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Bristol Post
Bristol Post
Alex Seabrook

Lib Dems plan to keep car parks free and bring buses under public control if they take over South Gloucestershire Council

Liberal Democrats in South Gloucestershire are promising a “fundamentally different type” of council if they take power in the upcoming local election. Voters will head to the polls on Thursday, May 4, to choose who should run the Council.

The Liberal Democrats are currently the second-largest party and could take control after the election if the Conservatives lose their narrow majority of five seats. The party has been led in the district for five years by Councillor Claire Young.

In an interview ahead of the election, Cllr Young promised voters more action on climate change and the cost of living crisis, as well as consulting with residents and businesses much more about major changes to the district. She also criticised “out-of-touch” Tories and recent bickering with the region’s other political leaders.

Read more: South Gloucestershire Council election dates and candidates list in full

“There are two huge challenges at the moment,” she said, “the threat to our planet from climate change and the cost of living crisis. We know people are really concerned about the soaring prices of food and household bills, and they’re also worried about protecting our planet for future generations.

"Those would be our top priorities. We want to offer support and advice to people and businesses, help them cut their bills and also grow the local economy.”

Cllr Young said the current Conservative administration has not kept up with climate targets, despite pressure from the Liberal Democrats to cut greenhouse gas emissions more quickly.

“They haven’t kept up with the targets. I was very proud to propose the climate emergency in 2019. They set very challenging targets and they haven’t kept up with them. In each of the budgets, we’ve pushed them to move quicker on this.

“Recently we’ve been successful in getting more support for people to insulate their homes, and also advice for businesses to improve their energy efficiency. There’ll be a big focus around measures that will both tackle rising fuel bills and the climate emergency.”

"Bus network brought back under public control"

Another area she believes the Tories have fallen short is in working with the region’s other political leaders, particularly Labour’s Dan Norris, the metro mayor of the West of England. Cllr Young also backed bus franchising, which would see the bus network brought back under public control.

(West of England Combined Authority)

“One of the first things is to try and establish a better working relationship with the West of England mayor,” she said. “At the moment we’ve seen lots of bickering between him and the South Gloucestershire Council leader. We would want to investigate bus franchising because that gives better public control over the network.

"We want greener, lower carbon buses. And we’re pushing for the introduction of fairer fare zones for rural areas around Thornbury and Yate, which at the moment get the short straw when it comes to bus prices.

“We welcome the demand responsive transport initiative, but we want to build on that by working with our communities and town and parish councils. By working in partnership with those organisations and providing them with the right support, we can then access external funding from the West of England that they might otherwise not be able to access. It might be different things in different areas, it’s not about one solution suiting everywhere.”

One obstacle to bus franchising, according to Mr Norris, is the lack of precepting powers. Every other combined authority in the country can charge a precept on top of council tax bills, to raise its own funds. But the West of England doesn’t have this, and the current Tory council leader in South Gloucestershire has blocked giving Mr Norris precepting powers. The Liberal Democrats would however want to investigate precepting as part of franchising.

“We would have to look at that,” Cllr Young said. “We need to sit down and work out if they had these powers, what would they do with them? You don’t just want to allow somebody to impose a tax on the area without there being a good reason for that. It’s something we would want to investigate as part of bus franchising."

But the main problem for Cllr Young in how the “out-of-touch” Conservatives have run the council is the perception that local people aren’t consulted enough in major decisions about their areas. The Liberal Democrats would work with local councillors, volunteers and residents to help shape projects from the outset, instead of “imposing” changes upon them.

“For us it’s about creating a fundamentally different type of council,” she said. “It’s about looking outwards, working in partnership with the whole community, with residents and voluntary sector groups, town and parish councils, and other public authorities. It’s also about bringing back local decision-making.

“South Gloucestershire is a very diverse area and quite a large area. What somebody in an isolated hamlet by the Severn might need compared to somebody living in Kingswood in a very urban area could be completely different.

“Lots of decisions which people have been unhappy about are where things have been imposed on them by councillors who live nowhere near where they live, and don’t represent the same sort of communities. Instead of having out-of-touch Conservative councillors from miles away making decisions about their area, it’s about local councillors being involved in that decision making as well.

“At the moment all the power is concentrated in just a few cabinet members who can’t possibly know what it’s like in all the different sorts of communities. We’ve had local area committees in the past, I’m not saying we’re going back to that, we’re trying to come up with a new approach.”

More cycling lanes

An example of how the council could consult communities better is with new cycling routes, Cllr Young said. She said a Liberal Democrat-run council would get local people involved from the outset in designing new off-road routes.

“We do need to look at more off-road cycling infrastructure,” she said. “We’ve been pushing for years for the completion of the Yate spur, for example, and we’re finally getting somewhere with that. Rather than coming up with plans and saying ‘take it or leave it’, we need to develop it with people and develop that understanding of why we need infrastructure and how it will help.”

Liberal Democrats would have also consulted local residents and businesses in Thornbury from the start about the controversial changes to the High Street, which have taken place over the last few years. But if the party wins power in the local elections, Cllr Young said it would be too expensive to revert the High Street to how the layout used to be.

“How we would have gone about it in the first place would have been different”, she said. “The problem was that it was presented to the local members literally days before it was going to happen. They weren’t even asked for their comments, it was just ‘this is going to happen in a few days time’. There was no consultation with them, the town council nor the local businesses.

“And unfortunately, that has then poisoned the debate ever since, that really bad start has then made it very difficult to have conversations about it. It got people so angry about it, and once people are angry about something it’s very difficult then to have a sensible conversation.

“It cost a huge amount of money to do. We’re not going to suddenly find the money to return it all to what it was before, that’s just not going to be an option. It would be an awful waste of public money. The key now is to work with residents and businesses to try to improve things and address some of the problems.”

Clean Air Zones

A Clean Air Zone for polluted parts of the district “would not be considered at the moment” if the Liberal Democrats took power. Instead, the party would focus on improving local buses and cycling routes. Cllr Young also promised to keep council car parks free.

“That’s not something we would consider at the moment,” she said. “Our focus is on trying to improve bus travel and active travel, which will have the knock-on effect of improving air quality. I think that’s a more positive approach, giving people real alternatives. From the point of view of our residents with Bristol’s Clean Air Zone, lots of places now don’t have buses to Bristol. They’ve had their alternative taken away, their carrot has been taken away but they’re still being hit with the stick. That’s not a reasonable approach.

“We would keep council car parks free. The [Cribbs Causeway] Mall has a huge amount of free parking, and Yate shopping centre also attracts people from a wide area and has free parking. When we look at the high streets in our area — Downend and Thornbury and all the other places — it would be very unfair to them to introduce parking charges.”

One “huge issue” is housing, with thousands of new houses being built across the district. Two recent attempts at drawing up a regional plan for where new housing developments should take place have failed, leaving South Gloucestershire facing long delays in drawing up its new Local Plan. Cllr Young said the delays were now impacting villages in the district.

“We desperately need a new Local Plan,” she said, “to protect our communities from speculative development and provide small-scale genuinely affordable housing for local people while protecting our countryside. What we’ve seen is our Local Plan has been repeatedly delayed. With the flawed Joint Spatial Plan, the Conservatives were proposing five huge mega developments at Coalpit Heath, Charfield, Engine Common, Buckover and Thornbury. That fell by the wayside because the planning inspectors weren’t happy with it.

“Then we had the argument over the Spatial Development Strategy and that’s fallen by the wayside. These delays have had a huge impact because we now have appeal decisions and there’s huge risk of speculative development. That’s a failure that’s having a big impact on our communities, particularly in rural areas where it’s now very hard to defend their settlement boundaries.”

Cllr Young has led the Liberal Democrat group in South Gloucestershire Council for five years, becoming leader in 2018. But both the Conservative leader Toby Savage and the Labour group leader Pat Rooney are stepping down at this election, leaving her as the last group leader in the race. Cllr Young said her party could form a coalition with Labour to take power of the council, but added there were “lots of options” if no party wins a majority.

“Pat has been on the council for a very long time and I can understand her wanting to retire,” she said. “It’s interesting that Toby isn’t defending his record at this election. [A Labour coalition] would be an option, but there are lots of options in a no-overall control situation. You’ve got minority administrations or coalitions and in the past the council has been run in all sorts of different ways. We’re always open to working with other parties.”


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