows an arrogance, I think, of the administration that they imposed this against the will. I hope voters remember this when they go to the polls.”

Clean Air Zone

A Clean Air Zone for polluted parts of South Gloucestershire would not be up for discussion, Cllr Boulton said. He added that pollution was not as bad in places like Warmley or Staple Hill as the centre of Bristol, where a new Clean Air Zone was brought in last November. Instead, one option to improve air quality could be looking at wood-burning stoves.

“It isn’t as bad as in the centre of Bristol,” he said, “so I don’t think anybody is talking about having zones in the way that they have in Bristol. As the buses have become cleaner, actually that’s had a significant effect on our air quality management areas. Interestingly we may have to look at the trend for wood-burning stoves in urban areas. Probably with all good intentions, people think they are doing a good thing but actually don’t realise that the particulates in the air have an issue. So that might have to be considered.”

One pledge the Conservatives are campaigning on is keeping parking free in council-owned car parks. This is in stark contrast to in Bristol, where parking charges are either being introduced or increased in many car parks. But in South Gloucestershire, both the Liberal Democrats and Labour are also promising to keep car parking free.

“It’s always been the way,” Cllr Boulton said. “There’s never been any opposition to that because you’ve got that gravitational pull into Bristol, and we have our own smaller town centres to support, and that’s a unique selling point.”

It’s unclear what would happen if the Conservatives lose their slender majority of five seats. If no party has an overall majority, a situation called ‘no overall control’, then one party could form a minority administration or two parties could form a coalition and take power. Cllr Boulton said “it would be nice to have more influence”, and expected discussions to take place over the bank holiday weekend after the vote, if the Tories lose their current majority.

“If there’s a shift in the balance of power,” he said, “there will have to be discussions. But honestly, who knows where that would go. It would be nice to have more influence. I’m expecting that [council] officers will want to know what’s happening on the Tuesday. I have a good working relationship with Claire Young and the Lib Dems and obviously Toby is standing down, so I don’t know who their replacement will be.”


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