Fact Checking the Conservatives

Rather than deliver a manifesto of positive policy pledges, Uttlesford Conservatives have resorted to a negative and personal campaign with untruths and manipulation. The responses are pretty dry, but below is the reality checker for their dubious claims.

Fake News Fact Checker - The Conservatives
They Claim Fact Check
Conservatives claim: “Saffron Walden Town Council (SWTC) was not bankrupt 4 years ago, it had over £800,000 in reserves.” Misrepresentation and Fake News. No one has claimed that the Saffron Walden Town Council was bankrupt. The Conservatives are trying to overstate things to deflect from the £1m financial mess they left at the town council in 2015. However the town council was saved from potential bankruptcy by the intervention of R4U and the creation of a 5-year financial plan. The Conservative claim that the town council had ‘over £800,000 in reserves’ has been confirmed as a fiction by the legally responsible Financial Officer at the Town Council who described the state that the reserves were left in as ‘woeful’. Even though the Conservatives were forced to make a public apology in the local papers for getting these numbers wrong, they still continue to make the false claims in the campaign leaflets.

In detail Saffron Walden Town Council did not have £800,000 of reserves. The inflated figure claimed by the Conservatives included, for example, £160,000 of grant money which the previous Conservative administration had hoped to get from a failed National Lottery bid, which in fact failed. That money was never there. Much of the remaining reserves were legally required for specific purposes, and the actual Free Reserves were only £58,000 when R4U took over the Council, against a recommended figure of £500,000.

The specific reserves included some money for the repair of the Town Hall, but not nearly enough. The amount reserved by the Conservatives for the repair of the Town Hall was just £107,000; due to years of neglect the actual money required to repair the Town Hall was approximately £650,000. Instead the Conservatives had bet the Town Council’s finances on the National Lottery funding the refurbishment of the Town Hall even though National Lottery grants are not given for maintenance purposes. The National Lottery obviously rejected their bid.

In their last year in office, in 2014/15, the Conservatives over spent the Town Council budget by £85,000, and so raided the reserves to make up the short fall. To make matters worse the Conservative administration at UDC refused to pass on the £50,000 support grant that was it paid by the government for the Town Council.

That left a financial hole of some £1m. Once R4U took control, to save the Town Council from bankruptcy a 5 year financial plan was created with cross-party support to fix the town’s council finances. It spread the required expenditure over the 5 year period.

In addition to the immediate budget deficits, it was found that other Town Council assets had also been severely neglected by the Conservatives – in the period after R4U took over the Town Council, the bandstand roof collapsed, and one of the major walls at Bridge End Gardens was declared unsafe. Money had to be found to finance the repair of each.

The Conservatives have tried to repeat their incorrect claim about the financial state in which they left the Council a number of times but had to issues an apology in the local press after they were forced to admit their numbers were wrong.

Conservatives claim: “It was not necessary for the R4U party to raise the Town’s precept by 25% and penalise hard working residents.” Fake News: Whilst the Conservatives like to bandy around large numbers, the truth of the matter is that the Saffron Walden Town Council precept has only increased by around 65p a week for the typical council tax bill since R4U has been leading the council. An emergency tax increase for one year was necessary to avoid bankruptcy from the departing Conservatives’ £1m financial hole in the town’s finances (see above). That is more than the approximately £800,000 Saffron Walden Town Council raises each year from council tax. The finances have been fixed and so tax increases have now been reduced to a lower level. This year they are half the increase of the district or county councils, and are less than the rate of inflation. In other words it is a real-terms tax reduction. 

In detail, the incoming R4U administration had no choice but implement a strict programme to fix the town’s finances. The R4U led 5-year Financial Plan gained cross-party approval at the town council. That plan plugged the financial gap via cost cutting, increasing revenues and implementing an emergency tax increase in the first year followed by more moderate ones in subsequent years.

Additionally when R4U took over headship at Saffron Walden Town Council, the Conservative administration at UDC had also just ‘dumped’ on to the Town Council what they considered ‘loss making’ services, including the public toilets on Bridge St. These are important local facilitates for our town and so needed to be kept open.

R4U delivered on its financial plan in under 4 years and implemented a tax increase for the 2019/2020 tax year that is half that of either the Conservative run district or Essex County councils.

Conservatives claim: “The cost of running SWTC has risen significantly, it now has a bloated cost base which it cannot afford. High spend, high tax.” Fake News: Saffron Walden Town Council is not a high spend/high tax authority. In fact real-terms spending 3.5% less than the previous Conservative plan would have delivered. This has done this at the same time as fixing the inherited £1m financial black hole, refurbishing and delivering new community assets, and winning multiple awards, including Second Best Council in Essex. Saffron Walden Town Council is now a ‘wise-spending, resident-focussed, high-value’ authority.

In real-terms, adjusting for the need to address the £85,000 immediate budget deficit (8.5% of council tax income), inflation (10% in the past 4 years), the removal of the central government grant (5%), and the required replenishment of the Reserves (general reserves have increased by more than £200,000 in the 4 years of R4U control, equal to approximately 5% of council tax income each year), Saffron Walden Town Council spending is actually 3.5% less than if the Conservatives had stayed in control. Meanwhile Town Council income has increased from other sources, mainly through much better management of council run facilities. Both the Golden Acre Community Centre and the Town Hall have high levels of bookings, running significantly above budget, and much higher than the position inherited by R4U in 2015, when the Conservatives were about to give away Golden Acre.

It is important to note that the Saffron Walden Town Council precept has actually only increased by around 65p a week for the typical council tax bill since R4U has been leading the council. This is much less than the increase implemented by the Conservative controlled ECC.

All of this has been done at the same time as the R4U led Saffron Walden Town Council has implemented a series of upgrades and renovations to the town, including the Town Hall, Golden Acre Community Centre, Bridge End Gardens, the Anglo-American Playing Fields; and on the Common new paths, trees and a brand new playground.

Conservatives claim: “No effort has been made to make better use of the iconic Town Hall. It could house other facilities.” Fake News. Bookings are in fact up by over 60%, and this has been achieved by refurbishing the facilities and working hard to let them out.

In reality bookings are up at both the Town Hall and Golden Acre Community Centre after they have been repaired and refurbished by R4U. The Town Council accounts show that income from room bookings is up 61.48% over the last four years since R4U has been in control. The increase in booking is due to the improved facilities and hard work by the Saffron Walden Town Council officer team who manage and let out the facilities.

Conservatives claim: “Saffron Walden library is staying open. Moreover there was never any suggestion it would close. That was fake news!” Misrepresentation and deflection. The Conservatives have stated that they want to close 50% of the libraries in Uttlesford, cut services at the others, and are considering selling the iconic Saffron Walden Library building.

R4U have never said the Conservatives were going to shut Saffron Walden library. They are just making this up to try and deflect from their policy that residents don’t like. What is clear is that Conservatives are opposed to public libraries. It is Conservative county and district council cabinet member Susan Barker’s publicly stated policy to shut half the libraries in Essex, including those in Thaxted and Stansted. Additionally she has said in public meetings that she wants to cut hours and staff in the other libraries (e.g. Saffron Walden and Dunmow) and is considering selling the buildings and moving library services to other locations.

Conservatives claim: “There is a police station in Saffron Walden and more police officers.” Misrepresentation and Deflection. The police station in Saffron Walden was closed by the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner, who also cut more than 600 police officers across Essex. The police station was replaced by a ‘working hours only hot-desk’ in the UDC offices and a service point for police officers, which is not a police station.

In terms of policing all that is left in Saffron Walden now is a desk at the UDC offices that is only manned during weekday working hours and a small building on UDC property where the police can plug in a kettle and use the toilet. It is not a police station that members of the public can visit, where interviews can happen, or people be held. It is not regularly manned outside of working hours.

The national Conservative policy of using their political Police Commissioners to cut hundreds of hard working police officers has backfired. The statistics are clear – crime has been increasing. In fact residents have even set up their own Facebook groups to track crime because the understaffed police are so stretched.None of this is the fault of the police. It is the effect of a bad Tory policy and their Police Commissioner.

Conservatives claim: “Uttlesford District Council (UDC) will part fund a Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) exclusively for Saffron Walden.” True, but only part of the story: UDC is part funding new PCSOs to make up for the more than 600 officers cut by the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner (see above). But they are also being funded by town and parish councils where R4U and other parties have been pushing for them.

It is difficult to know what point the Conservatives are trying to make here. R4U led the charge and agreed to fund PCSOs in all the communities where it has district councillors. It did this a year ago and secured match funding from UDC. However here we are a year later and the Conservative Police Commissioner, who actually needs to hire them, has failed to do so. Meanwhile crime continues to spread in Uttlesford communities.

Conservatives claim: “There is no shortage of school places in Saffron Walden. Over 95% of pupils gained entrance to their first or second choice school.” Fake News and Misrepresentation. Saffron Walden County High School (SWCHS) is full and new families moving to the town are being offered places in Newport, which ECC has cynically reclassified as a ‘Saffron Walden Education.’ And the proposed new primary school on the east of town has just been scrapped by the Conservatives.

SWCHS is full and parental choice has in-effect gone. Ask any family that has just moved into new homes on the east of Saffron Walden and wants to get their child into SWCHS. They can’t. Instead of fixing the school place issue, the Conservative controlled ECC has cynically combined SWCHS and Newport Joyce Frankland into a single ‘Saffron Walden School District’. That means they are sending children to Newport and pretending in their published reports that they are giving children a ‘Saffron Walden Education’. We have nothing against Newport. It’s a fine school, but it is not in Saffron Walden. It is in fact a deliberate manipulation of the truth by a party that controls both UDC and ECC and has failed to collect the money it should have from developers to pay to expand our schools.

Additionally the Conservatives have just scrapped plans for the new primary school on the east of Saffron Walden even after land had been secured from developers.

Conservatives claim: “Air quality is continually monitored in Saffron Walden and there are no breaches.” Dubious Claim. Whilst air quality is correctly monitored, pollution has not been fixed at all. Pollution is still at illegal levels in Saffron Walden and the emergency pollution Air Quality Management Area is still in force.

It is impossible to say exactly what current air pollution levels are in Saffron Walden. In the last year for which figures have been published, the UDC control monitoring equipment had broken, and so UDC used a national average control figure, which is not accurate as it is not measuring background pollution here. No one can say whether this was a correct figure; it produced a significant apparent decrease in pollution levels from the previous 5 years, but neither UDC nor anyone else can say whether this is an actual decrease or just because of the equipment failure. The Conservatives claim that pollution has fallen, but because of the equipment failure at their UDC administration this cannot be verified.

All that can be said is that in the latest accurate reading before the equipment failure, pollution was at illegal levels in Saffron Walden and there is no reason to doubt that this is not still the case.

Conservatives claim: “R4U opposed new sporting facilities on Thaxted Road and are now opposing new facilities for young people in a community building beside the skate park.” Misrepresentation and Deflection. R4U supports and has been working for new open spaces and sports facilities in Saffron Walden. The 300 home Kier development on Thaxted Rd was opposed by R4U, Saffron Walden Town Council and residents because it would create illegal levels of pollution through the town and not bring any jobs – it should be remembered that the Government Inspector rejected it as unsustainable and contrary to planning policy. R4U did not oppose the sports provision adjacent to the site. It would seem that the Conservatives are trying to deflect from the more than £3m from developers in Saffron Walden for open-spaces and sports funding that they have failed to collect.

The fact is R4U supports any new sports facilities and has policies to say so. It has secured new sports pitches at Lime Avenue and has constantly being pushing UDC to reverse its policy of asking for zero contribution from developers for new sports pitches. So far Conservative controlled UDC has failed to ask developers in Saffron Walden for more £3m in money they should have paid for sports, community and open space facilities.

In 2014, the Conservatives adopted a new Developer Contribution Policy which required developers to make no sports contributions at all on new developments. R4U spoke against this policy at the Cabinet meeting when it was adopted, and have repeatedly called for it to be changed. This is not just a Saffron Walden issue – anyone can see that right across Uttlesford there has been a huge amount of house-building and almost no sports or other community facilities. This lack of facilities is as a direct result of a deliberate Conservative policy not to ask for them.

Conservatives claim: “The landslide on Newport Road and the road surface on Audley End Road are being repaired after campaigning by local Conservatives.” Dubious and Disingenuous. There is no evidence that campaigning by the Conservatives caused ECC to fix the collapsed bank any more quickly than they would have and Audley End Road has been pothole-ridden for more than 12 months.

The bank on Newport Rd, Saffron Walden collapsed 6 months ago. It is debateable if it would have collapsed at all if ECC had been properly maintaining it. None the less ECC then took 6 months to do nothing about it until embarrassed by public pressure.

ECC always undertake major roadworks during school holidays and the Easter holiday when it was repaired was the first time they could do the repair after they had assessed it. It seems disingenuous for the Conservatives to claim credit for fixing a repair that was going to be repaired anyway, and that was needed due to the poor maintenance of the authority that they control.

Conservatives claim: “Further road surfaces will be repaired during the spring and summer.” Statement of the Obvious/Clutching at Straws. It is ECC’s job to fix our roads, and they do it after every winter, so of course they will fix our roads. There is no evidence to support any specific Conservative party involvement in road fixing schedules.

However Essex Highways figures show that road defects in Uttlesford have more than doubled in the last 2 years – which is obvious to any Uttlesford resident who drives.

Conservatives claim: “Traffic flows (and therefore air quality) have been improved by the Conservatives on Mount Pleasant and Peasland Roads ­ this was opposed by R4U.” Misrepresentation: Queue lengths and the air pollution trend have not improved at the Debden Road lights.

Vehicles now always have to queue in 2 directions at the traffic lights, which was not required before. ECC has forecast that the Conservative UDC administration’s programme of large scale building on the east of Saffron Walden will force the junction over capacity by the mid 2020s, worsening congestion and pollution.

Whilst removing parked cars may have increased traffic flows, that does not mean that air pollution has improved. By removing parked cars, traffic has been brought much closer to the pavement, which is where pedestrians suffer the effects of pollution. Pollution levels increase dramatically the closer one is to the source; it is quite possible therefore that the removal of parked cars has exposed residents – and particularly the large number of children that use these roads – to higher pollution levels by removing the shielding effect of the parked cars. The reality is that no-one knows – UDC made the claim, but have never measured the pollution levels at the locations where the new yellow lines were introduced, and they have no way of knowing whether the claims they make are true.

Conservatives claim: “Similarly they [R4U] opposed the link road between Radwinter and Thaxted Roads which will significantly improve congestion.” Fake News. ECC have said the opposite in public documents. They opposed the ‘link road’ because it doesn’t go anywhere (from the east to the east), isn’t built to take the traffic that the UDC Conservative administration want to force down it, and it will increase pollution in the town.

Essex Highways have repeatedly admitted that it doesn’t meet their technical requirements; it is a winding road which goes through a series of housing estates, in direct breach of their requirements for link roads. At the planning committee meeting when it was finally forced through both UDC and ECC had finally stopped referring to it as a link road. They have finally admitted the reality that is it no more than a small estate road.